Anti-Tomlin, 2016 Version: Part 2


Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

by Ivan Cole

[Editor’s note: in Part 1 Ivan made the case that the anti-Tomlin rhetoric has gotten more subtle as the narrative is more difficult to sustain in the face of the evidence. Here’s Ivan’s theory as to why it continues anyhow.]


So maybe it’s time to broach the subject of the ‘R’ word. I stated earlier that Cowherd’s insinuations were insulting to all involved. The topic we haven’t upon touched yet is the organization and the culture that has allegedly coddled and protected its head coach. Left unexplained is how such a first class operation could make an error in discernment concerning, arguably, the most important and impactful decision affecting the success of the organizational mission, and then compound it by not acknowledging it and making corrections.

The two most obvious answers would be that the Rooneys, blinded by ‘liberal’ ideology (such as their own Rooney Rule) and naiveté, chose a flawed and limited man, and are now ensnared by public relations and other concerns to stick it out unless and until such time that he either can be trained to function at a more acceptable level, or fails in a clear cut enough fashion that he can be disposed of without controversy. Or they went into this eyes open, intent upon engaging in a social engineering experiment and, based on the low expectations that such an action would imply, believe it is actually going rather well at the moment.

It is at this point that the interjection of the topic of racism can no longer be avoided. The problem we are faced with in this particular period of our social history is that we are now vacillating between two extremes; a promiscuous labeling of everything being racist, or a denial that such a thing exists at all. In this case I believe it is irresponsible to scurry around this particular elephant in the room.

There are elements in Cowherd’s professional history, as well as certain in his arguments that point us precisely in that direction. Also there is the matter of a general misreading of how racism actually manifests, particularly in professional football, that obscures how many of us perceive things. Finally, racism actually brings a kind of backhanded logic and credibility to a set of arguments that are, otherwise, sloppy and not a little absurd.

There is plenty of precedence in this regard. Several years ago, The World Leader in its infinite wisdom thought it would be a wonderful idea to add Rush Limbaugh to its NFL Countdown team. Limbaugh began immediately pushing a line that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was an overrated affirmative action baby. That went over well. Cowherd has been a figure of controversy based upon statements he has made about the late Sean Taylor and Latin American baseball players that resulted in his being suspended by a previous employer (the aforementioned World Leader).

His mindset is somewhat typical of a particular type of critic who because of the so-called political correctness of the 21st Century cannot be more forthright in their observations. My suspicion is that a more integral approach would be to declare that Tomlin doesn’t know his place, either not being a head coach at all, or if so, having a more deferential posture. Take your pick. This is where the lack of understanding of racism confuses things. We usually want to associate it with hatred and bigotry, but that is just one manifestation of the more universal dynamic; contempt.

If you think about it, there is some difficulty following football, and particularly the Steelers at all, if you absolutely despised people of color. Out of 22 offensive and defensive starters only three or four (depending how you categorize Alejandro Villanueva) are not People of color. And that number goes down when Ladarius Green comes off the PUP list. Imagine following the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League if you hate white people. There’s Trevor Daley, and then what?

If you want to talk progress then we can celebrate the fact that blunt force, in your face racial bigotry is in retreat to the point that even avowed white supremacists are somewhat reluctant to express it in mixed company. That still leaves what I would label the weasel aspect of the various ‘isms’; the demand for impeccability. Recently, the Democratic nominee for President was criticized because she didn’t smile enough. Really? Deference. Having a congeniality bar to hurdle that male candidates do not. Not knowing your place.

This has been a very old struggle for the elite black athlete in particular. The history of the league reflects this. Paul Brown served as the Branch Rickey of professional football, integrating the Browns a year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Since then it has been an unending struggle to expand the sense of ‘place’.

Noll, a Brown disciple, insisted that the roster designations for white and black players be eliminated, and along with that the quota system that it represented. A few years later the Steelers made national news (not sports) headlines when they announced that their starting quarterback for the 1974 season would be Joe Gilliam, who was black. Hard to believe for some, but it has only been 30 years or so since a black player could confidently believe that he could compete for any position on a NFL roster. Black head coaches only began to appear in the last 25 years. General managers later than that, and in spite of the best efforts of those like the late Walter Peyton, ownership is a barrier that has yet to be breached.

Tomlin’s hiring was not groundbreaking in the gross, revolutionary sense, but representative of a subtler evolution. He was high on potential but relatively low on history. The pioneer class in any group tends to skew to the overqualified to compensate for the perception that the color or gender of their body renders them incompetent.

