Another Once In a Generation Leader

Jonathan CyprowskiCorrespondent IMay 25, 2009

PITTSBURGH - MAY 01:  Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches practice alongside defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau during rookie training camp at the Pittsburgh Steelers Practice Facility on May 1, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

In 38 years, only two kings had ruled Steelers Nation. Two men that outlasted seven U.S. Presidents and won more victories on their field of battle than the armed forces those presidents commanded.

It has been said; a great ruler comes around once every generation. A man with the wisdom and confidence to lead those who follow him to a new level of greatness, and the humility to learn from those he leads.

The first generation brought about Chuck Noll. In 23 years Noll developed a legacy that included four Super Bowl championships and 10 Hall of Fame players. The 4-3 defensive scheme he brought with him from the Baltimore Colts eventually became the vaunted “steel curtain” that produced six of those Hall of Famers.

All great things must come to an end, and the retirement of Noll brought on the Bill Cowher era in Steelers Nation. Cowher went 161-99-1 as the Steelers Head Coach, earning eight division titles, 10 playoff berths and two Super Bowl appearances in his 15-year tenure in Pittsburgh.

After leading the Steelers to their fifth Lombardy Trophy in Super Bowl XL, Cowher all but paved a black and gold road to Canton in order to join his predecessor in the Hall of Fame.

So when Cowher resigned one season after leading Steelers Nation to the Promised Land, the Steelers had to begin searching for his successor.

The Pittsburgh Steelers found their young heir to the throne in Mike Tomlin. From the time the 34-year-old coach took the helm, he showed the maturity and wisdom of a young man that was poised for success.

The little known Tomlin never played professional football, but his drive and determination gave him the ability to rise through the ranks of coaching with little delay. After having great success as a Defensive-backs Coach in the collegiate ranks, Tomlin was given his first chance in the NFL by a coach that learned the art of playing and coaching under the watchful eye of Chuck Noll himself, Tony Dungy.

At age 33, Tomlin took over the defense in Minnesota. As the Defensive Coordinator for the Vikings, Tomlin once again overcame inexperience and age to have the eighth best defense in the NFL.

During the next off –season Tomlin began interviewing for Head Coaching jobs. With age and inexperience against him, many attributed the interest to the Rooney Rule. As one of the few minority coaches in a position to interview for the highest coaching positions in professional football, Tomlin took the opportunity to prove to the Rooney family that another once in a generation leader had arrived.

Since signing on as the Head Coach in Pittsburgh, Tomlin has proven to have wisdom beyond his years. His ability to deal with his players, the media and his coaching responsibilities has been something close to a text book example of psychology, sociology and flat out tenacity in action.

When the sure fire growing pains of being a young coach arose during his first season, the young Tomlin proved it was no accident that the Rooneys chose him over two men that had become staples within the organization.

Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm had earned the favor of the players and the city as they helped lead the team to a Super Bowl victory. So it came as no surprise when the team was less than enchanted with their new leader.

Despite a few questionable decisions in late game situations, Tomlin went on to win over his team and the city as he led the Steelers to a 10-6 record and a division title in his first year on the job.

Decisions are what brought the current coaching staff to Pittsburgh, and because of Tomlin’s coaching philosophy, the Steelers’ success will be determined by the decisions of those coaches.

Detail oriented but never accused of being a micro-manager, Tomlin’s coordinators are in charge of their own play calling. Some decision makers are better than others, but no one can argue with the results so far.    

Before the ink dried on the Tomlin’s contract he had already asked Defensive Coordinator Dick Lebeau to stay on in his current position. The decision may very well be the best call Tomlin makes in his career.

Lebeau brings over 35 years experience to the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching staff. His storied career began as a player, where he finished seventh all-time in interceptions (62) and still holds the record for the most consecutive games ever played by a Cornerback (171).

The architect of the 3-4 “zone blitz” Lebeau is considered a football genius by most of those who know football best. Under his direction the Steelers had the number one defense in the NFL last season. Including the number one passing defense and the number two rush defense on the season.

Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians may be the decision maker on Tomlin’s coaching staff that may be the hardest to figure out.

Arians started out as the Quarterback Coach in Indianapolis. He developed Peyton Manning into a certified star before leaving to become the Offensive Coordinator for the Cleveland Browns.

Arians had marginal success with the Browns. He led the Browns to their highest point total since 1987 during the 2002 season, but his run ended one season later.

Since coming to Pittsburgh as the Wide Receivers Coach, Arians has reiterated his reputation as a teacher of the game. Not only has he helped Hines Ward become statistically the best Wide Receiver in Pittsburgh history, he has continued to bring the best out of young players at the position. 

Arians has not given fans in Pittsburgh the same confidence in his play calling that he did in his ability to mentor young players.

Going from a “smash mouth”, run first and pass when the dust settles philosophy, to a pass to set up the run offense has been a tough transition for the Steelers and their fans. The transition has been bumpy, as the use of Fullbacks as bruising lead blockers has given way to single back formations featuring three Tight Ends. 

His play calling has been deliberate and predictable to say the least, especially in goal-line situations. Lack of production and struggles in the red-zone had led many to believe that 2008 would be the last year for Arians as the Offensive Coordinator. However, the Super Bowl win alongside the top defense in the league insured one more year for Arians to get the Offense clicking.

This will be a make or break year for Arians, as he will be under tremendous scrutiny as the Steelers look to make another title run in 2009.

No matter what variables seem to be facing the Pittsburgh Steelers this season, the one constant fans can expect is Mike Tomlin. The even-tempered poise and focus that Tomlin learned from Tony Dungy found it’s roots in Pittsburgh, and I think it’s safe to say that Tomlin has set down roots in Pittsburgh for the next 20 years.


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