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Mike Tomlin And His Legendary Predecessors

Experience. In life, it's undeniably necessary. In sports? There's more of a debate to be had. Yesterday, we looked at the career resume of offensive line coach Larry Zierlein. Must of us came away with the impression that despite having a tremendous amount of experience coaching at the college level, and to a lesser extent, at the professional level, not much of that experience yielded productive results either in the win column, or in the stat sheets of the offenses working behind his lines.

Today, I'd like to take a look at Mike Tomlin's coaching resume, while keeping an eye on how the Rooney family has made head coaching decisions with their franchise. There have been some valid points made recently by those who are not quite 100% enthused with the selection of Mike Tomlin as the head coach of this proud franchise. Personnel management, both in game and from week-to-week, suspect challenges, and a few crucial tactical misfires are all valid reasons to have reservations about the 16th head coach in Steelers franchise history.

But, to point to his lack of coaching experience as the primary reason for being skeptical, while still professing faith in the Rooneys and how they do business, is incongruous logic.

Since 1969, when Charles Henry Noll was handed the reigns to the organization, there have been just three head coaches at the helm of the team. Noll, Cowher, and now Tomlin.  All were under the age of 40. And none had head coaching experience. At any level.

Noll embarked on his Hall of Fame coaching career in 1960 as a defensive assistant for the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers (I believe they became the SD Chargers following the 1960 season). He would spend five years in Southern California before moving on to Baltimore, where he would serve as both a defensive backfield assistant and defensive coordinator for the Colts from 1966-1968.

While with the Chargers, Noll's teams finished in first place atop the AFL Western standings in 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, and 1965. The defenses he helped coach, twice fielded the best scoring defense in the league ('61 and '63), and only once finished outside the top 3 in the admittedly small AFL. Nevertheless, while building up his experience as a professional football coach, he got results. 

Noll_mediumIn fact, he was so successful that the Baltimore Colts hired him to work with their defense, beginning in 1966. That year, the Colts finished with a solid 9-5 record and the 3rd ranked scoring defense. In 1967, the team compiled an outstanding 11-1 record, and finished the year with the 2nd ranked scoring defense. Though that 11-1-2 record was amazingly not good enough for a playoff berth (the LA Rams edged them out by virtue of a tiebreaker), the head coach of the Colts, Don Shula, was convinced that Noll was ready to be the primary leader of the team's defense.

 In 1968, with Noll as the defensive coordinator, the Colts steamrolled the league, finishing the year 13-1. The defense was historically good, setting an NFL record for fewest points allowed (144). Though the team lost that memorable Super Bowl contest against the New York Jets in the Orange Bowl, the Rooney's had seen enough. He was named the 14th head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers just seventeen days after the Super Bowl, on January 27th, 1969. He was just 37 years old.



When Noll finally called it quits after 23 years of service for the Steelers, the Rooney's emulated the same strategy in their coaching search that they had when identifying Noll as the right man for the job. That is, they looked for a young, defensive oriented football mind. Cowher, like Noll, might not have been the most experienced candidate available, but the Rooney's had already learned that less is sometimes more when it comes to experience as a coach. With experience comes ingrained proclivities and tendencies, and the subsequent possibility for repeat performances of year's past.

Can you spot the chin, in full bloom
during his high school days in the mid 70s?

Cowher though, despite not being a head coach at any level, had also excelled in his coordinator and assistant roles.  After two years in Cleveland as a Special Teams coordinator, Cowher began coaching the Browns' secondary as of 1987. That year, the Browns sported the 2nd best scoring defense. and the 8th best passing defense. Cowher's secondary's only twice allowed an opposing QB to amass 300 yards. Once to the Cincinnati Bengals, and once to the well-oiled offensive machine of the San Francisco 49ers. The following year, Cleveland fielded the 6th best scoring defense, and the 6th best pass defense. Other than Dan Marino's 400+ yard outburst in Week 16, Cowher's secondary held their opponents under 300 yards passing every week, with only the Oilers eclipsing the 250 yard mark.

