12/30/2008 12:00AM

Rooneys keep father's legacy intact


TUCSON, Ariz. - From his heavenly throne, Art Rooney - the original Art Rooney - is casting a celestial smile this holiday season.

The Chief must be happy that his boys - his five sons Dan, Art Jr., Tim, Pat, and John - didn't let him down.

They could have grabbed the money - as much as $800 million or so from their family friend, the self-made financial genius and billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller - but to do so would have meant that Art's Pittsburgh Steelers, bought for $2,500 in racetrack winnings 75 years ago and a family treasure since, would have slipped from Rooney control.

They had a firm offer from Druckenmiller back in July that would have enabled them to meet the hypocritical National Football League decision requiring three of the brothers - Tim and the twins Pat and John - to divest themselves of their racetrack holdings and their 16 percent individual share interests in the Steelers.

When patriarch Art - one of the all-time greats of American sports - parceled out the Rooney empire, he made sure the five boys were secure. Tim got Yonkers Raceway, the harness track on the Deegan Expressway in New York, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the nation. Pat and John got the Palm Beach Kennel Club in Florida. And Dan and Art Jr. got control of the Steelers.

Druckenmiller, a Pittsburgher at heart and a wildly avid Steeler fan for years, responded with his offer when the Rooneys contacted him as the richest guy they know. He would have loved to own the team, or controlling interest, but he understood the family hierarchy and legacy, and when the Rooneys delayed in accepting his offer he withdrew it, rather than disrupt the family.

Druckenmiller's story is as inspiring as Art Rooney's. Art used to boast that his mother came from a family of steel workers and his father from a family of coal miners, and his fortune began as a horse player.

Druckenmiller went to Bowdoin College in Maine, a small but very highly regarded school that now proudly features a Druckenmiller Science Center on campus. He started work on a doctorate at the University of Michigan, but left Ann Arbor and wound up as a stock analyst at Pittsburgh National Bank. He founded his own firm, Duquesne Capital Management, at 28 in 1981 and became a money manager for one of the world's richest men, George Soros, in 1988. Four years later, they bet the British pound would fall and won a billion dollars when it did. Forbes magazine says he is the 91st richest American.

Druckenmiller is not only at the very far opposite end of the hedge fund management profession that has been indelibly stained by Bernard Madoff, but he also is one of the smartest guys in town. Any town. In New York he is the chief executive officer of the Harlem Childrens' Zone, which has helped more than 12,500 needy children and their families and continues to do so. In Pittsburgh, he reportedly paints his face black and gold, tailgates before games, sits with the crowd and not in a skybox, and high fives his fellow fans when the Steelers score or make big gains.

Had the Rooneys accepted his offer, they would have had to relinquish control of the Steelers. The brothers own 80 percent of the team among them, and the other 20 percent is owned by the McGinleys, who happen to have been Rooneys before they became McGinleys by marriage.

The NFL, whose teams inspire millions in betting on every game, piously decided it was time to resolve the racetrack issue, at least for now. Dan might have been able to borrow the money alone, but the league has a rule that no franchise can hold debt more than $150 million, and he would have had to borrow more than that to buy out his brothers.

As it turns out, the family, working together, got the job done, and the 31 other owners of NFL teams, meeting in Irving, Texas, gave them unanimous approval.

Art Rooney's heritage remains intact. The remarkable man headed not only the Rooney family, but an amazing unofficial club of major athletes and entertainers who, like him, were born within 50 miles of Pittsburgh, and all of whom shared huge and intensely loyal fan clubs. They were the Unknockables - Stan Musial, baseball immortal, born in Donora; Arnie Palmer, commander of Arnie's Army in golf, born in Latrobe; Perry Como, universally popular, born in Canonsburg; Joe Namath, quarterback nonpareil, born in Beaver Falls; and harness racing great Delvin Miller, the only pro athlete to compete in eight decades, born in Avella.

They, along with their leader, the Chief, make up a legendary American sports and entertainment fraternity. Happily, thanks to the Rooney boys, it remains intact.

Happy Holidays.