Search shows Steelers know what they're doing

The Steelers' coaching search that ended with Mike Tomlin becoming the first black head coach in their history was done the right way, not the easy way, writes Michael Smith.

Updated: January 23, 2007, 3:44 PM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

In the immortal words of Rakim, this is how it should be done.

The diligence with which Steelers' ownership approached their nearly two-week search for Bill Cowher's replacement serves as a textbook example of what the NFL had in mind when it established the Rooney Rule (named after Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, it requires teams to interview at least one minority head coach candidate.)

The policy seeks to promote a fair, inclusive and thorough process.

Which "Race/Ethnicity" box the coach checked on his application is irrelevant.

The Steelers believe former Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin to be the best man to lead one of the league's flagship franchises.

Tomlin just so happens to be African-American.

Mike Tomlin
Kirby Lee/WireImage.comMike Tomlin, left, leaves Brad Childress and the Vikings to take over the Steelers.
From the looks of it, Rooney and team president Art Rooney II started the selection process with a clean slate. Meaning it wasn't Coach X's job to lose, though many believed the Steelers ultimately would promote former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm. The Rooneys didn't go for broke in a hurried pursuit of a big-name college coach. They didn't conduct courtesy interviews with members of the majority or token interviews with minorities.

No side or backdoor deals, no circumventing. It was all legit. In fact, in the end the leading candidates were minorities -- Tomlin and Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic.

And while it is indeed fitting that Dan Rooney, who has been at the forefront of the league's movement to increase minority hiring, did his part to raise the number of active black coaches (to six), Rooney's obligation was not to make a social statement but to make the best decision for the franchise.

Coincidentally, the best choice is the first black coach in team history.

Super Bowl XLI will feature the first two black head coaches in the game's history. It's not as though black men only now figured out what it takes to be championship coaches. The more opportunities, the more likely a minority head coach leading a team to the title game becomes commonplace. Tomlin didn't sit before the Rooneys as a means of compliance, having no shot to begin with, as so often seems to be the case. It was an open competition and he had a real opportunity -- the only thing minority coaches want given to them.

For a change, a minority didn't have to be twice as qualified from a résumé standpoint to land the gig. The 34-year-old Tomlin spent five seasons as Tampa Bay's secondary coach and this past season overseeing Minnesota's defense. But what he lacks in experience Tomlin more than makes up for, according to those who know him, in charisma, football knowledge and the ability to get players young and old to buy into what he's selling.

Also, give the Steelers credit for focusing on the big picture rather than the short term. No one would have blamed the Rooneys for promoting from within in an attempt to maintain continuity on a team one season removed from its fifth championship. Or even for hiring an offensive coach or one whose preferred defensive scheme is better-suited to their current personnel. (Tomlin comes from the Tampa 2 coaching tree. The Steelers have run the 3-4 since the early 1980s.) Whereas other teams often select a head coach with one unit or even a few players a mind, Pittsburgh chose whom it believes to be the best leader.

Interestingly, an organization that has changed so little in the past -- Tomlin is the team's third coach in the past 38 seasons -- ignored the potential sweeping changes and instead focused on Tomlin's potential.

Clearly the Rooneys were thinking more about the next two decades rather than the next two years. And Tomlin, who becomes the league's youngest head coach, certainly will grow into the job.

He looks nothing like either Cowher or Chuck Noll, but the Rooneys see the same profile in Tomlin. Pittsburgh changes coaches about as often as the Catholic Church elects a pope, so it has some idea what it's doing in this department. The Steelers tend to do things the right way, and the exhaustive process that led them to Tomlin is no exception.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.

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