Let’s Not Applaud The Steelers Too Loud And Too Soon.

By L.A. Batchelor
Updated: February 3, 2007

NORTH CAROLINA — The Rooney Rule requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for a head coaching opportunity. The rule is named for Dan Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the chairman of the league’s diversity committee, and is often cited as an example of affirmative action.

Soon after the much anticipated resignation of Bill Cowher as the 15th coach in team history, the Steelers surprising picked a young African American man, Mike Tomlin, as the 16th coach in the franchise history. This was an unexpected hiring consider the likes of Russ Grimm, Chan Gailey and Ken Whisenhunt just to name a few.

Tomlin leaves the Minnesota Vikings serving as their Defensive Coordinator to coach a team with a solid nucleus of players both on offense and defense ready to get back to the playoffs and make a Super Bowl run.

But was the hire of Tomlin really unexpected? I don’t think so. Remember, Tomlin is coaching the Steelers, home of the “Rooney Rule”. In my opinion, when Cowher resigned, it put the Steelers under pressure to not only interview a minority candidate but hire one because wouldn’t it be very inappropriate and ill-fitted for the Steelers brass to implement and spear-head a rule and not display the positives of such a rule by just showing face by interviewing minorities but not hiring one?

The Steelers, like other teams, found themselves in the position of implementing the “Rooney Rule” whether they were prepared to do so or not. It’s quite clear that the Steelers organization from it’s inception of the hiring process, made several glaring mistakes.

Mistake 1: Allowing Bill Cowher to influence the decision on the next coach. Actually, to put it in better terms, according to reports, Cowher refused to endorse any of his assistants for the position out of loyalty for all of them which is a mistake because the Steelers have or had more than competent.

Mistake 2: Allowing rumors, innuendo and fabrication of the extreme interest the Steelers allegedly had in Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt which were two loyal and talented assistant coaches already in the Steeler fold. If the Steelers really had interest, it went astray fast especially when they allowed both of them to interview for the vacant Arizona Cardinal head coaching position, ironically left vacant after African American coach Dennis Green was fired. Whisenhunt got the Cardinals job with Grimm following him as assistant head coach and offensive line coach.

Mistake 3: The Steelers made a decision too soon on who would be the next coach. I guess the Rooney family and Steeler organization doesn’t practice patience as they hired Tomlin soon after “the chin” announced his resignation. They could have taken their time and chose many capable African American candidates if that’s who they wanted to target. Among those candidates included Art Shell, Ray Rhodes, Dennis Green and even Doug Williams who doesn’t have any NFL head coaching experience.

Mistake 4: A hiring formula from the past doesn’t mean success in the future. It seems the Steelers like to hire young unknown coaches who are tough, rough and know their personnel. Chuck Noll was 36 when he was hired in 1969, Cowher was 34 when he became the coach in 1992, and Tomlin is 34. Noll and Cowher were known for their no-nonsense approach and some have said Tomlin is similar. He’s been quoted as saying his formula to winning is running the ball successfully and stopping the run, two traits surely identified by the Black and Gold. But saying it and implementing it are two different things. However, Tomlin will have to be up to the task of continuing the excellence his predecessors have created.

Mistake 5: Allowing contract talks between Cowher and the organization to go public really gave candidates an upper hand because it was quite clear with one year left on his contract, Cowher would not return so people interviewing for the job can increase their demands in salary which in Pittsburgh it’s blasphemy. In sports, when you have a need and your competitors know it, the organization in the need works at a disadvantage. In this instance, the Steelers were at a disadvantage so perhaps they hired Tomlin because of salary considerations.

The bottom line is the Steelers were stuck between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” once Cowher resigned. The team owner created a rule to give more minorities opportunities to interview for a vacant coaching position and hopefully get hired so it would look terribly if they t not only didn’t interview a minority but if they didn’t hire one as well.

Is Tomlin a young and talented coaching mind? It seems he is. Are the Steelers happy to have him? It seems they are. “We feel Mike Tomlin is the ideal person to uphold the strong history and tradition of Steelers football,” said Rooney. “Mike possesses the qualities we were looking for as the leader of our team, and we look forward to working with him for many years to come.”

Is Tomlin respected by his peers? Absolutely! He came highly recommended to the Steelers, with Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy and Vikings head coach Brad Childress being among those singing his praises.

“Tony Dungy giving you a high recommendation counts a lot,” said Rooney. “Brad Childress giving you a high recommendation counts a lot. It’s all of those things but in the end you have to have a feel that this is the right guy for your team.”

Tomlin spent his first season coaching in the NFL under Dungy’s tutelage with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He left a lasting impression on Dungy, who is happy to sing his praises.

“I’m happy for Mike,” said Dungy. “He’s going to get to show what he can do. He’s a tremendous young coach, he’s a great communicator, he’s a guy that has a real exuberant personality that I think the players are going to enjoy playing for him and I’m excited for him.

“I have so much respect and love for the Rooney’s and the city of Pittsburgh and then to have Mike who started with me to go get that job, it’s just kind of an unbelievable thing and I’m really happy for Pittsburgh because I think they got a good coach and for Mike.”

The hiring of Tomlin still seems disreputable because of the rule and the fact the rule originated with the team. The Steelers may think they did the right thing and hired the right man for the job, but instead they created a controversial cloud over a man who has the ability to be a great coach and winner. Only time will reveal if the hire was correct and Tomlin is successful.

In the meantime, let’s hope Tomlin is the “exception” to the Rooney Rule.