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“Tomlin” author: He should have won more Super Bowls

A behind-the-scenes look at the rise and career of the Steelers coach

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Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Before John Harris started writing his book on Mike Tomlin, “Tomlin: The Soul of a Football Coach,” he says he had his own preconceived ideas about who the Pittsburgh Steelers coach really was.

“Coaches talk in cliches,” Harris says. “So I looked at it more initially from the selfish standpoint. I wanted him to talk more. I wanted him to reveal more, but he didn’t, and he still doesn’t That’s his thing. He keeps to himself. He’s very private.”

Skyhorse Publishing

Tomlin did not sit down with Harris for the book, which he says is another “Tomlinism.”

“If he can’t control the narrative in that regard and not be 100 percent certain about everything that was going to be in the book, he’s not going to be comfortable.”

But Harris says his biography has Coach Tomlin’s blessing, and the proof is in the quality of friends and advisors who went on the record: his brother Ed Tomlin, his mentor Tony Dungy, his former players Ronde Barber, Willie Colon & Joey Porter, even Dan Rooney whisperer John Wooten.

“That’s something I learned about Coach, just the privacy and the total focus on football. So many people say, ‘Oh if he stopped coaching, he could be a great TV guy.’ And his brother just kind of chuckles at that and says, ‘My brother is a gym teacher.’ He loves football.”

Harris hopes his book humanizes Tomlin a little more and gets fans to see him beyond the football coach. He also wants to spotlight the mentors Tomlin has had through the years, the advice he received as a very young coach, and the decisions that led him to the NFL.

“You kind of get to look at (Tomlin) as a guy who, at a young age, was kind of trying to find his way, and had some self doubt. He got a lot of encouragement from older coaches, people that hired him, who saw something in him that maybe at that time he didn’t see.”

Harris says Tomlin has a reputation of a ‘player’s coach,’ but he’s well versed in X’s and O’s.

“People don’t see the other side, the chalkboard side, the strategist side that he’s about,” Harris says. “He’s just not a guy to have a thing in front of his mouth or the clipboard on the sideline. He does, maybe to his detriment at times, not toot his own horn more and more.”

Harris sheds light on Dan Rooney’s decision to hire Bill Cowher’s replacement. Tomlin wasn’t actually a ‘Rooney Rule’ interview, as the Steelers had already talked with two minority candidates (finalist Ron Rivera, and ‘an unnamed candidate who is still in the league’). With Russ Grimm and Ken Wisenhunt also in the mix, the idea to even consider Tomlin should have been a long shot. So how did Tomlin get on Rooney’s radar? John Wooten.

“The relationship between John Wooten and Dan Rooney went all the way back to when John replaced Chuck Noll at guard with the Cleveland Browns,” Harris says. “He had a longstanding relationship with the Steelers. He knew Chuck Noll, and that relationship carried over with Dan Rooney. John Wooten felt comfortable enough to where he could ask Mr. Rooney, as a favor, to talk to this young man.”

When it comes to the coach’s critics, Harris doesn’t buy into some of the familiar narratives, including claims that Tomlin only won with ‘“Cowher’s players.”

“The same team was 8-8 two years before winning the Super Bowl,” Harris says. “You can attribute it to a lot of different factors, but obviously Tomlin did some tweaking, and did some things that got that team back. Not only do they get to the Super Bowl once, but they get to another one. So I think he was the coach of those teams.”

And while Tomlin’s lack of a losing season has become a point of resentment for some, Harris says it’s unheard of in sports.

“I know Steeler fans are spoiled, and I used to write that when I was at the Trib,” Harris says. “I don’t think they’ve had a losing season since 2003, which is incredible. So your fan base is just well beyond spoiled. I mean, no one does it. It’s unrealistic, right? What the Steelers have done is unrealistic, because it just doesn’t happen. You don’t go 20 seasons and not have a losing season just once. It just doesn’t even make any sense.”

Harris says throughout Tomlin’s career, he’s been perceived differently than his peers and predecessors. It all started on day one in Pittsburgh.

“I think a lot of the media wanted Russ Grimm,” Harris says. “They knew Russ Graham. He’s the guy they could talk to. He’s the guy who would help us out. They knew him. They didn’t know Mike Tomlin. Nobody knew Mike Tomlin, except Dan Rooney, apparently. Then he comes in, and he’s not telling you anything. He doesn’t give anybody anything. He’s not giving the Trib anything. He’s not giving the P-G anything, so we’re all being treated equally bad. The media lost the guy that they could have probably had a drink with in Grimm.”

Harris says the fact that black coaches get so few opportunities in the NFL, makes Tomlin’s tenure even more remarkable.

“They have not all been 17 great years,” Harris says. “He’s had some eight-and-eights. He’s missed playoffs. The thing that stuck out to me, just looking at what they had, is that they should’ve probably won a couple more Super Bowls. I look at the year they lost to Denver when Peyton Manning was the quarterback. That team that wasn’t at full strength almost won it. So I think that he could have easily at least gone to four. Right now, the talent level is just down. The quarterback situation is a mess. The fact that they’re still with a chance to possibly go to the playoffs. The Steelers could be 2-11, then you’d be dealing with NFL reality.”


Listen to the entire interview with John Harris on this week’s episode of the “What Yinz Talkin’ Bout” podcast.