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Steelers’ coach choice not about race, or was it?

January 23, 2007

The Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League hired Mike Tomlin, their third head coach since 1969. In the world of coaching carousels, where you’re only as good as last season’s record, this is a momentous occasion for the Steeler Nation.

Mike TomlinI’ve only known two Steelers’ coaches in my lifetime — the salt-and-pepper haired guru Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowl titles in the late 70’s, and the broad-chinned Bill Cowher, who won a Super Bowl with the Steelers in 2006.

Now, I know a third. And pssst … he’s BLACK!

“Why does this matter?,” you might ask?

I don’t know. If you base it on the headlines at news sites around the Web, you’ll see that seems to be the new coach’s primary qualification.

How about we focus on the fact that we passed up on two Super-Bowl-winning assistant coaches (Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt) to install Tomlin as the youngest head coach in NFL history, instead of gawking at his skin tone?

Ron Cook of the Pittsbugh Post-Gazette nails the issue which is worrying me as a Steeler fan:

But what if Tomlin isn’t necessarily the best choice? What if he got the job because Steelers owner Dan Rooney cares just a little more about his NFL legacy than about his franchise? What if Tomlin got the job, at least in part, because of the Rooney Rule?

Would that be disturbing?

If Tomlin is successful, those questions won’t be asked again. No one will care about the reasons behind his hiring as long as he wins. But if Tomlin isn’t successful? The questions won’t go away, at least not until the Steelers hire the next coach after him. …

If you’re not familiar with the “Rooney Rule,” it’s the NFL’s rule on head-coach hiring that each team must interview one minority candidate from a list the NFL office keeps.

The rule was created by Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney in 2002, and it would look silly if Rooney didn’t give a minority candidate a good look when he went to hire his own franchise’s coach.

So good of a look, in fact, that he hired the minority coach, Tomlin.

Cook goes on noting this point:

It’s hard to believe the Rooney Rule didn’t have some impact on their decision.

It’s nice to think we’re long past race mattering in sports, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we believe that. We saw as recently as Sunday that race still very much is an issue when everyone — including the two men involved — made a big deal of Dungy’s Colts and Lovie Smith’s Bears winning the conference championship games, putting the first African-American coaches in the Super Bowl and assuring one will win Feb. 4 in Miami.

Race also still has to matter to Dan Rooney, even if he won’t admit it. He’s chairman of the NFL’s committee on workplace diversity and, in 2002, pushed for the rule that mandates NFL teams to interview a minority when it has a head coaching vacancy.

Tomlin acknowledged the Rooney Rule probably opened the Steelers’ door to him but downplayed that it had any part in his hiring once the candidates started competing for the job. “Men like the Rooneys want to win.”

Rooney, for his part, said race had no impact in the Tomlin hiring.

It would have been shocking if he said otherwise.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t at least some pressure on Rooney through this coaching search. The rule is named after him. Two of the NFL’s seven black coaches last season — Arizona’s Dennis Green and Oakland’s Art Shell — were fired. Three of the teams that had openings this month, Atlanta, Arizona and Miami, filled them with white coaches. None of it looks good for a league that has a majority of black players.

Rooney knows that.

It’s understandable if Rooney has reached the point in his life where he really cares about his impact on the NFL. He’s already a giant in the game, a Hall of Famer. The hiring of Tomlin will only enhance his brilliant reputation at league headquarters.

Tomlin leaves the press conference (post-gazette)I hope and pray this isn’t the case: I hope that the Steelers’ new head coach was not a hire for diversity’s sake, just to break the ceiling for minorities on the NFL’s most-storied franchise.

The fact is, we’ll never know the true reason why Rooney chose Tomlin.

  • Maybe Russ Grimm, the team’s former assistant head coach, wanted too much money.
  • Maybe Tomlin came in for his interview and just blew the Rooney family away with his presence and knowledge.
  • Maybe the Rooneys just didn’t want to wait for the Super Bowl to be over to talk to Bears’ coordinator Ron Rivera?

Pittsburgh’s black leaders cited the progress the city was making with the Tomlin hire and other recent events:

M. Gayle Moss, head of the Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, cheered the choice but confessed some shock in that she has often pointed out the sluggish pace of blacks holding mainstream leadership positions in Pittsburgh.

“Here we are on the cusp of Black History Month, two black coaches are in the Super Bowl, Don Barden wins the casino and the Steelers announce their decision. It scares me,” Moss said. “It’s a step in the right direction to get the city talking about inclusion and getting African Americans to the table with more than sports.”

Even Tomlin talked briefly about the noteworthy meaning of his hiring on the same day that Dungy (former Steelers coordinator) and Smith make the big game:

The call, coincidentally, came on a noteworthy day. The Bears of Lovie Smith and the Colts of Tony Dungy earned berths in Super Bowl XLI. Never before in history had an African-American coached his team to a berth in the title game, and now there are two. The game will be played the first Sunday in February, which is Black History Month.

The meaning of the moment was not lost on Tomlin yesterday as he faced about 70 reporters and 15 TV cameras in his introductory news conference. But he didn’t dwell on the Super Bowl alignment.

“I acknowledge it is significant,” Tomlin said. “I’m happy for those men [Smith and Dungy] because I know those men. There will be true advances in this process when [race] is no longer an issue.”

But in the end, this commenter on the Blog n’ Gold Blog (Russ Hersch from Israel, all the way across the ocean) nails it:

“We’re not getting a black coach – we’re getting a Black and Gold coach. … The only colors important to a Steelers fan are Black and Gold.”


We don’t care about skin tone. We don’t care about race and history.

We care about the X’s and O’s. We care about wins and Super Bowl rings (and of course, whether QB Ben Roethlisberger wears a helmet when he leaves his house).

Good luck Coach Tomlin, no matter what color you are. Welcome to the Steeler Nation!

PS: Stick with the suit-and-tie on the sidelines!! Looks good!

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One Comment
  1. January 23, 2007 4:29 pm

    You might find that article interesting.

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