Having the Pittsburgh Steelers play in the Super Bowl during Black History Month is fitting, because Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has a chance to make pro football history this Sunday.
Tomlin, 38, could become the first African-American coach to win two Super Bowl titles if his team defeats the Green Bay Packers at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Bookmakers have made the Packers a slight favorite. But Tomlin has overcome the odds to succeed before, including when he got the Steelers’ top job in 2007.
Tomlin was seen as a longshot to replace the retiring Bill Cowher, who had led the Steelers to a Super Bowl title in 2006. Pittsburgh assistant coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm were widely considered the frontrunners. But Tomlin, then the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, won over Steelers owner Dan Rooney with his preparedness, poise, enthusiasm and knowledge of the game.
That Tomlin got the interview may have been largely due to the Rooney Rule, which the Steelers owner helped create as head of the National Football League’s diversity committee. The Rooney Rule requires an NFL team to interview at least one African-American or Latino for every head coach or general manager vacancy.
One year after Pittsburgh hired Tomlin, he became the youngest Super Bowl–winning coach in history, defeating an Arizona Cardinals team coached by Whisenhunt and assisted by Grimm.
The victory earned Tomlin, who bears a resemblance to actor Omar Epps, the NFL Coach of the Year award. And his star continues to ascend.
Tomlin was younger than some of his players when he took over the Steelers, a storied franchise that has won a record six Super Bowls. But star receiver Hines Ward said Tomlin quickly let the players know who was in charge.
“He wanted to see who would challenge his authority,” Ward told Reuters News Service in a recent interview, “and he got rid of some of the guys that questioned his authority.”
Born in Hampton, Va., Tomlin was a three-year starter at wide receiver at the College of William & Mary but never played in the NFL. He’s married and a father of three.
Tomlin is one of three African-Americans to coach in the Super Bowl. In 2008, two African-American coaches opposed each other in Super Bowl XLI, with Tony Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts defeating Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears.
Dungy, now retired, planted the tree from which Tomlin and Smith sprang. Dungy hired both men as assistants when he coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a decade ago.
As Tomlin pursues his second NFL championship, he’s young enough to challenge Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll’s record of four Super Bowl titles.
And he succeeds while adhering to a philosophy he learned from Dungy. “Every day when I go to work, I don’t think about the things I have to do,” he said recently. “I think about the things I can do to make my men successful. I got that from Coach Dungy.”
Of the 32 NFL teams, seven have African-American head coaches:
Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis Colts
Leslie Frazier, Minnesota Vikings
Hue Jackson, Oakland Raiders
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers
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