Pittsburgh Steelers HC Mike Tomlin Is Elite: It’s Been Proven

When people are seeing something remarkable for the first time, something they aren’t familiar with, they have a tendency to discredit it. And miss the greatness in motion that they are witnessing.

Mike Tomlin’s career has faced this challenge. His greatness has been shortchanged by short memories and short-sided narratives.

Face Of The Rooney Rule

Tomlin was a young, Black coach who basically came out of nowhere and became a beneficiary of the Rooney Rule instituted in 2003 to improve the visibility of potential minority head coaching hires. The rule got him in the door, but the legendary story is that Tomlin crushed his interview, knocked the socks off of Steelers’ brass and went on to become the youngest Super Bowl coach in history, leading the Steelers to the top of the mountain in his second season at the age of 36.

Tomlin was considered an aberration before he won the title. He’s still considered an anamoly because after setting such a high standard for himself, he’s been chasing the SB dream for the last 12 seasons and a spoiled Steelers Nation have contemplated and expressed a desire for other HC options more than a few times. Totally discounting Tomlin’s consistency and leadership in the face of adversity.

Remember when Terry Bradshaw totally dumped all over Tomlin’s coaching skills?

“He’s really a great cheerleader guy, I don’t know what he does, but I don’t think that he’s a great coach at all. His name never pops into my mind when we think about great coaches in the NFL.” said Bradshaw.


Then in 2018, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, “some of the team’s limited partners intended to lobby owner Art Rooney to fire Tomlin and to hire a new coach.”

Good thing Rooney didn’t listen to those guys.

Building A Legendary Hall of Fame Career

As the longest-tenured head coach in the game behind Bill Belichick, Tomlin’s become the rock of Gibraltar when it comes to the Steelers organization. He hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl since 2008 but he’s been in the middle of a lot of incredible football moments and has led the Steelers to the playoffs six of those years.

He’s never had a losing season…NEVER! In fact, last year he was 8-8 which ties for the worst record of his career. To show you how numbers can be deceiving, the 2019 season was probably the best coaching performance of Tomlin’s career. It’ all about perception. If you choose to focus on Tomlin’s shortcomings then you will miss the elevation of his journey as a coach. At the tender age of 48, he’s already been through the highest of highs and the agony of the lowest defeats.

His 7-0 start entering this Sunday’s game against a lifeless Dallas Cowboys team, proves that he’s learning how to master the game. As only the third coach in Steelers’ history since 1969, he has produced a coaching stat line many others wished they had – a career coaching record of 140-74-1 (.653)

Tomlin, who sharpened his coaching teeth as a defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings beore taking over in Pittsburgh, has captured 8 playoff appearances, six AFC North titles, two AFC Championships and led the team to two Super Bowl appearances, winning it all in Super Bowl XLIII.

He’s also the third of four African American head coaches to lead a team to the Super Bowl along with Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith and Jim Caldwell. 

He’s the first head coach in NFL history to finish with a .500 or better record in his first 13 seasons with one team. In case you’re wondering, Bill Belichick went 5-11 in his first season as head coach of the Patriots.

Talent Evaluation Is A Must

But let’s go a step past his coaching resume and look at his personnel, especially those who came through the draft. His ability to pick in the first round is pretty good, with Pro Bowl names like Maurkice Pouncey (#18 in 2010), Cameron Heyward (#31 in 2011), David DeCastro (#24 in 2012), Ryan Shazier (#15 in 2014) and TJ Watt (#30 in 2017). They continue to find hidden games. Their top two receivers (Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith Schuster) are both late second-round picks.

More impressive is Tomlin’s ability to work with his staff to find the stars in lower rounds, with All-World former star players such as Antonio Brown (6th round in 2010) and Le’Veon Bell (2nd round in 2013) becoming the faces of the franchise until everything imploded.

Let’s not forget, Tomlin found them and got max performance from them for as long as the business relationship lasted. He gave them the opportunity to showcase their talents, with both players eating plenty. That’s coaching.

