Things Bigger than Football: Head Coach Mike Tomlin

I’ve really enjoyed the feature “Asked and Answered” on In it Bob Labriola fields an astonishing variety of questions. This question from October 29th got the normally phlegmatic Labriola a little fired up:

Bill Cowher won with average quarterbacks. Mike Tomlin has a franchise quarterback. Tomlin is a defensive coach like Cowher and the Steelers defense is below average. Do you think Tomlin deserved a contract extension?

[Bob Labriola answers:]

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess you don’t believe Mike Tomlin deserved a contract extension, but let me ask you a few things: Exactly what did Bill Cowher win with an average quarterback? Not the Super Bowl, because the Lombardi Trophy won during his tenure came after Ben Roethlisberger was drafted. Certainly not the AFC Championship games – at home – in 1994, 1997, and 2001. And let me take this discussion in a different direction and ask you: What did Bill Belichick ever win, either in Cleveland or in New England, without Tom Brady? What did Chuck Noll ever win without Terry Bradshaw? Tom Landry never won anything until the Cowboys went with Roger Staubach.

I’m not going to get into Cowher vs. Tomlin with you because both accomplished significant things during their time with the Steelers, and comparisons often require the tearing down of one individual to praise the other. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to claim Tomlin is the best coach in the NFL, but I believe he’s a very good one, certainly deserving of a contract extension after an eight-year run in which he won four division titles, made the playoffs five times, is 2-0 in AFC Championship Games in Pittsburgh, got the team to two Super Bowls and won one, and never has had a losing season.

Also not to be underrated is the way Tomlin, upon being hired, kept Dick LeBeau and his 3-4 zone-blitz scheme intact, when other candidates for the job were not going to do that. Coming from a 4-3, Cover-2 background as an NFL coach, Tomlin was savvy enough to see how well things were working with the Steelers defense and how the personnel on hand fit that scheme, and he didn’t allow his ego to get in the way, as many new guys on the job will do by believing they have to change things to make their own mark.

It simply amazes me that there are those who can still question whether Tomlin is the right coach for the Steelers. Is he perfect? Probably not. Has he made mistakes in drafting, hiring, and so on? Probably so.

Has he been one of the most successful coaches in the NFL in his first eight years? Judged by his excellent winning percentage (64%, better than highly respected current coaches such as John Harbaugh, for instance,) his Lombardi (and a shot at a second one) and by the fact he is widely considered to be the coach players would most like to play for, yes.

Have a look at this, from a very recent interview on Pittsburgh Sports Bulletin with Dale Lolley:

The Steelers have been overwhelmed with injuries this year, yet are still in playoff contention. How much credit goes to Mike Tomlin – and what has this team done to help find success despite the injuries? 

Tomlin and his staff have done an outstanding job this season working through what could have been some devastating injuries. People get tired of hearing, “the standard is the standard,” and “next man up,” but the players really believe it. Look at how Dallas fell apart this season without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. The Steelers could easily have taken a similar nose dive. They didn’t because the coaching staff made them believe and put together game plans to make the most of what they had.

Still not convinced? Perhaps Aditi Kinkhabwala‘s wonderful article from October 29th on will convince you.

Kinkhabwala noted that despite the fact Mike Tomlin is definitely the originator of “The Standard is the Standard,”  Tomlin doesn’t remember where it came from:

It’s the reason the Steelers have survived a four-game absence of their franchise quarterback (for the second time in Tomlin’s tenure). It’s why players long labeled busts turn out to be saviors, it’s what defines this group’s collective personality. And yet, no, Tomlin has no grand story — heck no recollection — of how the words first strung together.

“Yep. That sounds like Mike T,” said Lawrence Timmons, Tomlin’s first-ever draft pick as the Steelers head coach. The linebacker is either the player Tomlin is hardest on (according to Timmons), or his favorite (says Le’Veon Bell) and the two have grown here in this city together. Timmons says the first thing he’d express about the only NFL coach he’s had is that he’s genuine. The second is that he’s a motivator. The third? He’s fun to listen to.

Quoting some of her favorite Tomlinisms, she brings it back to what “The Standard is the Standard” means to the team:

The story of the Steelers, though, is the 2-2 they went as Roethlisberger was sidelined with a sprained MCL and bone bruise. They did so with a 35-year-old second-string quarterback who only signed with the team as training camp wound down (Mike Vick) and with a 26-year-old third-string quarterback who had never played a regular-season snap of NFL football (Landry Jones). They did it without starters, at various points in those four games, at linebacker (Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones), defensive end (Stephon Tuitt), safety (Will Allen), receiver (Martavis Bryant) and left tackle (Kelvin Beachum). They did it because, well, the standard is the standard.

