Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part Three: Mike Tomlin and NFL Head Coaching
By Ivan Cole
Part 1 of the series can be found here; Part 2 here.
The revolutionary hiring of Mike Tomlin
One need not be a moral troglodyte or harbor malicious intent to experience a moment of pause when considering whether to make a groundbreaking hire. While it is too often true that the assertion of nonacceptance by others serves as an alibi for one’s own bigotry or lack of moral courage, that does not mean that opposition and resistance is nonexistent.
This brings us back to incrementalism and nonlinearity.
Good intentions badly handled can do more harm than good. This is why Jackie Robinson was so heavily vetted before he was selected to break the color line in major league baseball.
The pressures of the Great Depression and a determined champion in the person of George Preston Marshall resulted in blacks being expelled from the NFL, with ramifications that are felt on some levels to this very day. It demonstrated that:
- Progress is not inevitable
- Progress is not irreversible
- Inertia is neither the sole nor the most daunting barrier to progress.
There is active resistance to creating a fairer world. How explicit and aggressive the resistance is depends upon the tenor of the times. As a result, change can often be conservative and, relatively speaking, glacial. There is pressure for a hire of this nature to be impeccable.
Combine this with the fact that you probably would have to go outside of network to find a candidate, and human nature dictates you would probably do one of the following: Overcompensate on hiring qualifications, or Punt.
You could be forgiven if, when people of color began entering the major sports in numbers, you came to believe that superstar performance from this group was the norm. The truth was that being merely above average may have been disqualifying to those resentful of their presence on any level.
So, I am not being flip when I say that what was precedent setting about the Tomlin hire is how ordinary it was.
Tomlin was consistent with the other head coaching hires under Dan Rooney. Talented, young defensive assistant with little to no recognition or reputation outside of the rarified league insider environment, is hired over more popular rivals (Joe Paterno, Greene, Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm).
The initial reaction was consistent in kind: ‘Who is this guy?’, with an implied question about his competence. But with Tomlin there would be a difference in degree – something that should have been not at all surprising to those who understood the environment.
Never mind that this and the previous decisions have been validated by the fact that only one of the four rivals ever held any other head coaching job in the league, by the longevity of the winner’s tenures, and, by the way, those eight Super Bowl appearances and six Lombardi Trophies sitting in the team lobby.
Affirmative action in its most pejorative iteration, was bandied about. “Of course,” you might hear, “what would you expect from the guy who brought the participation rule to league hiring processes, and who was giving fawning support to Barack Obama?” And make no mistake about it, this is as much of an attack on the Rooney family and the Steelers organization as it is on Tomlin.
More than any other franchise, the hiring of the head coach, literally a generational decision for Pittsburgh, is arguably the most important and impactful business move the Steelers make. What is implied, but not generally expressed specifically, is that the most weighty decision they make was an ideologically inspired stunt. A mistake deepened by an organizational cover up that keeps this mediocrity propped up.
Who would knowingly signup for this nonsense?
For the Rooneys to decide otherwise would have been a violation of their core integrity. That and the capital they have accumulated by operating according to their principles, and, the most important aspect of all, the unassailable argument of their competitive success.
It only took Tomlin two seasons to validate his hiring. After his victory as the youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl, the personnel mantra across the league was to get the next Mike Tomlin. Today, young, up and coming minority coaches can realistically aspire to head coaching jobs around the league without the burden of requiring years to make themselves over-qualified. Mission accomplished.
As he enters his second decade as a head coach, still only in his mid-forties and yet to have a losing season, has Tomlin, considering all of his accomplishments, done enough to mostly silence his critics? Could winning another Lombardi and doing it soon be the deciding factor? I wouldn’t hold my breath. The witting and unwitting devotees of the Shadow Confederacy can’t or won’t make that concession. And the sports media, like its corporate news cousins, are unlikely to resist taking the low road of sowing conflict and acrimony to make its dollars.
Consider this. When pressed on the subject, a Steelers fan acknowledged that if Tomlin won more Super Bowls than Bill Cowher it would have to be conceded that Tomlin was at least the equal, if not the better coach. So, great. Win one more time and the matter is settled, right? Well, not exactly, given that the first Super Bowl win was accomplished with Cowher’s team, so it doesn’t count.
Coming next: None of the preceding answers the questions of what criteria is valid for discerning coaching competence or greatness. I will attempt to dig deeper.