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Character (Ac)Counts: Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin

In which the author makes a case for the man Tomlin has shown himself to be throughout the years, and wonders at the ease with which Steeler Nation suddenly seems prepared to believe otherwise...

Rob Carr

During my tenure as a "contributing author" on Behind the Steel Curtain I have written some number of articles which include head coach Mike Tomlin, one way or another, but I have never written one in which he was the sole focus. This seems like a good time to do so.

Almost as soon as I started taking an interest in the Steelers, (2009), I began hearing about Mike Tomlin. Soon his pithy comments and down-to-earth wisdom caught my attention, and I began collecting Tomlinisms. For one thing, I found some of them to be extraordinarily useful in my own choral rehearsals. (One which isn't is "We're going to be thoughtfully non-rhythmic.")

It was the usefulness of some of his other quotes which led me to write my very first fan post, in which I compared his job as a football coach to mine as a choral director. I posted it with great trepidation, fearful of, I suppose, mockery or worse, but it was well-received, and not terribly long afterwards site founder and then-editor Michael Bean invited me to write for the main page.

Over the past few years I have done the occasional article dealing, at least obliquely, with character issues. One such article was written in the 2012 off-season, and was in response to a comment made by Ivan Cole in his Weekend Roundup. The rather awkwardly-titled "Antonio Brown, Baron Batch, Curtis Brown, et al; The Emergence of the New "Tomlin Steelers?" discussed the loss of leadership when Hines Ward, James Farrior, and Aaron Smith, among others, were no longer in the locker room:

Mike Tomlin walked into a team with established leadership, both on the coaching staff and among the players. This was undoubtedly a good thing, as Tomlin was very young and very inexperienced to be taking on a head coaching position. Since 2007 Tomlin has, in my opinion, visibly grown as a coach and leader. From his initial sometimes uneasy forays into commanding a group of men many of whom were close to his own age he has gradually assumed an easy relationship with his players which still leaves no one in doubt who is in charge. The last step in this process is for the leaders of the team to be Tomlin's men: chosen and drafted by him, developed by him, mentored by him.

This process takes time, especially given Tomlin's style. Tomlin identifies himself as a "servant leader" in the manner of his mentor, Tony Dungy. The essence of this style of leadership is to encourage and support the development of each person under one's authority. To do so you have to know the people who work for you well enough to know what they need in terms of guidance and direction, and how they can best receive it.

I gave the example of Tomlin's mentoring of Curtis Brown, who struggled during training camp. In an article on Brown noted that Coach Tomlin was one of the two men to whom he opened up and who helped him to cope. I think that's impressive, given the many other calls on a head coach's time.

So let's take a moment and look at who Coach Tomlin is, outside of a football field. He was born and raised in the Hampton Roads/Newport News area of Virginia, and his extended family still lives there. He returns annually to work in some of the free football camps provided by the Hampton Roads Youth Foundation.

I ran across an interview of Mike Tomlin by Tom Robinson of The Virginian-Pilot, dated 8 July 2010. Although you might assume it is dated, some of the topics upon which Tomlin comments are strangely relevant, and also serve to help sketch his character. They are edited for brevity, at least as far as brevity is possible when quoting Mike Tomlin : )

ON WHY HE SUPPORTS THE FREE YOUTH CAMPS RUN BY THE YOUTH FOUNDATION: "For me, when we were growing up in Newport News, there were a lot of men that made sacrifices for us. They did provide blueprints for us in terms of how to conduct ourselves...Coach Tommy Reamon used to have a football camp every year when I was a kid. We all went to it. And for those who couldn't afford camps, going away to college camps and things, that was our football camp. Guys like Coach Reamon, man, are blueprints for me and I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do. Hopefully I can touch the lives of some of the young kids who come to our camp and 20 years from now they'll in turn do the same thing...This more than anything man is about giving back to the community from which I came. Providing opportunity for kids that might not be given an opportunity under other circumstances and just doing what it is I'm called to do. I'm very blessed and there are responsibilities that come with that."

