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Despite Free Agency, Steelers Still Competitive

October 04, 1998|LEONARD SHAPIRO | THE WASHINGTON POST

PITTSBURGH — Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, still walks to his office in Three Rivers Stadium every day from the house where his parents once lived on the North Side. On Sundays, he'll often have his pregame meal with the reporters in the media lounge. During the week, he'll belly up to the buffet catered daily for all Steelers employees just like everyone else in the organization, breaking bread with the secretaries and the equipment crew as often as he will with his coaches and football personnel.

His father, Art Rooney, the beloved "Chief" who founded the team in 1933 and lived to see four Super Bowl championships before his death in 1988, did it much the same way. And even in this era of $500 million expansion franchise fees and players richer than their wildest dreams, the Steelers still like to think of themselves as a family operation rather than a multimillion-dollar corporation.

Most of that thinking comes right from the top. It's no coincidence that Tom Donahoe, the director of football operations, and Bill Cowher, the head coach, are also Pittsburgh natives. Cowher's parents still live 10 minutes from the stadium. Donahoe is a former high school football coach. Rooney refers to both of them as "our kind of guys." And what kind of a guy would that be?

"Number one, it's a person with the same values we believe in," he said the other day. "The old-fashioned, traditional way of hard work, honesty, a friendly person. Bill and I will have our disagreements, but when he walks out the door, we're always on the same page. The same with Tom. We're in this together. We have the kind of organization you need to have to win. You have to have a situation where people really want to be here, and we try and treat them right."

But the Steelers also are the kind of organization that has not been able to keep all the people it would like, particularly on the field. Because this is still a small-market franchise, a family-owned operation without the financial resources of so many other teams in the league, the Steelers have not been willing to engage in salary cap wars by dangling huge signing bonuses to keep some of their biggest stars.

Since the advent of free agency in 1993, no team has lost more high-profile players, yet consistently advanced to the playoffs. In Cowher's six seasons as head coach, the Steelers have been to the playoffs six straight times -- something only Hall of Famer Paul Brown had done previously -- and won five AFC Central titles. In three of the last four years, they have been to the AFC title game, advancing to the Super Bowl after the 1995 season.

"We've been able to keep some stability," Cowher said. "Even if we lose coaches, we're still pretty much using the same system. We've also kept a good nucleus of veteran players."

The current Steelers have only seven of the 22 starters left from the Super Bowl XXX team that lost to Dallas in 1996. Since '93, the Steelers have lost 35 players to free agency.

Still, the Steelers have been able to stay competitive for a variety of reasons. Donahoe is regarded as one of the most astute personnel men in the game, and his track record in the draft backs it up. The Steelers also have spent money to keep a core of highly skilled veteran players on the roster.

"We've lost count of how (many) players we've lost -- it's too depressing," said Donahoe. "But we're very fortunate to have an outstanding coaching staff and people in the organization who do not push the panic button."

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