Young coaches have become more popular in the NFL, largely thanks to the success of Sean McVay. While McVay’s work in Los Angeles has been hugely impressive, he is not the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. Mike Tomlin owns that piece of history, the brightest of many accomplishments since becoming the leader of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Mike Tomlin’s journey to the Steelers job
When Mike Tomlin began his coaching career in 1995, the idea that he could become a head coach in the NFL couldn’t have been more than a far-off dream in his head. He started as a wide receivers coach at Virginia Military Institute, but he was only there for a year before becoming a graduate assistant at Memphis.
He showed his ability to work on both sides of the ball by being both the wide receivers coach and the defensive backs coach at Arkansas State, before taking the same defensive role for the Cincinnati Bearcats.
Tomlin’s defensive aptitude is what got him noticed by the NFL. In 2001, he became the defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he worked for four years. Tampa’s defense was hugely impressive during this period: they never ranked lower than sixth overall during these seasons.
These performances earned Tomlin the defensive coordinator job for the Minnesota Vikings in 2006. Minnesota ended the year with the eighth-best overall defense, but their road to this ranking was very strange: they had the best defense against the run and the worst defense against the pass.
No matter how it happened, the displays of the Vikings defense were good enough for Tomlin to get a job that is rarely open for any coaches: the head coaching position for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh makes history in an exciting Super Bowl
Tomlin was a daring choice for the Steelers to make at the time. Pittsburgh had just won the Super Bowl in 2005, so appointing someone with no experience as the 16th coach in franchise history was an unexpected move. Tomlin’s hiring was also notable because he was only the tenth African-American head coach in NFL history. This fact put a lot more pressure on Tomlin to prove himself in the role.
He quickly proved that he was deserving of the job. The Steelers won 10 games in his first season, but they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Pittsburgh fared far better in the following year. They went 12-4 in the regular season, led by a great defense that ranked first in the league in total and passing yards given up and second in rushing yards. They then went on to win a tense Super Bowl against the Arizona Cardinals.
Arizona came back from 13 down to take the lead with just over two minutes to go, but Ben Roethlisberger led the team down the field and connected with Santonio Holmes in the end zone with 35 seconds on the clock to win the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl ever.
Tomlin became the youngest head coach to win the Super Bowl, the third African-American to do so, and a certified professional in the eyes of doubters.
Leading Pittsburgh through choppy waters
The Steelers have never been bad with Tomlin as the coach. They’ve never had a losing record during his tenure. But they’ve also only won playoff games in three seasons since that Super Bowl win.
Fans have begunn to wonder if the team needed a new voice to bring a fresh perspective to the team. People were also frustrated by the public antics of Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, two stars who seemed to prove that Tomlin had lost the locker room. Both players eventually left in the last off-season after becoming unwanted distractions as the team failed to make the playoffs.
Pittsburgh didn’t make the playoffs this year, either. But the context around the season showed that Tomlin provided a steadying presence for the team. An elbow injury ended Roethlisberger’s season midway through the second game, and extinguished any hopes that the Steelers could accomplish anything in 2019.
The team could’ve collapsed after losing their starting quarterback and starting the year 0-3, but Tomlin kept his players focused enough to win eight of their next 10 games.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, a team relying on Mason Rudolph and a man named Duck for QB play can only go so far before succumbing to gravity. They lost their last three games of the year as the injuries took their toll on the roster.
It was a great year of Tomlin’s reputation. He showed why the Steelers front office has stuck with him through some frustrating years. And considering the fact that Pittsburgh has only had three coaches in the past 50 years, it’s likely that he’ll have the job for a long time.