Despite coaching in the shadows of legends, Tomlin continues to produce at the same rate or better than his predecessors and he’s doing it in a much more advanced NFL.

Consider this. According to Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News, “Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls from 1974 through 1979. Then he missed the playoffs eight times in the next dozen years. Bill Cowher coached the Steelers to six consecutive playoff appearances, including one Super Bowl trip, after taking over the team in 1992. Then he went 7-9, 6-10 and 9-7, all three teams missing the playoffs. No one got fired.”

Leave No Doubt About The Skills

2019 will forever be considered the season that people stopped talking sh*t about Tomlin. He didn’t have Big Ben, the chaos off the field was real. The media was hawking and early in the season, the losses were piling up. Tomlin kept the team as focused as possible and the Steelers made an inspirational playoff run in a season that was supposed to be a throwaway. Tomlin re-asserted himself as a difference-maker at the head coaching position, not just the beneficiary of a talented team and shrewd front office.

We have seen the stability and success that Belichick and Pete Carroll have brought to their respective franchises. Tomlin is no different. He’s on the level.

Despite his tremendous success as an NFL coach and the accolades, longevity and leadership that clearly proves he’s among the elite coaches of our time, he’s been doubted time and again. His coaching acumen criticized, his clock management berated. He’s been blamed for more than his share of tough losses, which is actually a badge of courage and endurance that every great coach wears.

When Tomlin was dealing with an avalanche of injuries and Brown and Bell were wilding and basically trying to smear-campaign their way out of the organization, fans and some media blamed Tomlin for losing control of the locker room.

Anything bizarre or insubordinate that Brown or Bell personally chose to do and how it inevitably eroded the chemistry of the team was supposedly Tomlin’s fault. In reality, he held that locker room together through the direst circumstances, proving once again that he is the man for the job.

March 27, 2019

When asked about the situations involving Bell and Brown, Tomlin touched on relationships and the need for players who want to be in Pittsburgh for the right reasons.

“Relationships run their course, and the fact that neither one of them are here speaks to that.

“We can’t do this with hostages, man. We need volunteers,” continued the Steelers’ coach. “We need good players, good guys who want to be here and if guys can’t check those boxes, it’s probably best for all parties involved to go our separate ways.”

And go their separate ways they did.

Demons Exorcized, Super Bowl Bound

But now the locker room malcontents are gone and Big Ben is back. The team is healthy and Tomlin is coaching as effectively as he ever has. After Sunday’s comeback win against the Ravens, the Steelers are 7-0 for the first time since 1978 and the talk of the NFL for those who aren’t singing the praises of Patrick Mahomes.

With the win, he moved past the great Tony Dungy for most NFL wins by a Black head coach. Being that white head coaches had a 30-40 year start on Black coaches, the accomplishment is with noting.

When we talk about the elite coaches of our game, how can we ignore a Super Bowl champion HC having a career season in his 14th season with the same franchise? A Black coach, who also isn’t afraid to speak honestly about the sad state of NFL coaching hires for Black candidates.

That’s why he supports the proposed Rooney Rule changes, incentivizing minority hires for teams.

The Super Bowl-winning coach told John Calipari on an  April episode of the “Coffee with Cal” Facebook series that the NFL should incentivize minority hiring, because as he put it,…” we’re acknowledging right now that the system is broken”

What makes the Steelers an elite organization is a strong, consistent culture and stability at the top. We saw Tomlin stepping up his game to another level last season and it continued into this season, where he’s looking to have one last run at the title before Big Ben retires.

JR Gamble joined The Shadow League in 2012. The General Manager of Content & Social Media is in his 25th year of covering sports and culture professionally. He has covered a wide variety of major sports and entertainment topics across different mediums, including radio, newspapers, magazines and national TV. His passion is baseball, the culturing of baseball and preserving and documenting the historically-impactful accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans in baseball.