An NFL head coach and the media: an adversarial relationship

Jared Wickerham

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is known for his many Tomlinisms, which have provided reporters with great sound bytes and writers with great quotes over the years. However, like any other head coach, it's become quite apparent that his relationship with the media has become a bit strained in recent years.

Comedian Chris Rock talks a lot about relationships, and he's often said that when you meet your partner for the first time, you're not really meeting them, you're meeting their representative, and vice versa.

No matter how awesome and romantic a relationship is initially, eventually, the honeymoon phase ends, the representatives go away, and the real "you" comes into play a little more. It's not to say that you and your partner become inconsiderate, insensitive jerks. It's just that, well, maybe after some time together, you may answer the "do I look fat" question a bit differently. In the beginning, your response may have been something like, "Oh, baby, you know you're the most beautiful woman in the world." However, after a couple of years together and hearing that same question come up time and time again, you may start to get annoyed and say, "Next question."

Never a good idea in a romantic relationship, of course. However, when it comes to an NFL head coach and his relationship with the media, that's often a standard response to being asked a question he finds very annoying. That was Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's response during a press gathering on Wednesday when asked about the chances of Ben Roethlisberger missing the rest of the season due to the seriousness of the injury he sustained in Pittsburgh's victory over the Chiefs Monday night.

I didn't get to see Tomlin's demeanor during his little media session, but I can only assume it was the very curt and short one he's adopted over the last few years in most of his dealings with reporters.

I've gotten a kick out of Tomlin's evolution with the media during his six seasons as head coach of the Steelers because it's followed a similar path of most coaches and media members. It's not to say that reporters hate Tomlin these day, far from it, it's just that you can tell the relationship has become a bit strained in recent years.

For years, reporters and radio personalities would share their love for the weekly little nuggets known as Tomlinisms that would come out of a weekly presser. Quotes such as, "When the rubber meets the road" and "He's got position flexibility" have almost taken on a life of their own.

But in recent years, you can tell Tomlin is enjoying his dealings with the media less and less, and maybe vice versa? He barely hides his disdain for his Tuesday press conferences, and instead of talking about the newest Tomlinism, reporters are more likely to discuss his demeanor and short, uninformative answers.

I noticed the same thing with Bill Cowher when he coached the Steelers. In the 90's, he was a bit more enthusiastic, if sometimes combative, but by the early 00's, he had evolved into someone who often treated most press conferences like a weekly root canal. Who can forget his very famous run-in with John Shumway, a KDKA news reporter, who wanted to know about the status of Roethlisberger's thumb injury the quarterback sustained near the end of the 2005 season?

"Let it go, John, let it go."

That's just one of many little flare ups the Chin had with his future media brethren. I remember a question posed by local beat reporter Tim Benz and Cowher's curt response and then his smarmy tag response of "Is that OK with you?"

In his book, Double Yoi, the late Myron Cope discussed his many run-ins with Cowher in-between segments of their weekly radio show. And Stan Savran, another Pittsburgh media icon, has mentioned Cowher's combative nature off-camera during tapings of "The Bill Cowher Show."

An NFL head coach is such a high-profile position, you'd think these guys would be a little more understanding of a reporter's job. Dealing with the press is part of it. Isn't media relations written into an athlete's contract? I'm sure the same holds double for a head coach in that regard.

Remember Tomlin's annoyed demeanor and quote following the victory over the Titans in Week 2 of the 2010 season?

"We're a little bit annoyed with the premature reporting of our death," Tomlin said. "We're pleased that we're 2-0, but we're not astounded by it. We expect to win."

There was much talk of the premature death of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers, but that was understandable considering the four-game suspension of Roethlisberger to start the season.

Obviously, like most coaches and players, Tomlin follows the media, and I can't imagine why. Being in that kind of performance-based industry and following the media is like walking through the woods covered in honey. If a bear doesn't get you, the bees probably will. You're going to read, watch or hear something about you or your team that you do not like, so why even put yourself through it?

Quite frankly, I'm a bit surprised by Tomlin's relationship with the media in regards to divulging information. Of the three Steelers head coaches that I've seen in my lifetime, Tomlin seems to be the brightest, most enlightened and certainly most "aware" of what a coach's relationship is with the media and what that entails.

But like most coaches, I get the feeling Tomlin would like nothing more than to play his weekly game in a quiet, sterile environment, minus the media and other annoying little distractions. You know, his own little coaching man-cave, where he doesn't have to deal with anything but what his men are doing out there on the football field.

It will be interesting to see how Tomlin's relationship with the media continues to evolve during his coaching tenure in Pittsburgh.

Hopefully, it won't become much more combative, because, to quote the late, great Beano Cook: "The media comes to play everyday."

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