Translation: There is one standard. It is always the standard. When a starter goes down, when a ref makes a lousy call, when the weather is foul, it’s all irrelevant in this adage. The standard here, ostensibly, never changes. If Beachum blocked for seven seconds, then Alejandro Villanueva, an Army veteran who went five years without playing a football game after his graduation from West Point, better expect to block for seven seconds, too. As for why it happens?

Darrius Heyward-Bey says it’s because Tomlin expects every player, star or scrub, to “punch the clock” the same way.

Foster says it’s because Tomlin convinces his players that every single one of them is needed.

There’s lots more in this lovely article.

Several weeks ago on the Dave Dameskek Football Program the discussion turned to the essentially winless Chiefs. Since Dameshek had picked the Chiefs prior to the season to go to the Super Bowl, he was discussing whether it is possible for a team as far in the hole as the Chiefs to turn things around. He was speculating on what “the vibe” was like in the locker room. He asked Ike Taylor what it felt like when the Steelers began the season 0-4. Taylor said:

Coach T kept everything in house…He kept telling us “Hey man, a lot of guys outside are gonna throw you all under the bus, but the only guys that can turn this around [are] the guys in this locker room. You can go home to your wife, she’s gonna baby you, you can go home to your girlfriend, your grandma, your mom, they’re gonna tell you everything you need to hear about why it’s not your fault. They’re not here in this locker room. They’re not here putting in the time and effort on the field. I’m telling you all, if we can just get one win, stick together, we can turn this season around.”

Taylor points out the team who started 0-4 ended up “one game short.” In fact, it was one bad referee’s call short, although I honor Taylor for the “if we had taken care of our own business we wouldn’t be reliant on anyone else” attitude.

I could write multiple thousands more words. I have already written at length about Tomlin and his servant leadership style, most extensively here and here. I may write more both about Tomlin and the rest of the coaching staff during the off-season.

For now I will merely remind us all of the number of former head coaches who are seemingly happy to work under Tomlin—three last year (Dick LeBeau, Todd Haley, and Mike Munchak,) the assistant coach who came out of retirement at Tomlin’s request to coach the wide receivers (Richard Mann,) and the  former players who went elsewhere and were more than happy to come back and work for him (Carnell Lake and Joey Porter.)

But perhaps the following story best illustrates the atmosphere Tomlin has created. It concerns Ray Horton, a man Tomlin promoted to Defensive Backs coach when he was hired. Horton was hired in 2011 by Steelers West as the Defensive Coordinator by Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt. When Horton left Pittsburgh, he left something else behind:

Maurice “Mo” Matthews is accustomed to preparing and serving lunch and dinner to the Steelers coaches and staff in the team’s cafeteria on the South Side.

It’s not very often when he is served the type of surprise he received from former secondary coach Ray Horton.

On the day he was leaving for his new job as defensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals, Horton parked his car — a red 1999 Mercedes Benz SL500 convertible roadster — in front of the team’s office complex and went inside to say goodbye to the cafeteria staff.

When he saw Matthews, he said to him, “Hey, I need a favor from you. How much money you have in your pocket?”

Matthews said, “I got $20.”

Horton took the money, looked at it and said to Matthews, “Sold for $20!”

And then Horton handed Matthews the keys to his car and told him to keep it.

The article explained that Matthews had always admired the car, and Horton gave it to him in exchange for the $20 and a ride to the airport.

I’m not trying to give Tomlin (or for that matter the Rooneys) the credit for every good deed done by anyone in the organization. But I do believe the tone is set at the top.

As the earlier articles in this series have noted, the Rooneys see their team as embedded in the community. In Mike Tomlin they chose someone who would not only win championships for them but would buy into the ethos of the organization. Despite the reservations still expressed by occasional fans such as Mr. Cuz, it’s pretty hard to say they got it wrong.

The picture is actually a screen shot from the Steelers Live  broadcast right after the last practice before the guys got their vacation. William Gay was the DJ, introducing all the players and coaches with appropriate music, and Tomlin was taking it all in.  


  • Thank you once again for pulling all these things together. I can’t express how wonderful, what a relief it is, to open this site and read things that are appreciations of people we ought to appreciate–and so many people here whose words I enjoy reading. And once again, I love the way you write.

    Not your mom, (or I’d ask if you were eating properly and then I’d send you inedible but healthy cookies as did my mom who I believe invented the power bar in about 1979 and got nothing but complaints for all her trouble), just


    Oh and Tomlin’s pretty awesome too. I’ve never read one thing about him that didn’t make me like him more.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Great article. I second Earthling’s comments.

    Tomlin is a treasure and has done perhaps his best coaching this year. He has enough patience to get the job done and enough urgency not to get complacent. I think only the New England pariah is possibly better. I wouldn’t dream of swapping. Great job, Momma.