ON HOW HE RESPONDS TO KIDS' QUESTIONS ABOUT TROUBLED PLAYERS SUCH AS MICHAEL VICK AND BEN ROETHLISBERGER: "I respond to those questions the same way I respond to them when they come from my kids. I'm a parent. I have a 9-year old son, an 8-year old son and a 4-year old daughter. And thankfully my kids understand...that these people are no different than any other people in any walks of life. They make mistakes, they have common human frailty, and it's important they make corrections and move on from it like anybody else. Their mistakes or shortcomings or growth and development is played out in the media if you will, but that doesn't make them any different from anyone else. That we all fall short of the glory and the grace of God at times, and that it's important how we move on from it...these people are just that, they're people, and none of us are perfect. And life isn't necessarily about the things that happen to you, it's more about how you respond to it...people make mistakes..."

I looked for information about Tomlin's college career. I knew he had gone to William & Mary, which I understand is not a place you go to if you're looking to spend as little time and effort as possible on your schooling. Tomlin joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. The Wikipedia article on the fraternity notes:

Kappa Alpha Psi sponsors programs providing community service, social welfare and academic scholarship through the Kappa Alpha Psi Foundation and is a supporter of the United Negro College Fund and Habitat for Humanity.

The school's website lists some of William & Mary's exceptionally distinguished alumni. Here's a sampling:

  • Thomas Jefferson, 1762: third President of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence
  • James Monroe 1778: fifth President of the United States, author of the Monroe Doctrine
  • Perry Ellis '61: business administration major, fashion designer
  • Robert M. Gates '65: history major, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, William & Mary's 24th Chancellor
  • James B. Comey '82: chemistry and religion double major, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Jon Stewart '84: psychology major, nine-time Emmy Award winning comedian and satarist, host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show
  • Mike Tomlin '95: sociology major, current head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Not bad company to be in. Tomlin was invited to be the Commencement speaker in 2008. Retired Supreme Court Justic Sandra Day O'Connor was also part of the ceremony, delivering the law school's commencement address and giving the opening remarks for the main ceremony at which Tomlin spoke.

The press release from the school refers to Tomlin's years at William & Mary, including, naturally, his career as a wide receiver. But what interested me more were the remarks about him as a scholar:

"In Mike's time here at William and Mary, he displayed outstanding character and leadership," said William and Mary Head Coach Jimmye Laycock. "He had a way of bringing the best out of those who were around him. Since he has moved on from this campus, he has risen to the highest level of his profession in a very short time. That he has been able to accomplish so much, so soon, is a great reflection on his intelligence and ability. He possesses the kind of personality that draws people to him. Mike has always been, and continues to be, a great representative of our university."...

While at William and Mary, Tomlin was known for both his football skills and his leadership and enthusiasm for the classroom. A sociology major, Tomlin was known for taking an active role in class discussion and a deep interest for helping at-risk youth.

David Aday, a professor of sociology and American studies at the College, taught Tomlin in two courses and said he remembers the former student well. Tomlin...visited Aday's office regularly to discuss both his academics and the world around him.

"He was an eager and thoughtful student, deeply concerned about problems of crime and education, and dedicated to helping young men who are at risk, especially as victims of and participants in crime," Aday said. "He was one of those students I remember because he took such an active role in those courses."

This interest in helping at-risk youth was not a passing fancy. Earlier this year Coach Tomlin and his wife Kiya received the Chuck Cooper Foundation Career Achievement in Leadership Diversity and Community Service Award. That's quite a mouthful. If you want to know more, click here for my article about it. The short version is, the Tomlins were recognized for their efforts to improve the educational system in Pittsburgh. As Kiya Tomlin stated when she accepted the award:

[W]e just feel like we are doing what we are called to do. We are greatly blessed personally and professionally and giving back goes with that...We want to help [make the city and the educational system better] not only for myself living and working here, but we are the parents of three kids and Pittsburgh is a significant portion of their upbringing. As members of the community it's our job to make it the very best that we can make it for them and others.

One of the activities Tomlin is involved in is "All Pro Dad":

All Pro Dad's 53 NFL Spokesmen are a group of coaches, players and alumni dedicated to their families and proud to be advocates for fatherhood. Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin and many other men exemplify passion, discipline, work ethic, commitment and loyalty both on and off the field and in their homes.

Coach Tomlin is also the honorary chair for the "Extra Mile" golf outing, which raises money for scholarships to parochial elementary schools educating children of inner-city families.

Mike Tomlin has been mentored by men (and surely also women) of character. He has made a sustained and successful effort to be a role model himself, to give back to the communities of which he is a part, and to influence those he comes into contact with for good.