Cowher's success in Cleveland prompted the Kansas City Chiefs brass to name him defensive coordinator in 1989. It was Cowher's first breakthrough gig, and he would take the most of it. The Chiefs were coming off a 4-11-1 season in 1988, the year before he arrived. In 1989, the Chiefs improved dramatically, finishing the year 8-7-1, barely missing the playoffs. The Chiefs' defense, which was merely average in '88 (15th in scoring defense), took several important steps forward, giving up nearly two fewer points per game, and finishing the year with the 8th best scoring defense.

In 1990, the Chiefs continued to improve, finishing 11-5, making the playoffs, and improving their defense even more. That year, the Chiefs surrendered just 257 points, good for 5th best in the league. So, in just two years, the Chiefs shaved 63 points off their allowed season total, improved their record by 7 games, and were on the brink of making some playoff noise. In Cowher's final year in KC, the Chiefs couldn't get past the upstart Bills in the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs, but again the team was consistent on defense, finishing the year having allowed just 252 points. Cowher, despite his youth and lack of experience, had taken advantage of his early opportunities in the league. By doing so, he positioned himself as a fresh, young and successful defensive mind. Some owners might have wanted to see more, but for the Rooney's they had seen enough to take the risk on him, before others might snatch him up in the forthcoming years.


Though it took several cracks at it, the Rooney's instincts were correct. Cowher, like his predecessor Noll, led the Steelers to the promised land.


Enter Mike Tomlin. Tomlin, unlike Noll and Cowher who were both players, albeit for a very short amount of time, had to get his start at the collegiate level.  At just 23 years of age, he would serve as the wide receivers coach at the Virginia Military Institute. He would finish the decade at the University of Cincinnati, with previous stops at Arkansas State and the University of Memphis.

Let's take a second here to remember the symmetry of how Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin got their first opportunity's as coaches in the National Football League. For Dungy, that opportunity was bequeathed by none other than Chuck Noll. For Mike Tomlin, that opportunity came from Dungy. 

This was no ceremonial hire though. Dungy's Buccaneers were on the cusp of breaking through and competing for a Super Bowl, following years and years of futility. In 2000, the Bucs finished a respectable 10-6 and made the playoffs. Their pass defense was good, but not great, finishing that year with the 13th ranked pass defense.

In 2001, Tomlin's first year as DB coach, the Bucs finished 9-7, and the pass defense improved to 5th. In 2002, the Bucs fielded the best  scoring and pass defense in the NFL, and in just year two of his professional coaching career, Tomlin and the Bucs would hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Though the Bucs would regress collectively in 2003 and 2004, missing the playoffs both years, it wasn't because of the defense, and certainly not because of the pass defense that Tomlin helped coordinate. Those units finished 3rd and 1st in the league in pass defense respectively.

After a very impressive five year run in Tampa, the Minnesota Vikings came calling in the 2006 offseason. New head coach Brad Childress wanted Tomlin to coordinate his defense. It was a fine selection, as the Vikings finished the year 8th in overall defense. Oddly enough, they finished the year with the top rush defense and the worst passing defense. Clearly those two results are by-products of each other - if you can't stop the pass, why run? And if you can't run, why keep trying? Nevertheless, the Vikes improved from 19th to 14th in scoring defense, again extending Tomlin's short but undeniably sound track record of helping teams improve immediately upon his arrival.



It's time to wrap this up, but I'll finish by quickly saying that I count my lucky stars that the ownership of the team I love avoids hiring recycled, mediocre, insiders as head coach of the Steelers. There's no need to name names, but everytime there's a coaching vacancy, certain folks will be mentioned on the short list of potential candidates.

As is often the case in various aspects of business and life, the Steelers find value by contemplating what everybody else is doing, and then sprinting in the other direction. It's the commitment to trusting their instincts, not being afraid to take a chance on the guy they've identified as the right man for the job, and acting before it's too late, even if it means taking a chance on a coach with less experience than the media and other owners would lead one to believe is necessary. Then, perhaps most importantly, they allow their coach to grow and evolve over time.  All of these things are what make the Rooneys special and so successful in not only this endeavor, but in their countless other ventures in Pittsburgh and around the country.