  • When the going gets tough, Tomlin is at his best as a leader of men and as a coach. Three seasons is particular show this is not simply a coincidence. He held them together during the 0-4 start, he had them 3-1 and nearly 4-0 during Ben’s suspension, and this year, when they have lost three All-Pro offensive players and are still very much in the hunt.

    You make it clear, Rebecca, that Mike Tomlin is an outstanding leader of men and a superb coach. I guess the job is his for a while.


  • Very good point about Tomlin not letting his ego get in the way when he took over. He kept the defense as is even though it didn’t follow what he had been coaching. A new coach “putting his stamp on a team” can sometimes work, but it can also be destructive. Consider how short a time it took for Josh McDaniels to dismantle a decent Denver team.


  • I third Earthling’s comment.


  • Good article. I’m a huge fan of Tomlin’s team building, his ability to find players off the scrap heap and help them find their way to being useful is really cool.


  • There is so much to like about this article. You would think there would be a limit to what might be said in praise of Tomlin, but the fact of the matter is that consistent stream of criticism directed against him makes it an issue of fairness and justice to respond, and to so regularly.

    Passion is the greatest strength of Steelers Nation as well as its greatest weakness. The two pieces on ‘busts’ are stories of ungoverned passions and giving voice to our demons. One of the things I like about Labriola is that though he is constrained by his relationship with the team, he also manages to communicate that he struggles with suffering fools. It gets tiresome after a time having to constantly coddle no nothings and thinly veiled bigotry. The case that is often brought to bear against Tomlin are often things that are relatively insignificant, nonsensical or factually unsupported. The admittedly minor things that play in his favor such as his record and the extraordinary PR operation that has shielded us from the big reveal of his faults by current and former staff players and others in the know around the league don’t seem to count for much in the minds of some.

    The bottom line question for me would be who’s better? Particularly over the long period of time that a Steelers head coach would be expected to maintain a consistent level of results. In my mind among active coaches, only Belichick and Tom Coughlin of the Giants are on par with multiple Super Bowl appearances. Significant is a twenty year age difference in the case of the Pats coach and Coughlin almost has Tomlin by about thirty. Also significant is that each is also a figure of controversy. Belichick for his ethics, and the consistent cries for Coughlin’s scalp exceeds that of Tomlin if you can believe it. Neither man was nearly as successful when they were in their thirties and forties.

    Who else? In spite the support of a first class organization and a quarterback who is in the argument for the best in the business, Mike McCarthy has failed to get the Packers back to the Super Bowl so far. Sean Peyton, the Harbaugh brothers, Pete Carroll, Ken Whisenhunt, consistent success is elusive in this league. And as was pointed out, it also helps to have the talent.

    The sad fact is likely to be that many who are calling for parting ways with Tomlin are the some of the ones most likely to use his record to be the next guy over the head and will be waxing wistfully decades from now about the good old days when we had a real coach in charge of the team.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Meant to say ‘beat over the head’


    • Toronto Steeler Fan

      One other thing to note about Tomlin’s tenure is all of the things that have NOT happened while he’s been here. Think about some of the other head coaches around the league in recent years who are generally considered to be the top coaches in the game:

      Jim Harbaugh – SF became a circus in his last season and he was run out of town.
      John Harbaugh – had to deal with a near locker room mutiny during his Super Bowl season and is now giving out “effort stickers” to his players (LOL, just LOL).
      Bill Bellichek – Cheatergate, Cheatergate II, Cheatergates-yet-to-come.
      Sean Payton – Bountygate.
      Rex Ryan – Just look at the circus that accompanies him wherever he goes.

      None of this stuff ever seems to show up in Tomlin’s shop. Sometimes it’s all the things that DON’T happen that we forget about but tell a big part of the story.


  • Exactly. Who is better? Who should replace him? Winning is easy, isn’t it? Chip Kelly, John Fox, Jim Tomasula? Easy as pie.


  • Here’s a quote from Tomlin that I came across on The Times Online, serving Beaver County. (I don’t know if we can post links and I’m in the middle of pre-holiday chaos.)

    “We could be better, we could be worse. The reality is that we need to be focused on the task at hand. We don’t have to kook outside of our stadiums.” — Tomlin, on Steelers controlling their playoff destiny.

    So another reason to appreciate Tomlin–no kooking outside of their stadiums! What a relief!

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!



    • Personally, I believe the deleterious effects of kooking outside of one’s own stadium are easily overlooked, and it takes a top-notch coach to be paying attention even to these sorts of seemingly minor and yet critical details. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Earthling, and have a wonderful holiday!


  • Excellent article. I just watched Tomlin’s Tuesday press conference and he once again showed why he is such a great leader, a great coach. Even with all the adversity the Steelers have experienced this season, he has them ready to run the rest of the way and more importantly, believing in themselves and each other.


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