The Culture Which Made the Immaculate Extension Possible

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As Ivan noted in his article, The Immaculate Extension: A Second Look,

“When I heard it [the term “immaculate extension”] I thought it was a clever, exuberant reaction to what would, ultimately be a mere transitory moment in the yearly journey that football fans travel seeking the grail of entertainment gold; a place in the playoffs over the holidays and, if fortunate, a championship.

Let me invite the reader to carefully consider whether something more significant has occurred.”

Indeed it would turn out to be a much bigger deal even than it seemed at the time.

For Ivan, this puts Mike Tomlin into the exclusive category of great coaches. But there are other ramifications.

Endless discussions have taken place as to how many coaches would have the courage to do that.

Hombre de Acero opined in his game recap for Steel Curtain Rising that it was a trust issue:

Faced with an all or nothing prospect, Mike Tomlin opted to trust the game by putting the ball into the hands of his most talented player on the field.

I don’t dispute either the courage of his convictions Tomlin displayed or the trust he put in his players to get the job done. My contention is, the reason the list for the question “What coach would do that?,” is so short is that few coaches know they have an ownership who will look beyond immediate results in judging the outcome of such things.

It is perhaps instructive to consider the following comment exchange, from Staying Out of 2nd and 98:

  • RR: I think we can all be grateful that the Steelers bosses don’t have the kind of itchy trigger finger so much of the fan base does. That’s what makes the Browns so weird (and perhaps now the Dolphins) – it’s like the team is run by a fan site.
  • roxannafirehall: Can you imagine the Steelers run by the “sky is falling” Pittsburgh fans?
  • steeler fever: Pretty sure the team would have had to forfeit the rest of the games this season, everybody would have already been fired.

There are other ownerships who don’t seem to function this way. I’m guessing one of the coaches on most people’s short list for the “Who does that?” question is Bill Belichick. I expect he will never be fired, even if he lost a bunch of games, because no one would have the courage to do it. (Would you? He scares me…)

Just about everyone who takes the slightest interest in the Steelers is aware they have had exactly three head coaches since 1969. I thought it would be interesting to check out the number of head coaches the other 31 teams have had in this time. I knew the Steelers had the least coaches during that time, but the only franchise in existence in 1969 with fewer than nine coaches are the Cowboys, with eight. I took a look at the win percentage for all the NFL teams during that time, and perhaps not shockingly, the Steelers are first, with almost 60%, the Cowboys second, with just over 59%.

The only team with an average of less than three years per head coach who is over .500 during those 46 years is the Oakland Raiders. (I had forgotten they were really good for quite a while.) And, perhaps not surprisingly, they finished No. 32 in the Business Insiders’ article “Who are the best, worst NFL teams over the last decade?” 

The only team with more than an average of five years per head coach whose record is under .500 is the Carolina Panthers. Obviously the correlation isn’t perfect, but it is interesting.

It’s probably a meaningless calculation, but for kicks I ran the numbers for average wins per head coach. The (expansion) Cleveland Browns have 9.3 wins per head coaching tenure. Said tenures average 1.8 seasons. (I bundled the pre-expansion Browns with the Ravens.)

Conversely, the Steelers have an average of 141.3 wins per head coaching tenure. The closest again is the Cowboys, with 52.5 wins. (In the past decade, which of course features Jerry Jones as owner, they are No. 13. The Steelers are No. 3, behind the Colts and Patriots.)

Sorry for the statistical diversion, but the point I thought it might be possible to make is, patience in an ownership is generally a virtue. Sometimes it is clear it is time to part company. I think the end of the Andy Reid era in Philadelphia is an example of this. Whether they chose their next coach wisely or not is another story. It is possible the Giants have waited too long to part ways with Tom Coughlin.

But part of the equation in this is not only patience on the part of the ownership but the wisdom to do your due diligence, hire the guy you think is the best choice, and then support him so he can do his job. Or her, I suppose, although I have a feeling it is going to be a very long time before a woman is a head coach of an NFL team. If ever.

And part of supporting the person you hired is not micromanaging him. This takes the courage of your convictions in terms of who you hired and, I suspect, a good deal of self-restraint when things aren’t going well.

It also helps to not be laboring under the illusion that you know more about coaching than the people you hire. This takes a sort of humility which seems to be rather rare in the NFL.

I will never forget watching a Cowboys game with my brother several years ago. The camera panned to the owner’s box—I don’t remember whether they were obviously winning or losing, but that seems to be the point at which the owner’s box gets shown on the telecast. As the camera zoomed in, Jones was just removing his glasses. He then handed them to someone else, who polished the glasses and handed them back. (Said other person turned out to be Jones’ son-in-law.) I was floored by this. I couldn’t imagine in a million years the Chief or Dan Rooney or even Art II handing his glasses to a minion to polish. That’s not the Rooney style.

