The players and coaches may hog the spotlight, but success in sports usually starts from the top. Those owners who sign the checks and make the right hires have the ability to not only change the fate of their respective teams, but to significantly improve their sport and, in some cases, impact the course of history. These are 10 of the best examples of the greatest owners in sports history.
1. The Rooney family, Pittsburgh Steelers (1933-present)
The model of consistency, the Rooney family has embodied the perfect combination of success, tradition and work ethic since Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Steelers — then known as the Pittsburgh Pirates — in 1933. Chomping on a cigar, “The Chief” oversaw four Super Bowl championships (IX, X, XIII, XIV) before handing over the reins to his son, Dan Rooney, in 1975. The Steelers have won two more Super Bowls (XL, XLIII) since then, giving Pittsburgh an NFL-best six Vince Lombardi Trophies. Dan’s son, Art Rooney II, took over the top spot in the family business in 2003.
Though their regional roots are undeniable, the Steelers have become a national brand, thanks to the vision of the Rooney family. From the signature Steelmark logo of the American Iron and Steel Institute on the players’ helmets to the yellow “Terrible Towel” waved by fans nationwide to the “Steel Curtain” defense, Pittsburgh’s identity is strong as steel. And the brand loyalty extends to the coaching ranks, as the Steelers have only had three coaches — Chuck Noll (1969-1991), Bill Cowher (1992-2006) and Mike Tomlin (2007-present) — in the Super Bowl era.
Off the field, Dan Rooney was named the 30th United States Ambassador to Ireland and is credited with the advent of the “Rooney Rule,” which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for all head coach and general manager vacancies.
2. Jerry Buss, Los Angeles Lakers (1979-present)
The card-playing chemist bought the L.A. Lakers in 1979 and it has been “Showtime” ever since. Buss has signed the checks for 10 NBA champions over three distinct eras. First, Pat Riley, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won five rings (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988). Then, Phil Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant three-peated (2000-2002). Most recently, Jackson, Kobe and Pau Gasol repeated as champs (2009-2010). Buss’ Lakers are not only the NBA’s premier brand, courtside seats at the Forum and Staples Center have also become a status symbol among the who’s who in Hollywood — with Jack Nicholson leading the way in shades.
3. Robert Kraft, New England Patriots (1994-present)
Kraft saved the Patriots from being moved to St. Louis by James Orthwein, purchasing the down-on-its-luck franchise for a then-NFL-record $175 million in 1994. It’s been smooth sailing ever since. In the 19 seasons Kraft has been at the helm, New England has posted just two losing seasons, while making 14 playoff appearances, five trips to the Super Bowl and winning three Super Bowl titles. And there have been only three coaches to lead Kraft’s Patriots — Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. And while Kraft is cool enough to hang out with rock star Jon Bon Jovi on the sideline, he is savvy enough to hire the best minds in the business to run his team.
4. Walter A. Brown, Boston Celtics (1945-1964)
The founder of the Celtics in 1945 and one of the founders of the Basketball Association of America in 1946, Brown was instrumental in shaping the NBA as it is known today. Brown, who was also the president of the famed Boston Garden, hired Red Auerbach as the architect of his empire, signed off on the selection of Chuck Cooper as the first black player drafted into the NBA and won seven championships in eight seasons (1957, 1959-1964) prior to his death in 1964. Fittingly, the NBA championship trophy was named the Walter A. Brown Trophy until 1984.
5. Conn Smythe, Toronto Maple Leafs (1927-1961)
Speaking of trophies, the Conn Smythe Trophy is given to the MVP of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The award is named after one of the greatest men in hockey history. A veteran of both World Wars I and II, Smythe purchased the St. Patricks on Valentine’s Day 1927 and changed the identity of the franchise — renaming the club as the Maple Leafs, opening the new Maple Leaf Gardens arena in 1931 and winning eight Stanley Cup titles (1932, 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1962) during his unbelievable run.
6. Walter O’Malley, Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers (1944-1979)
Prior to owning the Dodgers, O’Malley served as the team’s general counsel. O’Malley became a minority owner in the team in 1944 before taking majority control in 1950. O’Malley, along with team president Branch Rickey, made a significant racial and cultural impact by signing Jackie Robinson, who became the first-ever black MLB player in 1947. O’Malley was also responsible for bringing MLB to the West Coast, after moving the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958. During O’Malley’s reign, the Dodgers won 13 NL pennants and four World Series.
7. George Steinbrenner, New York Yankees (1973-2010)
“The Boss” bought the Bronx Bombers from CBS in 1973 and restored the proud tradition of the pinstripes — winning the seven World Series titles (1977, 1978, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009) during his notorious reign. The volatile Steinbrenner wamted to win by any means necessary. And he had plenty of means to sign the most expensive (if not always the best) players money could buy, thanks in large part to his bold yet brilliant launching of the YES Network. A larger-than-life persona, Steinbrenner dressed as Napoleon on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1993 and was classically caricatured on NBC’s hit sitcom “Seinfeld” during his heyday.
8. Ted Turner, Atlanta Braves (1976-2007)
Captain Courageous won the America’s Cup in 1977 after starting on his voyage to make the Atlanta Braves “America’s Team” by broadcasting their games on his super-station, Turner Broadcasting System, upon purchasing the club in 1976. With a motto that he would “rather sink than lose,” Turner was a media mogul and maverick with a team that won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005 and the 1995 World Series title — all while being broadcast from coast-to-coast.
9. George Halas, Chicago Bears (1920-1983)
“Mr. Everything” was the 1919 Rose Bowl MVP and also recorded two hits for MLB’s New York Yankees before becoming the iconic namesake of the George Halas Trophy, which is given annually to the winner of the NFC Championship Game. “Papa Bear” founded the Chicago Bears, then known as the Decatur Staleys, in 1920 and remained the main man until his death in 1983. Halas was everything to the Bears, serving as owner and coach en route to six NFL championships (1921, 1933, 1940, 1941, 1946 and 1963).
10. Green Bay Packers, Inc. (1923-present)
Fans have taken the Lambeau Leap of faith, putting their money where their cheese goes since the beginning. According to the team’s official website: “Green Bay Packers, Inc., has been a publicly owned, nonprofit corporation since Aug. 18, 1923, when original articles of incorporation were filed with Wisconsin’s secretary of state.” The nine-time NFL champions and four-time Super Bowl champs (I, II, XXXI, XLV) — or, better yet, Vince Lombardi Trophy winners — have been supported financially through five stock sales, in 1923, 1935, 1950, 1997 and 2011.
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