Mike Tomlin is one of the most popular coaches in the NFL. It’s hard to find people who don’t like him in the national media, among other coaches, and especially among NFL players. Especially those who used to play for him.
Mike Wallace declined a contract to stay in Pittsburgh, had been called out by Mike Tomlin as a “one trick pony”, and yet when interviewed in 2021, had this to say about his former coach:
“I got to play for the pinnacle of NFL teams. Coach Tomlin was the best coach I ever had at any level. The most real coach, genuine coach. That is something I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.”
“Real” is an adjective that has been used to describe Mike Tomlin other times. One that has always stood out to me was when Cliffton Geathers joined the Steelers in 2015. The journeyman defensive tackle had been on seven teams already in his career, never starting a game and usually stuck toward the bottom of the roster. During camp in Pittsburgh, he gave the following quote:
“Yeah, I feel real good, I can’t complain about anything because everything feels good, man. These guys, Garrett Giemont and Coach Mitch and Coach Tomlin, they’re all doing a good job of keeping me up, keeping me up to date with stuff, and keeping it real. They’ve got some real-ass coaches, so only I could (expletive) this up.”
It’s not just players either, other coaches recognize Mike Tomlin’s “realness” as well. Matt Nagy, then head coach of the Chicago Bears said the following of Mike Tomlin before their game in November:
“I think the way that he leads his organization is rare. I’ve been to different owner’s meetings over the years and have been around him. He went to William and Mary, I went to Delaware, but I was younger. But the path he came through, the way he has done things, I really respect him. He is real with his coaches. He is real with his players. He is authentic. He is tough on them, but he loves them. And he wins. That is what he does, he wins.”
What does being a “real” coach even mean though? I won’t even bother to define it, because I think Le’Veon Bell did a great job describing it when he talked about Tomlin on the No Jumper podcast a few weeks ago. You can click on the link to view the entire 11 minute segment of the interview which covered his time with the Steelers, but I’m interested in his statements about Mike Tomlin (4 minute mark in that clip) after one of the hosts refers to Tomlin as being a player’s coach.
To give you an abridged version:
“Mike Tomlin is like, one of the most real coaches I’ve, actually, he probably is the realest coach I’ve ever been around for real. . . People like him so much because he’s not afraid for you not to like him. He’s one of those guys, he’s going to be real stern, be real honest with you. He can relate, he can relate to me like no other. . . There’s different styles of player’s coaches, but him, he’s more of a guy like, he’s on you, but it’s not uncomfortable to come up and approach him. . . Coach Tomlin has that perfect median where “I’m on you, but I’m approachable too”.
Bell goes further into the idea of the player’s coach, talking about how Mike Tomlin doesn’t believe in making a lot of rules, keeping a simple standard of “Don’t be the guy” that messes things up. I found that tidbit interesting because we know how long of a leash Antonio Brown had in Pittsburgh, and we also saw the times he crossed that line and became “that guy”. As long as his players don’t cross lines which impact the team, Mike Tomlin is going to give you leeway.
Almost like he’s treating adult men like they are, indeed, adult men. For the opposite side of the “realness” spectrum we saw the dumpster fire that was Urban Meyer’s time in Jacksonville, and how he tried to belittle and manipulate players into playing harder. And while that might work on college students, it didn’t work at all on adult men that were earning money and knew the value of their labor.
You can see why players looking to make the most of their careers and maximize their earning potential would be drawn to a coach that is approachable, honest and will stay on you to keep you focused on becoming the best player you can be.
Approachable and relatable are not terms that are usually associated with great coaches. But it’s a huge part of communication, if you have a great message but no one can understand it, then it doesn’t make an impact. If you know how to help a player improve, but when you talk to them it ends in yelling and frustration, you didn’t succeed in helping them. Being a highly effective communicator is one of the keys to being a truly great coach. I think Pittsburgh Steelers fans can see that in the greatest coach the Steelers ever had, Chuck Noll.
Noll famously would talk to every player a bit differently, as J.T. Thomas once put it:
“His greatest asset, I think, was the way he communicated. He communicated with everybody differently, and it was amazing to watch him go around the locker room and communicate with guys on their level.”
That’s being relatable and approachable, a guy players could talk to. Chuck Noll also cared about his players and their lives off the field. A trait Mike Tomlin has in common with Noll.
Nick Eason, former defensive lineman for the Steelers, recently posted on twitter how back when he was a plyer, Mike Tomlin visited him everyday in the hospital for two weeks when his appendix ruptured.
While playing for the Steelers, my appendix ruptured on a plane. I had emergency surgery and I was hospitalized for two weeks. Coach Tomlin came to see me everyday in the hospital. The Super Bowls were great but for me it’s those moments that make him one of the greatest! pic.twitter.com/EwL2G6w6Bp— Coach Nick Eason (@CoachEason1) March 19, 2022
And even Antonio Brown has stated he and Tomlin stay in touch. Tomlin following through on comments he made in 2020 on an episode of First Take as Antonio Brown was making apologies and looking to get back on an NFL roster.
“I’ll say this: once a Steeler, always a Steeler. We had great success over the course of nine-plus years with Antonio. We’re always going to be interested in his growth and development as a man and we’ll be open to assisting him in that, but we have no current business interest at this time.”
Tomlin made it clear the Steelers were not interested in having Antonio Brown on their football team, but he made it his priority to communicate how the Steelers would always be there to help Brown in his personal life.
Regardless of how you view his decisions on staff, players, timeouts and challenges, it’s easy to see why the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin in 2007, why he remains a coach other teams are always interested in hiring or even trading for should the Steelers and Tomlin part, and it shows why so many players talk highly of Tomlin and want to play for him.
Does being a player’s coach matter?
When you look at the NFL Draft process, the Steelers have become more involved in the combine and different pro days, running drills, having greater interaction with draft prospects and being willing to show their affection for players more openly.
I don’t think that is an accident, or a sign Tomlin is planning on leaving. I think it is quite the opposite. Mike Tomlin is building his brand, and the Steelers’ brand. He has a whole generation of NFL players who want to play for him. He has players coming into the NFL the Steelers will not be drafting who are going to join a team and play for a coach they wish was more like Mike Tomlin.
And that pays off. It pays off in free agency when players have the option to leave a little money on the table and play for a coach they want to play for. It will help in retaining players when the guys who leave Pittsburgh talk about their time in Pittsburgh as the best of their career. In a salary cap league, finding and exploiting market inequalities is king, it’s why rookie contracts are so valuable to teams, the main competition in the NFL is how can we get more from our players for less cap hit. Whether that ends up the difference between having to outbid a team or simply match them to get a player, or a little less guaranteed money, every bit counts.