One of my favorite stories about The Chief concerned a visitor to the facility who spotted him walking in the door at the end of a practice day. The visitor asked the team official he was meeting with if Rooney was coming to confer with the Director of Football Operations or with the head coach.

Neither, said visitor was told. He had come to hang out with the groundskeepers—something he often did at the end of the day. 

I’m working on a piece about the whole Rooney clan, and I’m not under any illusions that they are saints. But they do seem to have a down-to-earth attitude about their place in the world.

When a newly signed or drafted player goes to training camp, one of the things that surprises many of them is that they may well find themselves sitting next to one of the owners in the cafeteria. There are no special gold-plated dining suites for the ownership. They eat with the men.

Here was the impression of one rookie about the family (from an old interview with Bruce Davis by Behind the Steel Curtain founder Michael Bean:)

Talk around Steelers Nation the past two days has been centered around the Rooney family and the restructuring of control of the team. Have you met any of the Rooneys? Impressions? Being that your father is a Super Bowl winner, did he have anything to say about the type of organization you would be joining when you were drafted? 

Davis: I met the Rooneys and they are absolutely great!!! They bring such a family atmosphere to the organization, and from day one, they really made me feel welcomed into the family.  The one thing that my pop told me was that you are going to a great, family oriented organization.

Dan grew up on the city’s blighted North Side, on a street that had already seen better days when his parents moved there in 1939. Now 76 and the Steelers’ chairman, he bought the house from his brothers after their father’s death and with his wife, Patricia, moved back into the neighborhood. Judging from the parking lot directly opposite and the Wendy’s on the corner, it seems safe to say that Rooney is the only millionaire living on what used to be known as Millionaire’s Row. His house — red brick, two stories, with a small front porch — is a third the size of your average suburban McMansion…

Rooney walks to the Steelers’ home games, on a broken sidewalk, past an abandoned gas station and underneath the overpass for Route 65.

For away games, he travels with the players. “I wasn’t used to the owner flying on the plane,” said the backup quarterback Charlie Batch, recalling his surprise when he arrived to play for the Steelers after leaving the Detroit Lions. “And not only was he on the plane, he was sitting in the seat that doesn’t recline, in front of the bathroom.”…

“Some owners treat you like a rental property,” said defensive end Nick Eason, who has played in Denver and in Cleveland. “They have some maintenance guy to take care of it, they just come by to check on it, they look and they leave. Mr. Rooney comes around, he always sticks his hand out to you. ‘Hey, Nick’— and I’m like, he knows my name?”

“Every team says it’s a family, but it’s bull a lot of the time,” [punter Mitch] Berger said. In a 13-year career in which he has worn 10 uniforms, he said there had been times when he played mostly for himself. His five months with the Steelers have been different. “I’m glad I got a chance to experience the way it should be before everything’s said and done.”

As is his way, Dan Rooney, takes none of the credit…“It started with my father,” he said. “He gave me the values. He treated players, coaches, general staff as people. He was concerned about them.”…

The result has been stability and continuity. Now in his second season, Tomlin is the Steelers’ third head coach in 40 years — testimony to the Rooneys’ loyalty, patience and understanding of what it takes to build a winning team.

And, despite the concern some of us felt when Art II seemed to be meddling in team affairs rather more than his father or grandfather (such as the whole Bruce Arians “retirement” situation and so on,) Art II seems to be more like his forebears than he is like so many of the NFL owners. And that’s a very happy circumstance for the Steelers. And for Mike Tomlin. And consequently for Steeler Nation.

Admittedly, we lose out on the excitement of a complete tear-down and restructuring of the team every few years, complete with new coaching staff. We never get the opportunity to talk about which of the top ten draft picks the Steelers will pick. We don’t get the thrill of our team signing big-name free agents who may well have played their best football for someone else.

But I’m guessing most of the fans of those teams would trade all of that excitement in a heartbeat for moments like we watched in San Diego—for the realization the head coach was throwing every single one of his chips on the table and giving the ball to his best player in what would almost certainly be the last play of the game. Suddenly, all eyes were focused intensely on the men on the field, where they belong. Not on their stats sheets, not on their pedigrees, not on trick plays or questionable tactics. It was just eleven men against eleven men, and would come down to which eleven could get the job done.

Whether this team is able to overcome their multiple injuries, setbacks, and other assorted tribulations, I’m proud to cheer for them. They believe in one another and trust in one another, in large part because their coaching staff believes in them and trusts them. This in turn is possible because the team has an ownership smart enough and humble enough to allow these good things to grow naturally.

19 comments

  • “I choose not to live in my fears.” – Mike Tomlin, discussing the decision to go for the TD on the final play at SD.

    When you are not fearful of losing your job at every turn, and when you are not being second-guessed constantly by your boss, you need not live in your fears. Your, your coaches, and your players can perform with added confidence and daring.

