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The Steelers didn’t hire Mike Tomlin because of the Rooney Rule

Mike Tomlin may have benefited from the Rooney Rule when he was interviewed to be the Steelers’ head coach in 2007, but it certainly wasn’t why he was hired.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Rooney Rule was named after Dan Rooney, the late and legendary owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The rule was enacted in 2003 and designed to bring awareness to qualified minority candidates for NFL head coaching vacancies by requiring that all teams interview at least one minority during its search.

However, the rule does not state that a team must hire a minority to be its head coach. I feel it important to make that distinction in this article because ever since the Steelers, the team with the owner that helped pioneer head coaching opportunities for minority candidates, hired Mike Tomlin to be their head coach in January of 2007, it has been assumed that race was the only reason the former Vikings’ defensive coordinator got such a prestigious job.

When the Steelers went searching for qualified candidates following Bill Cowher’s resignation, Ron Rivera, the Chargers’ linebackers coach, and Tomlin were two minority candidates that were brought to the Rooneys’ attention because of the aforementioned rule.

However, after interviewing Rivera, that pretty much satisfied the obligation for the new rule. Yet, the Steelers went ahead and interviewed Tomlin, anyway, a man who, as Mr. Rooney put it in his book, Dan Rooney: My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL, “blew our doors off.”

Here was a young man that came out of nowhere and was suddenly one of the top candidates to be the Steelers’ third head coach since 1969.

You might say Tomlin benefited from the rule by having his talents brought to light, but that was the whole point.

What the Rooney Rule did for minority coaching candidates was similar to what the late and legendary Bill Nunn did by scouting the mostly neglected small, black colleges in the late-60’s and early-70’s: it expanded the talent pool.

Would Tomlin have been a serious candidate for the Steelers’ head coaching position without the Rooney Rule? It’s impossible to say, but the rule certainly put Tomlin on the Rooneys’ radar, and in that regard, it worked perfectly.

In addition to Tomlin, Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers’ offensive coordinator at the time, was also a candidate for Pittsburgh’s coaching vacancy, as was Russ Grimm, the team’s offensive line coach.

After Whisenhunt decided to take the Cardinals’ offer to be their new head coach rather than wait for the Steelers to complete their search, it came down to Grimm and Tomlin.

Grimm erroneously thought he would officially be offered the position, before the Steelers finally decided on Tomlin.

Would Grimm have been a better choice? Given the fact that he’s bounced around the NFL as an offensive line coach since ‘07 and has never again been a serious head coaching candidate, the odds aren’t great.

As for Whisenhunt, he coached six seasons in Arizona and faced the Steelers in Super Bowl XIII, where he came up just short of beating his former employer. In-between stints as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator (2013; 2016-present), Whisenhunt was the Titans’ head coach in 2014 and 2015.

You can say what you want about Tomlin’s current performance as the Steelers’ head coach (and it certainly does warrant great criticism). You can also come up with a few good reasons why Tomlin could and should be relieved of his duties.

But based on Tomlin’s overall record, it’s safe to say Pittsburgh made the right choice 11 years ago.

The late Mr. Rooney, the man largely responsible for the Steelers’ rise from football irrelevance to football royalty, knew what he was doing when he hired Chuck Noll in 1969.

Mr. Rooney also got it right when he found Noll’s replacement in 1992.

To continue to say Mike Tomlin only has a head coaching job because he’s black is not only an insult to him and minorities in general, it’s an insult to Dan Rooney, a man who spent his entire life making intelligent and sound decisions for the Pittsburgh Steelers.