Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part Three: Mike Tomlin and NFL Head Coaching

coach T and DR

Peter Diana photo, Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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.


  • roxannafirehall

    Insightful. Tomlin’s lack of national coverage as compared with such luminaries as Rex Ryan, Jim Harbaugh, and Andy Reed is supported by your analysis. Great job, Ivan.


  • I can’t believe it took you to the last sentence before you mentioned Tomlin won with “Cowher’s” team.


  • Looking to the end of your article, I’m afraid you’re right.

    As I mentioned in one of our 5 Smoldering Questions at the out season’s off set — we hear time and time again, that “Tomlin’s only won with Cowher’s players” (never mind that he’s never had a losing season with his own), yet no one EVER asks why it is that Kevin Colbert has yet to win a Super Bowl without Tom Donahoe’s players.

    Seriously. Think about it. Take away Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, Deshea Townsend, and Aaron Smith and tell me with a straight face that the Steelers win Super Bowl XL. And take away Ward, Townsend and Smith and tell me they win Super Bowl XLIII. I dare say, you can’t.

    Those were all Tom Donahoe acquisitions.

    I’m I trying to suggest that Kevin Colbert is somehow an inferior front office exec to Donahoe? Not, the opposite is true and I don’t think its even close.

    Now, intellectual honestly compels us to control for the fact that the coach always has a much more public profile than the GM, and its far easier for fans to make comparisons.

    But even when you control for that, its still a little peculiar that no one even thinks to make this comparison, let alone assert when they argue against Colbert’s seeming incompetence.

    I know someone down here who regularly argues that, “Tomlin es solo un entrenador comun que tiene suerte de ser parte de un gran franquisio.” That’s Spanish for “Tomlin is just an average coach whose lucky enough to be part of a great franchise.” Yes, Tomlin is lucky to work for a great franchise, but an average coach does not pull his team out of a 5 game losing streak as he did in 2009 (although I admit, he must shoulder some of the responsibility for that streak).

    Nor does an average coach turn around a team that starts 0-4 and the 2-6 to a team being a botched call away from the playoffs. As Homer has observed time and time again, a 2-6 team is lucky to finish 4-12.

    But yet the perception persists.

    Lost in the sound and fury over Terry Bradshaw’s idiotic “cheerleader” comments was the second part of what he said. I’ll quote it here:

    “I think Bill was [a great coach]. Bill came in and took over a team that had been struggling. … The Steelers had some good years, really good years, and then by their standards kinda mellowed out at the end of (Chuck Noll’s) career. In comes Cowher, Cowher kind of gave them that boost to get back up and won a Super Bowl….”

    If you came down from Mars or something and read this, you’d think that when Chuck Noll moved on to his Life’s Work, Cowher came on board, and the Lombardis started rolling in again like clock work….

    …Well, Bill did rejuvenate a team that was under performing, but the Lombardi took 15 years to bring home (and I say that as a Bill Cowher defender.)

    Final point. I’ve written this on more than one occasion in parts elsewhere.

    But people tend to think that getting handed the keys to a Super Bowl team makes it easy to win one.

    Yes, it helps. But if they should also consult Phil Bengtson, Ray Handley, Richie Pettiebon, and Mike Martz whether they wear the Super Bowl rings they won on their own, or whether they keep them in a safe deposit box….

    …Oh, wait a minute, these guys all inherited a teams that were no more than one season removed from winning Super Bowls, yet never won one of their own!


  • Pingback: Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part 4: More on Mike Tomlin and Coaching in the NFL | Going Deep:

  • Pingback: Knowing What We Don’t Know, Part 5: Coaching in the Fog of War | Going Deep:

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