So let's cut to the chase here. Does it seem likely that this man would jeopardize everything he has achieved and fought for by attempting to influence a play on the field during what is probably one of the most-watched games of the whole season?

It's always possible, of course. With people, anything is possible. As he himself commented in the interview quoted above, "we all fall short of the glory and grace of God at times," and "none of us are perfect." But it seems exceedingly unlikely.

It was interesting to me that Bob Labriola and Craig Wolfley, in discussing the situation during the December 3rd "Live at 4" video on were unwavering in their support of Tomlin's version of the incident, as given at his press conference earlier in the day.

Neither of these are men I would expect to tolerate the sort of behavior Tomlin is accused of. Labriola may be an employee of the organization, but he is scarcely an apologist for it, and doesn't pull any punches when discussing what he considers to be sub-par execution in any facet of the operations of the team. Here's what Labriola said of Tomlin:

Let me say this right from the beginning. What I know of Mike Tomlin, how he - the reverence he has for the sport and the game of football, the NFL, his place in it, the franchise that he works for, to me, he would never...try to intentionally impede this play.

There was more—lots more—on what it is like to be on the sidelines, the effect of the cameras, etc., but the main point, to me, is that Labriola doesn't believe there was intent because of what he knows of Mike Tomlin's character.

I strongly recommend viewing the video, which can be seen here.

I find myself astonished at the readiness of so many to assume that Mike Tomlin would act so completely out of character. For example, some commenters on this site have stated we would be screaming to high heaven if a certain other coach with a reputation for winning at any cost were to have been seen doing the same.

I can only come back to my point. The certain other coach has, fairly or unfairly, gotten a reputation for shady dealings. A lifetime of spotless virtue on his part will never expunge the label of cheater, at least for some people. Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick are only two of the many young men whose highly publicized failings will follow them to their grave, however uprightly they may live the rest of their lives.

So how is it that we immediately assume the worst about someone who has always displayed an upright and moral character? It's understandable in fans of other teams, I suppose. Part of the difficulty of taking the high moral ground is that you can't let even a toe stray off of it.

If said fans of other teams were to be fair about it, they would have to admit that the self-righteousness comes from the fan base rather than the organization. I believe the Steelers do try to do things the right way, and encourage what has come to be called the "Steeler Way," but I don't think you will find any official representative of the organization attempting to promote the idea that the Steelers have some sort of moral superiority.

But I can understand fans of other teams wishing to believe the worst about a team that has been a serious annoyance to the aspirations of many other teams on a regular basis. And after all the public loves nothing more than to find the feet of clay in public figures, whether it be celebrities, sports figures, or what have you. I guess it makes us feel better about our own inadequacies.

But I really can't understand the vitriol aimed at Mike Tomlin by so many supposed Steeler fans. For the record, I'm not talking about thoughtful discussion, like PaVaSteeler's piece. I admit to being surprised that he would jump to the conclusions he seems to be jumping to, but at least they were presented thoughtfully and rationally.

What I'm talking about is the opportunity this appears to present for those unhappy with Tomlin to castigate him for everything from world hunger to global warming. In some instances the criticism clearly stems from overt racism, which I find to be phenomenally depressing. I am, however, giving the benefit of the doubt to those whose arguments don't obviously come from a dislike of having an African American coach. Now, see how easy giving someone the benefit of the doubt is?

And I suppose I should also note that I'm not only talking about the reaction on this site, or even mainly talking about it. If you want to be really disenchanted about the logical faculties of many in our "fan base," just go read some of the comments on the Post-Gazette articles. Everyone may have a right to their opinion, but it's nice if said opinion comes from something more than a feeling of entitlement to a winning season and a deep playoff run every year. But there I go, making assumptions about people's motivations...

For the record, Mike Tomlin is no more immune than any of the rest of us to critiques of how well he is doing his job. When he makes a "blunder," whether it is a matter of time management in a game or his share of the blame in a failed draft pick, he is fair game. (Whether those of us doing the criticizing could do as well ourselves is, naturally, unknowable, luckily for us.) But calling into question his integrity in a situation such as this is another matter.

Mike Tomlin didn't build his reputation in a day. He deserves to not have it destroyed in an instant by a situation which allows for more than one interpretation.

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