A splinter group of Steeler fans—and yes, I’m going to refer to this group as a splinter group since they don’t speak for the majority of Steelers Nation—are calling for the firing of coach Mike Tomlin and most, if not all, of his staff after the stunning loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
These Steeler fans have high, if not unrealistic standards of playing in the Super Bowl, if not winning it, every season. They tend to view losses in the NFL like they would in college football. Thus, the blame must rest solely upon the head coach for each game of every season. But what happens when a team jettisons a coach that has been a proven winner year after year? Look no further than the Nebraska Cornhuskers’ football program.
Let’s stroll down memory lane for many Cornhuskers fans such as myself. The Cornhuskers were considered the most dominant team of the 1990s, winning three national championships and appearing in one more which culminated in a loss. This was all in a span of eight seasons. Like all dynasties, it came to an end. Since that time, the program’s success has been sputtering for the past couple of decades.
What led to the decay of the success Nebraska enjoyed?
Dr. Tom Osborne, one of college football’s greatest coaching legends, retired from coaching after the 1997 championship season. His handpicked successor, Frank Solich, took over the highly successful program. Like Tomlin, he was initially hailed as the great successor by the fan base, with their traditionally high standards and expectations. This is the start of the era when Nebraska fans accustomed to playing in national championships every few years had their eyes opened to reality.
Solich’s first season, 1998, wasn’t consistent with what was expected from an Nebraska coach. A disappointing 9-4 record was met with groans, but hope remained strong. The first season was followed up by three successful seasons amassing a 33-5 record. In 2001, Solich guided the Cornhuskers back into the national championship game, but the season didn’t end well, as Nebraska was blown out by Miami.
Solich nevertheless was one of seven finalists for the Bear Bryant award, given out to the best coach in college football. The fan base was rejuvenated and kept their trust that Solich would continue the winning tradition fans had grown accustomed to.
But that success was erased during a dismal 7-7 season in 2002. Then, 2003 saw the program return to winning, with the Cornhuskers finishing 9-3. During his tenure, Solich had the best start of any coach in the history of the NU program. That includes both Osborne and Bob Devaney, both of whom are in the College Football Hall of Fame. His overall coaching record of 58-19 (.753 winning percentage) just wasn’t good enough to meet NU standards or those of Nebraska fans, as it didn’t include any national championships. Solich was fired before the 2003 Alamo Bowl game in the hope that Nebraska would land their next storied head coach.
Fast forward fifteen years to 2018. The once-vaunted Cornhuskers just hired their fourth head coach within that 15-year span. During that span, the Huskers suffered their first losing season since 1961, but managed nine seasons with at least nine wins. But this still wasn’t acceptable to the NU faithful that has been selling out Memorial Stadium since 1962. Fans want NU to return to the glory of the 1990s and they want a head coach who can produce national championship trophies by the bundle, like Osbourne and Devaney did.
What have Cornhusker fans like myself learned since 2003? We learned that legends are hard to come by and harder yet to replace. Solich wasn’t a legend, but many viewed him as a dang fine coach. With better than a .700 winning percentage, coaches like Solich are just as hard to replace as legends.
This is exactly what the splinter group of Steelers fans are asking for right now. Tomlin isn’t a legend like Chuck Noll, but this doesn’t mean he should be viewed as a slouch.
Of the current NFL coaches, Tomlin, in his 11 seasons as the Steelers’ head coach, is behind only Bill Belichick in regular-season winning percentage. I’d say he’s in some elite company. Nearly one third of NFL teams haven’t won a single playoff game in the past decade, but fans are calling for the ouster of Tomlin, who’s won eight in that same span. Fourteen teams haven’t been to their conference championship game during the past decade. Tomlin has done that three times. Nineteen teams haven’t been to the Super Bowl in the past decade, Tomlin’s teams have been there twice. Tomlin might be 1-1 in Super Bowls, but during that time, nine other head coaches skulked out of Super Bowl stadiums, knowing their team gave it their all, but still lost. While it might have been awhile since Tomlin guided a team to a Super Bowl win, he still has that ring. He still hoisted that trophy high into the air.
The splinter group calling for Tomlin’s firing have a lot in common with those Husker fans who got their way and forced the firing of Solich. Simply put, they were spoiled with unrealistic expectations. Pittsburgh was two fluke plays away from finishing 15-1 during the regular season (take your pick of which one of the three fluke plays in the Chicago Bears game to choose from)—and these fans want to clean house?
Fans remember the sting of losing to the Jaguars, past losses to the New England Patriots or a number of other teams. Where are their memories of the 13 games Pittsburgh won this season? Steelers fans should look no further than past mistakes by other teams. Teams who pushed out coaches with better winning records simply to appease disillusioned fans.
Just look at how the Huskers have fallen, and how their fans have suffered, and think to yourself, “Seriously, who could we get that would be any better?”