When the Pittsburgh Steelers hired former Minnesota Vikings Defensive Coordinator Mike Tomlin, the news immediately got the attention of not only the city of Pittsburgh, but the Steelers as well. Unfortunately, there was mixed news that day as one newspaper had the Steelers hiring then-Offensive Coordinator Russ Grimm that same night while a news report had Tomlin hired by the Steelers.
But when the ‘smoke’ and confusion ended, Steelers president Art Rooney II made it clear that it was indeed the 34-year old Tomlin who would succeed Bill Cowher as the team’s next Head Coach. And although it was clear that Tomlin partly benefited from the “Rooney Rule” (which requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate-named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney) the Rooneys themselves knew that they were getting a quality coach in Tomlin.
And then came the critics from both the fans and media about Tomlin. “Why would they hire him over Grimm-who’s been with the Steelers? What experience does he have? He’s too young.” And the one issue with Tomlin that wasn’t publicly mentioned: The color of his skin. He was the first African-American Head Coach in team history, and only the 10th African-American Head Coach in NFL history. He basically made history before he even stepped on the field.
As for his age? One thing that Steelers fans failed to remember is that the Steelers have a history of hiring young Head Coaches in their 30’s: Cowher (34 in 1992), HOF Chuck Noll (38 in 1969), John Michelosen (32 in 1948), Jim Leonard (35 in 1945), Aldo Donelli (33 in 1941), Walt Kiesling (35 in 1939), Johnny “Blood” McNally (33 in 1937) and Joe Bach (36 in 1935)
As for his experience, Tomlin had plenty as an assistant coach going back to college. On the NFL level, he was hired by former Steelers player and assistant Tony Dungy to coach his Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive backs and remained there when Jon Gruden took over in 2002. He earned a Super Bowl ring when the Buccaneers beat Gruden’s former team the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl 37. Tomlin was an assistant with Tampa Bay from 2001-05.
And in 2006, Tomlin was hired as the defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings and his defense was ranked 8th overall in total defense and #1 in run defense. He only coached there one season before getting hired by the Steelers.
As for Grimm, he still has never been a NFL head coach and he eventually ended up being hired by former Steelers offensive Coordinator Ken Wisenhunt when he was Head Coach for the Arizona Cardinals. He is currently the offensive line coach with the Tennessee Titans.
While many continued to question the Steeler hiring of Tomlin, he took over a team that was only 2 years removed from a Super Bowl championship, who had a young star at QB (Ben Roethlisberger) and the best defense in the NFL, led by its ability to stop the run and sack the quarterback.
Many expected Tomlin to (like so many coaches do) scrap what a team used to do and instill his own system, but Tomlin was not foolish. He knew the success of the Steelers defense the brainchild of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and he kept him and his 3-4 base unit there. On offense, he promoted WR coach Bruce Arians to become the next offensive coordinator with hopes of making the most of Roethlisberger’s skills and kept then-star RB Willie Parker as starter stating that he would run Parker ‘until his wheels fell off’. Tomlin knew what he had in the Steelers and knew that they didn’t need any fixing.
But on draft day, Tomlin showed what he could do when he picked former Florida St. LB Lawrence Timmons as his top pick and then drafted former Michigan LB LaMarr Woodley as pick #2. After the team released veteran LB Joey Porter, Tomlin promoted backup LB James Harrison to starter. The end result? Timmons and Woodley would make the Pro-Bowl and Harrison would not only make 5-Pro Bowls, he also was the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Roethlisberger would also start making Pro Bowls under Tomlin, as did former WR Mike Wallace, current WR Antonio Brown, C Maurkise Pouncey, G David DeCastro (with the exception of Roethlisberger)-all drafted by Tomlin.
On the field of play, Tomlin led the Steelers to a 10-6 record and his first AFC North Division title. Then a year later, he led them to a 12-4 record, another division title and a Super Bowl victory over the Arizona Cardinals, a NFL record 6th in team history. Tomlin made more history as not only the 3rd African-American HC to lead his team to the Super Bowl, he’s also only the 2nd HC to ever win the Big Game and the youngest HC (36) to win the Super Bowl. Tomlin also won the Motorola NFL Coach of the Year award for his efforts.
After starting 2009 with a 6-2 record, Tomlin’s Steelers stumbled to a 5-game winning streak, losing 3 too sub-.500 teams. And even though they won their final 3 games to finish 9-7, that Steelers team failed to make the playoffs for the first time under Tomlin. A year later, the Steelers had issues off the field as Roethlisberger was suspended for the first 4 games of the season, but Tomlin didn’t allow Big Ben’s absence to be an excuse as he led his team to a 3-1 record. When Roethlisberger returned, the Steelers finished the season with another 12-4 record, another division title and another trip to the Super Bowl-Tomlin’s 2nd in 3 years. Unfortunately, that Steelers team fell to the Green Bay Packers 31-25, giving the Steelers their 2nd Super Bowl loss in team history. At age 38, Tomlin made more history as being the youngest HC ever to make the Super Bowl twice.
After making the playoffs again in 2011 (but falling to the Denver Broncos in the Wild Card Game) Tomlin’s Steelers experienced struggle in 2011 & 2012 as his teams finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs both times. Part of the reason were injuries (especially to Roethlisberger) aging veterans and lack of talent. But in 2014, Tomlin got his Steelers back to a division title and an 11-5 record and in 2015, although they didn’t win the division, Tomlin got the Steelers to a 10-6 record, a playoff victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, and he almost got them to the AFC Championship game but fell to eventual Super Bowl Champion Denver in the Divisional Round.
Going into his 10th NFL Season as Head Coach, Tomlin has a career NFL record of 92-52 (.639) with a 6-5 playoff record and 2 Super Bowls. He is one of the few NFL Head Coaches to have never had a losing season. He’s only the 3rd Steelers Head Coach in the last 47 years (Noll and Cowher are the others)
As he prepares his team for another possible Super Bowl run in 2016 (10-1 odds, according to Vegas) Tomlin may not have had to change his team much, but he’s made it known that it’s his team. His no-nonsense approach to the game and his players are evidence of that. Tomlin’s approach also reflects the Steelers level of excellence and tradition. He’s not let success get him too high and hasn’t let adversity and struggles get him too low.
What you see is what you get with Mike Tomlin-and that has produced success. Which proves only one thing: That the Rooney’s were right after all.
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