The Rooney family broke with this conservative approach. The reaction should have been predictable. The affirmative action trope is really just a politically correct dog whistle/code word for an accusation against people who are out of their place, and therefore by definition unqualified.

And these were the people who gave us the Rooney Rule, remember. However, as has been pointed out by others, the Rooney Rule requirements had already been satisfied before Tomlin was vetted when the team interviewed Ron Rivera, currently coach of the Carolina Panthers. The Tomlin hire essentially followed the pattern of their remarkably infrequent head coach selections; a young, talented, relatively unknown defensive assistant from outside the organization. In addition, as a disciple of Tony Dungy, Tomlin is actually an offshoot of the Chuck Noll coaching tree. But for some, none of this would be enough. He would have to be faultless as well.

So there is a narrative applied to Tomlin alone which, if it is credible, ought to be universally applied. Specifically, that a coach is evaluated based in a major way upon the resources he or she inherits, as opposed to how those resources are leveraged, regardless of the quality. If considered seriously, across the board, we could begin with Cowher getting to Super Bowl 30 thanks to Chuck Noll’s players. And this would be a godsend for all struggling and failing coaches who could declare that the fault lies in their inheritance, not their abilities.

Additionally, Tomlin compounds his offense by being insufficiently deferential, an issue that is at the fore of current events involving players across the league. While he is not as defiant as a Muhammed Ali, he’s no Joe Louis either. He has the nerve to act like he has actually earned the right to be where he is, as though he belongs. At nearly every press conference he will remind you that he doesn’t suffer fools, a quality he shares with Noll. And treats the field hands like men instead of mules. Some consciously, others unconsciously find that unacceptable.

Beyond certain particulars this is a very old, fundamental battle. The idea that one proves their humanity by exhibiting flawless behavior is breathtakingly oxymoronic. As is the notion that said humanity is subject to ratification by other humans. But that is the essence of it. Jackie Robinson’s selection to be the first to integrate Major League Baseball was predicated as much on his capacity to take on a particular persona as was his abilities on the field of play. He was to be humble, grateful and graceful in the face of a great deal of disrespect and human ugliness. The fail comes in that the power and morality of humility is in it being an internally generated choice. Once it becomes a response to an external demand, a condition of employment and acceptance, then the individual is no longer humble, but rather servile, which is a different matter altogether. That would be, according to the dictionary, the behavior of, ahem, a slave.

For younger readers, you can be forgiven if you didn’t quite get this point in all the recent tributes to Muhammed Ali. His, and others such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Jim Brown making the break from the requirement of black athletes acting in a servile manner in order to court acceptance is the central issue of his career, a stance which Robinson would endorse as well. And make no mistake. At the time he was absolutely despised by wide swaths of the American public (of all colors, it should be mentioned) for doing so. He, like Martin Luther King Jr. and others were only ‘beloved’ much later.

Here is the connecting thread to many of our contentious conversations of the moment. Are we actually involved in a debate to establish a behavioral bar to determine whether executions over minor and trivial civil offenses are, if not justified, understandable? One misses the point if you don’t get that the backlash to the backlash over Colin Kaepernick is not about flags or patriotism, but to the outrageous notion that one capitulates their humanity if they possess minor human flaws (the subject of his protest) or the rights of citizenship if there is enough money involved (his right to protest).

This gives a peek, by the way, of deeper issues of self-worth that go well beyond even racism that will have to be explored if there is any seriousness about healing the nation.

Getting back to Tomlin. Of the nearly 500 or so individuals who have had the mantle of being a head NFL coach, only about 10 percent have survived to serve a decade or more. Smaller still are those who have done so without ever experiencing a losing season. Four franchises have never been to a Super Bowl. Eight have only made it there once. Thirteen have never won a Lombardi. Tomlin has delivered two appearances and one championship before his 40th birthday.

His most appropriate and worthy peers in terms of accomplishments are between twenty and thirty years his senior in age and have double his head coaching experience. And yet there is a debate going on as to whether he is a good coach.

Let’s be clear. No one is requesting that you like the man. I, like many of you, don’t particularly like Belichick. But don’t get it confused. Even ethically challenged, he’s a great coach. That has to be conceded.

Most likely there will come a time where Tomlin, like Ali, will be not only respected, but be greatly admired by those who current have ‘concerns’. But don’t count on seeing it soon, regardless of how well his teams do.






  • Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Ivan.


