It's been a groundbreaking week in Pittsburgh. Remember the date—January 22nd—as it will no doubt be drilled into the head of every grade schooler in the Three Rivers area for years to come: On this day in 2007, the beloved hometown Steelers made team history by hiring their first ever African-American head coach, Mike Tomlin.
To call this a monumental moment for Pittsburgh alone would be shortsighted. Tomlin's hiring shatters old standards insofar as he's the first African-American head coach in Western Pennsylvanian history, the first black man to lead a team with five Super Bowl victories, and the first black coach to ever succeed (in Bill Cowher) a near-certain Hall-of-Famer.
"It's a truly exciting moment for Pittsburgh Steeler fans," explained Reggie Johnson, a curbside baggage checker at Pittsburgh International Airport. "But you can't forget those coaches who came before him, the ones who made it all possible. He's following the winning path charted by Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy so many hours ago."
Indeed, the big story of the weekend was the advancement of two African-American coaches into the Super Bowl—for the first and second times in NFL history. While Tomlin is clearly not the first black coach to grace the field or enjoy success on the gridiron, he does have the exciting distinction of being the first black coach ever to lead a team that wears black uniforms.
"As far as I know, the Atlanta Falcons have never had an African-American coach," explained noted racial scholar Dick Vitale during an NCAA basketball broadcast on Tuesday night.
The notion of Pittsburgh playing host to a black coach may have seemed impossible in years past. Compared to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's largest city, Pittsburgh is home to relatively few men and women of African descent. This has caused many sociologists to label the town as racist.
"Sure, the Steelers had some memorable years, but it's hard to celebrate when the glory has belonged to one white coach after another," explained Huntington J. Stallworth III, a Pittsburgh native and Black Studies graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. "I'm referencing Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll, of course," he added, while noting that "neither of those men can claim to be even a little bit black."
Sports analysts have pointed out that the Steelers did at least employ black athletes over the years. Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann, for example, has long been an ally of black leaders like Jesse Jackson, and is a hero to many in the local black community. Still, Tomlin's presence sends the Steelers in a new historical direction, and adds Pittsburgh to a growing number of black-coached cities.
What's clear in the wake of the Tomlin hiring is that cities which demonstrate a pattern of white coach hiring (WCH) may have some reflecting to do. Iconic locations like New York and San Francisco may enjoy worldwide renown, strong economies, and high real estate values—but continued WCH could ultimately knock them from the circle of elite municipalities.
"The 49ers won't get their new stadium so long as they've got a white coach, nor will the city invite the world to the 2016 Olympics," sniffed one disgruntled San Francisco fan. "Ted Nolan (sic) led our team to a humble 7-9 record, while Lovie Smith took his team to the Super Bowl. Our city withdrew its Olympic bid, while Chicago is the frontrunner."
If nothing else, it's safe to say that Tomlin's hiring has sent shockwaves through the sports community while vaulting Pittsburgh into headlines all over the nation. And perhaps, now, it's only a matter of months before The Steel City joins the ranks of America's great urban centers.
After the class the Steelers demonstrated on Monday, the 'Burgh certainly deserves it.