Entering his third season as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin has become more popular than his predecessor, Bill Cowher.
This isn’t just because Cowher has upset Pittsburgh sports fans recently by adopting the Carolina Hurricanes as his favorite hockey team.
It is primarily because Tomlin’s Steelers won the Super Bowl in his second season at the helm whereas Cowher’s didn’t win it until his 14th, and since the last edition of Cowher’s Steelers went 8-8 it prevented any “Tomlin has only won with Cowher’s players” tags from taking hold.
But this popularity also stems from the way Tomlin has presented himself. He’s shown he can be in control without having to lose his demeanor. His fit is firm, but comfortable.
Remember Bill DiFabio’s appearance as Santa Claus last December at a press conference? That used to be an annual event with DiFabio and Cowher in the early 90s, but as time went on and the relationship between Cowher and the local media soured the event was cancelled.
Maybe this year’s visit from Santa bombed, but it still spoke volumes on how the media had developed a better relationship with Tomlin than Cowher had experienced during his final years.
But Tomlin was hardly replacing a poor coach. The very opposite was true, and Tomlin was wise enough to keep much of the assistant coaching staff he inherited from Cowher; defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, then- defensive line coach John Mitchell, then-wide receivers coach Bruce Arians, linebackers coach Keith Butler, tight ends coach James Daniel, and quality control coach, defense Lou Spanos.
Considering the resumes they possessed- why would he seek to rid themselves of this staff?
A lesser coach might have greased the skids for LeBeau, a 70-something proponent of the 3-4. Tomlin’s teams in Minnesota played a 4-3.
Instead, LeBeau was allowed to have hands-on control of the defense. The result wasn’t just a Super Bowl title and No. 1 defensive ranking last season. Fans lined along the Boulevard of the Allies during the Super Bowl victory parade on Feb. 3 gave LeBeau, neither an ex-Steelers player nor a Pittsburgh native, the loudest cheers of the event.
Furthermore, one gets the feeling that Tomlin coming from outside of the Steelers mix allowed the team to be open to more new ideas.
Ken Anderson as quarterbacks coach? Years ago it would have seemed as unlikely as Pete Franklin becoming the Steelers’ play-by-play announcer.
But upon further review, why not? Anderson’s play that beat the Steelers a generation ago featured high percentage passing and lots of scrambling, which goes hand-in-hand with modern offenses. Who better to teach today’s quarterbacks how to do it than one of the architects?
Linebackers coach Keith Butler is another interesting aside. Back in 1996 both Butler and Tomlin were assistants at the University of Memphis under Rip Scherer Jr., a Pittsburgh native as well as a cousin of Steelers Vice President of Football Operations Kevin Colbert.
During this season, the Tigers upset No. 6 Tennessee, 21-17; Memphis’ only victory in history against the Volunteers. Memphis did it by intercepting Peyton Manning twice and enjoying a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Kevin Cobb.
Tomlin was the defensive backs coach on that team. Butler coached the special teams.
Special teams is where another of Tomlin’s best hires was made in McKees Rocks native Bob Ligashesky.
Ligashesky is personable; the rah-rah personality George Allen envisioned when he created the position of special teams coordinator.
I came to respect Ligashesky when he was the special teams and tight ends coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Not only did his tenure produce some great players, such as San Francisco punter Andy Lee and current San Diego tight end/full back Kris Wilson, but he always praised his players and kept himself in the background when giving quotes.
His critics point out Ligashesky has an assistant, Amos Jones, an able coach who once played running back for Bear Bryant. But the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants, among other teams, also have assistants for their special teams coordinators. This is not valid criticism.
For all the knocks the special teams units took last season, Mitch Berger’s 41.3 yard punting average wasn’t that far off from Daniel Sepulveda’s 42.4 in 2007. When long snapper Greg Warren was lost in midseason to a knee injury, Jared Retkofsky was found.
The fans’ whipping boy among the coaches is, unquestionably, Arians, as the website www.firebrucearians.com indicates.
Even Bleacher Report’s Eddie Rossell bashed Arians last year- http://bleacherreport.com/articles/94171-boot-bruce-arians-and-the-pittsburgh-steelers-will-be-unstoppable.
The thing is, the Steelers WERE unstoppable last year with Arians. Calling for more trick plays is sooooooo Sam Wyche.
While the Steelers’ lack of success on fourth down last season, let alone their 22nd ranking among NFL offenses, doesn’t help Arians’ cause, I am intrigued by the fact he was the head coach at Temple during the mid-80s.
During Arians’ tenure the Owls were competitive, something they have not been since. They beat Pitt three times during his six years there (including a Panthers squad ranked No. 16 in 1987) and even produced a viable Heisman Trophy contender, running back Paul Palmer.
Frankly, I’m entitled to believe if Arians can coach Temple to a winning season back when he has something going for him.
Yet somehow the criticism placed upon Arians did not transfer back to Tomlin, who ultimately approves Arians’ play calls.
Meanwhile, in light of the recent spat of local criticism on Cowher for “Sirengate,” nobody in Pittsburgh seems to remember Cowher’s passion in criticizing LenDale White and Keith Bulluck for stomping on the Terrible Towel last December. Screaming at Myron Cope for his line of questioning on the Steelers’ radio pre-game show will tend to attract critics, not sympathizers.
To date, the only real criticism Tomlin has faced stems from often giving national media scoops instead of the local scribes. While that could come back to harm him in the future, it seems unlikely for a guy who has seemingly always said and done the right thing during his two year tenure in Pittsburgh.