  • Another well written article Ivan! I did not know of Mike Tomlin at the time of our head coaching opening. I just figured the choice would be between coaches Whiz or Grimm. Finding out that MT was selected as our new head coach was initially surprising. But as I read more about him and heard him speak, it became obvious to me that he must have “Aced” his interview with the Rooneys and KC. They picked the coach who they felt gave us the best chance to add to our Lombardi Trophy collection. In the Rooneys I trust!

    Mike Tomlin is African-American but to me he could be green for all I care. Since day one, I have been impressed with his work and especially how he treats his players. Over his years of service with our team he has proven to be an outstanding coach.

    The 2015 Steelers determination and fight and how they were able to make it out of the wild card playoff game with a win (considering all the injuries sustained) provides clear evidence to the abilities that Coach Tomlin possesses. I believe we have the best head coach in the NFL and I would not trade MT for any other coach NFL or otherwise. Since he is relatively young, I hope he stays as HC with the Steelers for several more decades.


  • Thanks Hawaiian. I didn’t know anything about Tomlin at the time he was hired either. Folks were expecting that it would be either Whiz or Grimm ( I was pulling for Grimm). It fits a pattern. Nobody knew about Noll. Some were pulling for Joe Paterno. Cowher was unexpected too. The thinking then was Joe Greene.


  • Not sure what percentage of Cowherd’s comment had to do with his underlying prejudices and how much had to do with the relentless need to say or do something to fill air time and stir the pot. When you’re on a sports net, you have to constantly feed the giant maw. What will you write about? What will you talk about? And, when you do, you often tell us a lot about yourself.

    Anyway, comparing Paul Brown to Branch Rickey was spot on, even though Brown didn’t break the post-war color barrier in the NFL. The story is a bit complicated and fascinating.

    The Cleveland RAMS moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles at the end of the 1945 season, and planned to play their home games in the Los Angeles Coliseum. The black media – and others – reminded the LA Coliseum Commission that the stadium was built and supported with public funds and could not have a segregated white football team without also providing for a segregated black team (Plessy v Ferguson still be the law of the land), and suggested that UCLA All-American Kenny Washington be given a tryout. Needing a place to play, the Rams acquiesced, signed Kenny Washington and then signed Woody Strode. So the Rams – under duress – broke the NFL color barrier with Washington and Strode.

    The All-American Football Conference, a second pro league, began play in 1946, filling the void in Cleveland with a franchise owned by taxicab magnate Mickey McBride* and coached by Paul Brown. Brown willingly signed Marion Motley of Canton McKinley High School and Nevada-Reno and Bill Willis of Columbus and Ohio State. During the four years of the AAFC’s existence, the Browns won every title with a combined record of 52-4-3, and then – when the league folded – they were absorbed into the NFL, where they played in five NFL championship games in their first five years, winning three NFL titles.

    So Brown was the first coach and GM to willingly break the post-war pro football color barrier. But the Rams broke it in the NFL with Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. (BTW, I visit Woody’s grave at least once a year. He is laid to rest at Riverside National Military Cemetery in California, just a few feet from my Uncle Milt and Aunt Jeri.)

    *Yep. The rosters were limited, but Mickey McBride gave the Browns an advantage by hiring guys who had been cut to drive his cabs, so that they could stick around in Cleveland and practice with the team. That way, they’d be ready in case of injuries. And, yeah, that’s where the term “taxi squad” comes from.


    • Fascinating as always, Homer. Reading your comments is an education in itself…


    • Mind blown. How do to you know this sh!t?


      • I think maybe it’s like that Star Trek episode (from the original Star Trek, naturally) in which there was a guy who couldn’t die for some reason I can’t remember, and was Da Vinci and Brahms and I forget who else, as he would just disappear after an appropriate lifetime and emerge somewhere else as someone amazing. I think he is now Homer J. : )


      • I spent a lifetime in Cleveland from 1975-78, working for an all-news radio station. When I got there, our sports guy was the legendary Bob Neal, who covered the original Browns. By the time I left, Paul Warfield was one of our sports guys, and I got to know Art Modell. In the ’70’s, the original Browns were still icons in Cleveland, much like the Steel Curtain Steelers still are in Pittsburgh. And the stories were regularly told and retold in the Plain Dealer. The Browns were cellar dwellers during the years when I worked there (not much has changed), so there were a lot of trips down memory lane in the P-D.


    • I think its appropriate to mention that Cowherd’s comments might not driven by anything more than to create controversy. In retrospect I believe that much of what Limbaugh did then (and now) may be more about calculated entertainment. But obviously given the ongoing and unresolved issues in this country wildly dangerous and unethical. Especially because there are so many who believe these things and find encouragement in these types of forums.


  • Wow. Great article.


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