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Rooney has a firm grasp

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TAMPA, Fla. – Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney makes it a policy to give out his cellphone number to all of the players.

Conversely, Browns owner Randy Lerner allegedly didn't even call the Jets before hiring Eric Mangini, the man New York had just fired.

While those facts don't fully explain the difference between a perennial contender like the Steelers and a serial cellar dweller like the Browns, it gives a glimpse into the chasm. Pittsburgh has become the NFL's model franchise as it hopes to become the first team to win six Super Bowls when it plays the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Browns have yet to reach a Super Bowl.

"Everything flows from the owner down," said former Steelers defensive back Rod Woodson, a finalist for this year's Hall of Fame class. "If you have an owner who is erratic and doesn't know how to treat people, eventually the players are going to pick up on it. If you have an owner who is good to people and is supportive of the coaching staff, then it sets a whole different tone for how your team operates."

Woodson can still remember the first thing the late Art Rooney, Dan's father, said to him after Woodson joined the team. Woodson was the No. 10 overall pick in 1987, and when he walked in the door, Rooney looked at him and said, "Welcome to the Steelers family."

"It's just an amazing feeling you get because the family is always there, always in the building, showing that they care," said Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. "It is a feeling of family, of togetherness."

During the week, Dan Rooney can be found in the lunchroom at the team's complex, talking with team employees, players or visiting with reporters. Where some owners – such as Dan Snyder, William Clay Ford and Paul Allen – are rarely available to players and almost never around for the media, Rooney is omnipresent. Even at halftime of games, Rooney regularly visits with reporters.

In essence, what the Steelers probably have more than any other NFL franchise is an owner who is tuned into the entire team.

"What the Rooney family really understands is the ins and outs of the entire operation," said former Browns general manager Phil Savage. "It's the big picture, the entire game, the entire organization and how the team fits into the community. It's really a unique situation. But when you have that, you have an owner who doesn't overreact to one thing or another. He gets it all."

Among the unique attributes is that the Steelers have had only three coaches over the past 40 years, starting with Chuck Noll in 1969. Yet other teams simply don't get that message, constantly going through head coaches.

"Continuity, it all starts with the owners," said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. "We're not big on change. … When you look around, you see the coaching carousel go around, but it's rare that you will see that in Pittsburgh."

That patience is born of understanding the entire process and not making mistakes. When the Steelers hired head coach Mike Tomlin, they did a thorough background check and ended up hiring someone from outside the organization rather than one of two strong candidates from within (Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and Cardinals offensive-line coach Russ Grimm were on the Steelers staff at the time).

View photo

Woodson presents Rooney with the Lamar Hunt Trophy following the AFC title game.
(Rob Carr/AP Photo)

By contrast, Lerner and the Browns just hired their fourth coach (excluding interim coach Terry Robiskie) since 1999, when the team returned to the NFL.

Stunningly, Lerner apparently did it without contacting the Jets to find out what the problems were with Mangini (Yahoo! Sports twice contacted the Browns, who have failed to respond). While such information has to be measured, it's also standard to call former employers about any prospective employee.

"They didn't find out what was wrong with Mangini at all," a prominent league source said with obvious contempt. "Never asked, never found, never said, 'Hey, what were your issues with him?' "

Enter Rooney, a man who doesn't just know procedures but who constantly watches the game. He has two walls of picture windows overlooking the practice field from his corner office in the Steelers training complex.

Football isn't just Rooney's main business, it's his art. From communicating to laying down basic business practices (the Steelers rarely give rich, long-term contracts to players over the age of 30), the Steelers have a set of business principles they don't deviate from.

"The people in our town know the game, they know what good football is, they know what Steeler football is," Rooney said. "We have a way we do things here and we try to stick to it. When you get too far away from that, you have problems. That's been our story here."

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