Pittsburgh Steelers camp out at Catholic college

In the summer of 1966, the Pittsburgh Steelers football team spent two weeks of training camp at St. Vincent College near Latrobe, Pa., and the arrangement worked so well that they returned. 

On Aug. 17, the six-time Super Bowl winners finished their 46th summer camp at the Benedictine college and monastery, and the longtime success is more than good business. 

“There was a friendship between the Rooney family and Abbot Rembert Weakland and the monastery,” college President Benedictine Brother Norman Hipps said about the initial contract. 

Rooted in friendship

The Rooneys were staunch Irish Catholics who immigrated to Canada during the potato famine in the 1840s. Some members moved to the United States, and Art Rooney Sr. was born in Pittsburgh in 1901. In 1933, he became the founding owner of the fledgling Steelers when he bought the team for his son Dan’s first birthday. 

Dan attended North Catholic High School and graduated from Duquesne University, a private Catholic college in the city. Dan, who now serves as U.S. ambassador to Ireland, took over the team in 1975, and Art Sr. died in 1988. The team is now run by Dan Rooney’s son, Art II. 

“Back in the early days, Art Sr. was friends with Father Conall Pfiester [then treasurer of the college] and you would see them walking around together, and Art would have that cigar in his mouth,” said Brother Hipps, who came to the monastery in 1963. “You would often see Art at morning Mass in the monastery, too.” 

Fan favorite

In past summers, the training camp has drawn nearly 100,000 visitors, and this year, more than 50,000 attended. It is one of the most-visited NFL fan sites, owing its popularity to being in the heart of a passionate base of followers. The campus is a plus, too. Peter King of Sports Illustrated once called it “the most picturesque camp” in the league. 

“It’s the best training camp in the NFL, the best venue for watching real football in the NFL, and my favorite place to soak in what sports should be.”  
— Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, explaining in a 2008 article why St. Vincent College’s stadium is “best site to watch America’s most popular sport.

“I love the place,” he wrote online. “It’s the perfect training camp setting, looking out over the rolling hills of the Laurel Highlands … an hour east of Pittsburgh. On a misty foggy morning, standing atop the hill at the college, you feel like you’re in Scotland. Classic, wonderful slice of Americana. If you can visit one training camp, this is the one to see.” 

St. Vincent College is recognized for being fan-friendly, too, with free parking and free admission. 

“We are very proud of that,” public relations director Don Orlando said. “We have some vending stands to provide food and drinks as a service, but we invite people to pack a picnic lunch or cooler and bring their own food, water, blankets and chairs. A family can get to see the world champion Steelers and not spend any money at all.”

Boost to campus, town

The training camp benefits the college in several ways. The Steelers pay to be on campus and were consulted in planning the physical fitness center, training room, the Rooney Hall residence and other facilities that the students use as well. 

“That does provide some income to the college, but honestly, that’s a minor part of the total package,” Orlando told OSV. “The Steelers bring pride and excitement to the campus, and they also bring people to St. Vincent.” 

The local economy gets a boost, too, in the food and service that it takes to feed the Steelers: 3,200 pounds of chicken and beef, 800 pounds of wings, 2,200 turkey burgers, 1,500 pounds of fresh vegetables, two tons of fruit and 1,000 pizzas. 

Brother Hipps called the training camp “a good marketing tool” for the college. 

“The goals and objectives are different between the monastery and a football team, but there are some similarities, ” he said. 

“Both are concerned about discipline. Both are concerned about the leadership of a coach or an abbot, and both are concerned about the community. Because we have a well-run organization that’s effective in providing a good training camp, you might argue that by extension, the education program is well-designed for the students. That marketing piece is probably the most significant value for St. Vincent.” 

The Benedictine philosophy also generates the warm hospitality. 

“The Rule of St. Benedict that says that each guest should be received as Christ is one that we want to extend to the Steeler organization and all the fans,” Brother Hipps said. “That value becomes part of our work with them, and with the people who come here.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.