The Culture Which Made the Immaculate Extension Possible
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.