    As the British Special Air motto goes, “who dares wins.”

    Liked by 1 person

  • Exquisite

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    • Earthling, are you my mom? Actually, I know you aren’t because she refuses to use the internet. But even if you’re not my mom I thank you for all your encouragement : )

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  • If my memory serves, if left up to our fan base the only players who are getting significant minutes on defense who would be still on the team would be Stephon Tuitt and Ross Cockrell. And Cockrell only because there hasn’t been enough time to organize against him. On offense it would David De Castro and Le’Veon Bell. Everyone else was at one time or another too old, too injured or a total fraud as an athlete or human being.

    This causes me to wonder if the lack of the type of leadership exhibited by the Rooneys might go a ways in explaining some of the socio-cultural dysfunction evident in other areas of society as well. Their story has been documented, but relegated to an irrelevant ghetto in American culture, and therefore, unworthy of examination outside the parameters of sport or entertainment.

    It also strikes me that so many who proclaim to be such diehard fans of the organization don’t see the culture that makes the success possible, dismiss it as inconsequential or actually hold it in contempt. As you have pointed out, some would prefer change for changes sake and the associated drama to a process whose sole benefit is that it is the most successful of its kind. But who wants to put up with all that delayed gratification. And it can be so boring at times.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Interesting observations… but it can be looked at both ways. It’s like the old “Red cars are more dangerous” statistic. While that is true, red cars are in more accidents, that is not because red cars are more dangerous, it is because people with personalities that like red cars tend to take more risks.

    In the same way, maybe it isn’t that stable teams are more successful… maybe it is that successful teams tend to be more stable. Why would an owner fire a coach if he is winning? (Unless, of course, your name is Jerry Jones. Then you do it for ego…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting point, and exhibit A would be the Chief and Walt Kiesling. Kiesling was a great friend of Mr Rooney. He was also a stubborn and unsuccessful coach. Coached for nine years. Hired, let go, hired again. Had only two winning seasons and a record of 30-55-1. Was stuck in the past, and insisted EVERY game would begin with a run up the middle. (“Hey, diddle, diddle, Rogal up the middle.”) Famously, one game the Chief demanded they pass on the first play, and it was a TD. But Kiesling ordered one of his guys to go offsides on the play, so the TD was nullified. Even so, he was the Chief’s pal, and Mr Rooney stuck with him as a coach – on and off – from 1939 to 1956. Kiesling was also the guy who benched and then cut that Unitas kid. Somehow, Walt Kiesling made the Hall of Fame. Probably because of his great play for the Pottsville Maroons and Duluth Eskimos. He also played for the Chicago Cardinals.

      The difference between Rooney pere and Rooney fils was not about loyalty. Both were fiercely loyal. It’s just that Daniel Milton Rooney did a much better job of hiring than AJR.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting point, Mark. I’ll have to chew that over.

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  • Power is a powerful thing;) From my far off observations Jerry Jones appears to operate from a positional power standpoint which promotes compliance. This is OK for the short term but is this good enough when the going get’s real tough, like when you lose your franchise QB and #1 receiver, or you got to win “the playoff game”. On the other hand personal power promotes trust, admiration, and respect for the leader. It is tied to the leader’s expertise and personality. Personal power is derived from the followers. It encourages and connects with follower commitment. The leader, using his or her expertise or force of personality, earns it by gaining the trust, admiration, and respect of the followers. This promotes commitment but it can be lost without the use of proper influencing tactics. Oh yea, It also helps if you really care.The Rooneys really care. ”Mr. Rooney comes around, he always sticks his hand out to you. ‘Hey, Nick’— and I’m like, he knows my name?”Or the Chief introducing a maintenance guy to a visiting dignitary of some sort as “this is so-and so. He works for the organization”.
    Positional power VS personal power. Compliance VS commitment. Impressing from a distance in a luxury box or getting up close and personal to influence. Who would you want to work for?

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    • I sometimes think that the book on Jerry Jones needs to be revised a little. If there’s an ‘owner’s spectrum’, it isn’t the Rooneys on one end and Jones on the other. Jones is a ‘meddler’, but it IS his team. I have a hard time criticizing a guy who built a stadium himself without forcing a city to pay for it. The Cowboys would be better if he wasn’t the GM, but they could clearly be far worse too. Heck, even the Davises of Oakland or the Bidwills of Arizona need to be looked at differently. The children aren’t making all the same mistakes as the parents.
      I’d stick Snyder on that opposite end of the spectrum. Firing coaches left and right. Picking favorites with players, to the detriment of the team, etc.

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  • While I might not always be on board with all the decisions the coaches/owners make (enter the Other QB), I have always considered the Rooneys and the Steelers to be a class act. That culture has made them a team to cheer proudly for while still being able to discuss matters of the day.

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