Mike Tomlin: Is He the Best African-American NFL Head Coach Ever?

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Mike Tomlin: Is He the Best African-American NFL Head Coach Ever?
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January 23, 2011: Mike Tomlin watches his team at Heinz Field. Super Bowl victory number two is within reach.

What were you doing when you were 39-years-old? How will you be living when you reach that age—if you’re so blessed to reach it? 

Those are rhetorical questions, but the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach is living well.  Well enough to go double-dipping in the Super Bowl well of NFL life.

He won’t turn 39 until March, yet he has the chance to make NFL history twice in a single fell swoop. 

Mike Tomlin could become the first head coach to win two Super Bowls before turning 40-years-old.  He’s already the youngest to take his team to the big game in two-out-of-three seasons.

From Newport News, Virginia—a place called “Bad News” by some—he brings a ton of good news and a positive image as a face of that community.  Tomlin was an all-state wide receiver in high school, who could have reportedly attended Harvard University.

He played for the College of William and Mary with New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper, who played in this year's playoffs.  Although Tomlin never played in the NFL, he’s been coaching in it since 2001. 

He started as the defensive backs coach for Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay.  And from 2002-5, he performed the same job for Jon Gruden. 

For one season (2006), he was the defensive coordinator under Brad Childress with the Minnesota Vikings. Under Tomlin, the Vikings ended the season ranked No. 8 in the NFL.  They were No. 1 against the run, but No. 32 against the pass.

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After Bill Cowher resigned, Tomlin was hired by the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers.  In succeeding Cowher, he became the 16th head coach in Pittsburgh’s history. 

It has been hypothesized that Tomlin was hired in Pittsburgh due to the Rooney Rule. 

An Associated Press article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published on September 22, 2007 argued that Tomlin was proof the “NFL’s Rooney Rule is working as intended.”  The rule stipulates that for all head coaching openings, each team must interview at least one minority candidate.

"Let me say this: Mike Tomlin was not part of the Rooney Rule,” Dan Rooney said.  “We had already interviewed Ron Rivera, and so that fulfilled the obligation.” Dan Rooney was the chairman of the NFL Committee on Workplace Diversity and made the suggestion for the rule in 2002. 

Rivera is the head coach of the Carolina Panthers. 

“We went on, had heard about Mike, called him in and talked to him.  He was very impressive,” Rooney added—disproving the hypothesis.

Other candidates were Ken Whisenhunt (Arizona’s head coach), Russ Grimm and Chan Gailey (Buffalo’s head coach).  He was hired on the very same day Lovie Smith of the Bears and Tony Dungy of the Colts reached the Super Bowl.

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They became the first two ebony head coaches to do so. Tomlin had also interviewed for the Miami Dolphins head coaching position, but Cam Cameron got that job.  

The Steelers went 10-6 and won the AFC North title in Tomlin’s first season.  After two seasons, he was the most winning coach in Steelers history—in terms of winning percentage (68.6). 

He was named the 2008 Motorola NFL Coach of the Year. 

In the NFL’s modern era, he follows Art Shell, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Tony Dungy, Terry Robiskie, Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith and Romeo Crennel.  Jim Caldwell, Leslie Frazier, Raheem Morris, Mike Singletary and Hue Jackson were hired after him. 

Last season, six out of the 32 NFL head coaches were African-Americans.

The great Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard was the first African-American co-head coach in the NFL. 

That was in 1921 with the Hammond, Ind., Pros.  He was removed from the NFL following the 1926 season—along with the other nine African-Americans in the NFL then.

As big a box office attraction as Jim Thorpe and Red Grange in the 1920s, he promoted “interracial football.”  In 1928, he organized and coached the Chicago Black Hawks, and all-African-American barnstorming team.  He did the same thing for the Harlem Brown Bombers in 1936. 

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His list of firsts is impressive—like Tomlin's.

He was the first Pittsburgh Steelers head coach to win division titles in his first two seasons. 

Setting records for most wins as a new Steelers head coach, Tomlin won 22 games in his first two seasons as well.  He started with a 15-7 record in regular season games. 

Super Bowl winners Bill Cowher and Don Shula—the NFL's all-time wins leader—posted the same records.

The Rooney family has an outstanding (6-1) record in Super Bowls.  They have one more win than the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. 

The Cowboys haven’t been to the Super Bowl since 1995 and San Francisco since 1994. 

The 49ers, however, own the best winning percentage in Super Bowls (5-0).   The Cowboys are (5-3).  Tomlin is (5-1) in playoff games as a head coach. 

It took 41 years of Super Bowls for an African-American head coach to make it to one.  They got a late start.  Tomlin won Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 and became the youngest NFL coach to do it. 

He beat the record set by a coach he once worked for—Gruden, who'll watch him attempt to win a second one.  Tomlin’s team defeated Whisenhunt’s team in the second ever Super Bowl played on their former home field—Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

Only one other African-American head coach has won a Super Bowl—Dungy.  

He was just 25-years-old when he became the NFL's youngest assistant, taking a job on Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh staff.  Three years later, he was the defensive coordinator.   He got interviews but somebody else always got the job—until 12 years later.

Thanks in large part to Dungy, since 2007, the five Super Bowls played have had five African-American head coaches.  Tomlin is already in the conversation, but after the game next Sunday, he could be considered the best African-American head coach in NFL history. 

If he wins, then he gets my vote for greatest African-American NFL head coach ever. 

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