The Pittsburgh Steelers were searching for a new coach for the 2007 season after Bill Cowher retired from coaching following the 2006 season. The job was going to fall to either Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers offensive coordinator or Russ Grimm, the offensive line coach. Dick LeBeau who was also on the staff and who had head coaching experience was never seriously considered for the position. Mike Tomlin was on a list of names that was given to Pittsburgh as a qualified minority candidate at a meeting of the NFL’s committee on workplace diversity. The chairman of that committee was Dan Rooney. The intent of the recently installed “Rooney Rule” was to give minority coaches a forum to display that they were not only qualified, but capable and viable options for NFL teams.
Tomlin, Grimm and Ron Rivera were the three finalists for the vacant position. Whisenhunt fell from the running and ultimately accepted the Arizona Cardinals job. Rivera was the Chicago Bears defensive coordinator, and his team was playing in the Super Bowl, so he would not be available until February 5th to interview, and the team did not want to wait that long. Grimm and Tomlin were the finalists who got second interviews. Grimm was competent, Tomlin was impressive to ownership. He had only been a coordinator for one season for the Minnesota Vikings. Tomlin displayed superior organizational skills, the ability to motivate and the enthusiasm that Mr. Rooney, Art Rooney II and director of football operations Kevin Colbert felt was the best fit for the team. A condition of the job for both finalists was that LeBeau would stay on as the defensive coordinator.
Tomlin has coached the Steelers for 15 years. He has two Super Bowl appearances that occurred in his first four seasons with the team. Except for a season ending injury, Ben Roethlisberger has been his quarterback for his entire tenure. 2022 will be the beginning of a new era for the Steelers and Tomlin. Tomlin has never had a losing season, and after starting 5-2 in the playoffs in his first four seasons, he is 3-7 since including 3 consecutive embarrassing first round exits for a total of an 8-9 record. One of Tomlin’s signature quotes is:
“The Standard is the Standard.”
The Standard in Pittsburgh is not first round playoff exits, but the recent turmoil that has surrounded the team with misbehaving wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster’s social media fop au’s and Antonio Brown’s behavior, coupled with Roethlisberger’s lost season has displayed that while Cowher and Chuck Noll had multiple losing seasons, Tomlin’s teams even in the worst seasons in his coaching tenure have played meaningful games in the final week of the season. Year in and year out, he has made the playoffs 10 of his 15 seasons.
Tomlin is part of the Tony Dungy branch of the Noll coaching tree. Dungy was excellent at developing future coaches like Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell, Herm Edwards and Frank Reich. Noll as we noted in Part I of our examination of the Steelers Tree did not have branches off his coaching tree until late in his career. Tomlin after 15 seasons seems to have inherited his coaching tree grandfather’s trait for not developing coaches that move on to run their own team. It is good that he inspires loyalty in his assistants, that trait has run deep in the Super Bowl era Steelers. Let’s take a look at his coaching tree:
You could make an argument that Bruce Arians would be on Tomlin’s coaching tree, but unfortunately you would be wrong. Arians is more directly linked to Cowher and Marty Schottenheimer who he coached with in Kansas City in the late 1980’s. According to Pro Football History, they credit Cowher as his primary coaching tree parent. Arians was Tomlin’s offensive coordinator, but it wasn’t his first coordinator position and he had been on the Steelers staff since 2004 as a wide receivers coach. Arians has been a successful head coach for the Arizona Cardinals and won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay becoming the oldest coach to do so, but Tomlin can’t lay claim to him on his coaching tree.
Tomlin’s career looks to have many years ahead of him and it is possible that with Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett, that 50-year-old Matt Canada could prove to be wildly successful and move on to an NFL head coaching opportunity to become Tomlin’s first branch. Teryl Austin at 57, has been with the Steelers for three seasons and has worked his way up to the defensive coordinator, and if he restores the defense to elite status, it is possible that he could get a head coaching opportunity. David Corley who played quarterback for William and Mary in college and was hired as the assistant quarterbacks coach by the Steelers this season as part of a new diversity program, may be Tomlin’s best opportunity to start growing a coaching tree. Corley has a great opportunity to show under Mike Sullivan that he is a quarterback whisperer. That trait has turned a lot of men into head coaches.
Noll and Tomlin who are linked by Dungy have both had phenomenal success as head coaches in pro football and are obsessed with milking the most from their teams. The focus is squarely on the field and developing players. They are singular minded focused men and have a lot of traits in common.
Noll built the best team of the Super Bowl era and was a brilliant X’s and O’s coach. Noll was heavily involved in offensive and defensive game plans and often he outcoached his opponents which was lost with all the Hall of Fame talent he coached. His coordinators were loyal, and it was not until late in his career when he was losing his fastball that assistants rather than Noll got the credit for superior game plans.
Cowher, who fell in between was a great developer of coaching talent and had significant influence on the toughness of his teams. Cowher also loved trick plays and did not mind gambling with reverses and wide receiver passes. In the biggest game of his career, Super Bowl XL, he resorted to trickery to ice the game against the Seattle Seahawks. Most of Cowher’s coaching tree won at least one NFL Coach of the Year award and a member of his coaching tree got his first head coaching opportunity 15 years after he retired.
Tomlin is the best leader of men in the 21st century thus far. He is not a tactician and lets his coordinators shine. No coach is better at the podium than Tomlin. Players, broadcasters and the Steelers front office love him. It is curious that with the freedom he gives to his coordinators, that none have found their way to another job. In fairness, LeBeau seemed perfectly content to remain a coordinator and he was great at it, and Keith Butler maximized his coaching talent by reaching defensive coordinator.
The Steelers are a great organization to work for and the mixed success of the coaching trees may be attributed to the culture being so special they just don’t want to leave. Those who took the Steelers lessons to new organizations met with mixed results because the Rooney family didn’t run those teams and knowing ownership, the front office, coaches and players are clearly on board with the same mission just doesn’t exist in other parts of the NFL. I am not saying other organizations don’t have good qualities, but there is a reason that year in and year out, the Steelers are the class of the NFL. If the price of being competitive is stunted growth on the coaching tree that shares the Steelers culture with the rest of the NFL, my attitude is “sorry, not sorry.”
What do you think, Steeler Nation? How do you feel about the Steelers coaching trees? Please comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.