The best parts of professional sports are the stories that take place, on or off the field/court/what have you. It’s the inherent conflict, the struggle for greatness and the sacrifices athletes, coaches and managers make in order to be the best that keeps us watching.
Going into the past weekend’s big game, Super Bowl XLV, there were only two teams that existed to the sports networks’ continuous coverage: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers. But between the 90-plus players between the two squad’s rosters, the coaching staff and the ownership, there were enough story lines on Sunday to fill its own anthology.
There was the redemption of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback with two Super Bowl rings already, who after a tumultuous off season saw his already tarnished reputation come under fire due to an incident with a young woman in Georgia.
There was the rise of Aaron Rodgers, a man once thought doomed to linger in the shadow of Brett Favre.
There was the battle of two NFL dynasties in their own right, as the Steelers attempted to reaffirm Black and Yellow as the dominant colors of the new era in the National Football League, while the Packers’ return to the Super Bowl saw their attempt to bring the Lombardi trophy back home.
There was the journey of Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native who battled his favorite team as a child on the biggest stage of his career, who sat with a fairly decent but not amazing coaching record before this year’s playoffs (44-32).
There were many stories that played out in Dallas, Texas, on Sunday, but in my opinion none were as interesting as the path traveled by Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, the youngest head coach in the NFL. Mike Tomlin, the third head coach in the last four decades of the Steelers’ history. Mike Tomlin, the third black man to coach in Super Bowl history, and the second to win it. Mike Tomlin, who has been a head coach for four years, and been to the Championship game twice. Mike Tomlin, the man who has coached in the League for less than 10 years.
Despite coming up short on Sunday, the man’s story is so amazing that it warrants a closer look.
Mike Tomlin played football as a wide receiver at William & Mary, graduating in 1995. While most players with some semblance of skill attempt to join the NFL through the Draft, Tomlin went a different route. He joined the staff at the Virginia Military Institute for a short time as the wide receivers coach, helping players in a position he was familiar with.
But when Tomlin’s career continued and he found himself as a graduate assistant for the University of Memphis, his job duties transformed. Tomlin, an offensive player in college, was coaching defensive backs and special teams. When he joined the Arkansas State University coaching staff, he returned to coaching wide receivers for one season before going back to defense, in which he honed his craft.
Tomlin stayed in Arkansas for two years before joining the University of Cincinnati’s club as the defensive backs coach in 1999. There, he took a mediocre secondary and propelled the squad to be one of the nation’s best, moving them from being ranked 111th before he took over to 61st overall in just one season.
After two years in Cincinnati, Tomlin made the jump to the Pros and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the defensive backs coach in 2001.
In less than six years, Mike Tomlin graduated as a wide receiver, learned to coach defenses and became a coach in the National Football League — not exactly the easiest path, but certainly one of the quickest.
Tomlin stayed in Tampa Bay until 2005, a tenure in which two of those years the Buccaneers claimed the title of being the League’s best defense, allowing the fewest yards per game. The Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2003, giving Tomlin his first taste of life as a world champion.
In 2006, Tomlin was named the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings — not just the defensive backs coach, but the DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR. Tomlin, essentially, had been catapulted into the upper echelons of professional coaching, and the man had barely reached the age of 35.
After just one season in Minnesota, in which the Vikings claimed the 8th best defense in the NFL, Mike Tomlin was selected as the successor to Bill Cowher and became the sixteenth head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
People were unsure of the move, because at this point Tomlin was still relatively unknown. A few of the players on the squad were older than Tomlin, and analysts wondered whether the young and inexperienced coach would be able to control the locker room.
Two years later, with a Super Bowl ring on his finger, those doubts all but subsided. Four years later, with another appearance in the championship game, in a season where the Steelers were without a few of their star players for at least six games, those doubters have completely disappeared.
It’s an unheard of journey to the top, and in the history of the National Football League it is almost incomparable. Mike Tomlin has found success and he found it quickly.
Only one team can win the Super Bowl every year, and only one team can lose it.
Despite the defeat, Mike Tomlin is on a stage that not many can share with him. At age 38 he is a champion, and his list of accomplishments can only grow from here.