The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mike Tomlin shows how rare real opportunity is for Black coaches

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talks to judge Ed Camp (during a football game against the Baltimore Ravens. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Mike Tomlin keeps trolling NFL coaching volatility. Look at him, not the cuddly type, now blowing kisses after big victories. Listen to him, not the chatty type, sharing that he “dozed off” Sunday night during the wild Raiders-Chargers game that decided the playoff fate of his Pittsburgh Steelers. There is little security in his job, especially for a Black man, as recent days have shown, but Tomlin lives and sleeps peacefully.

The Steelers are in the postseason for the 10th time in Tomlin’s 15 seasons coaching them. They slipped in as the AFC’s lowest seed, cobbling together a 9-7-1 record despite not ranking above 20th in the league in total offense, total defense, points scored or points allowed. Still, the Steelers are a factor. For a record 15 straight seasons, Tomlin has guided his team to a mark of .500 or better.

So during this annual week of rampant firings and focus on the NFL’s sketchy history of elevating and retaining minority head coaches, coordinators and general managers, Tomlin stands as an example — sadly, the only example right now — of what it takes for a brotha to keep a job in this wretched business. The keys to longevity are rather clear, actually. It takes a coach on a Hall of Fame track working for one of the league’s precious few stable organizations. Fall into that situation and never, ever have a losing record in a sport structured for teams to thrive for only short periods, and, voilà, you too will have the space to do the job properly.

Perhaps Tomlin should’ve blown kisses after all of his 162 career victories. In this endlessly frustrating profession, it must feel like progress depends on every single triumph.

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With Brian Flores and David Culley losing their jobs, Tomlin is now the only Black head coach in the NFL. There are just two other men of color: Washington’s Ron Rivera, the NFL’s only Latino head coach and just the third ever; and the New York Jets’ Robert Saleh, an Arab American who is the league’s first Muslim head coach. Coaching diversity long has been a problem in football, both in college and the pros, and the NFL league office has made improvement a point of emphasis in recent years. Yet as this coaching carousel begins, the obstacles of equity seem more insurmountable than ever, and franchises are either too callous or too dysfunctional to do something about it.

The NFL suffers from systemic racism and debilitating ineptitude. In any given year, at least two-thirds of the franchises are embarrassing and clueless, living off fan obsession more than astute organizational practices. The league’s parity-based system and abundance of athletes allow the NFL to prosper, often despite itself. When you’re accustomed to being rewarded financially no matter what, doing what’s right and fair, or anything beyond simple and lazy, requires more integrity than most have.

From that perspective, Tomlin isn’t the personification of hope. Rather, he’s an exception, and a miraculous one, because he started so young and won so much and meshed so well with a franchise that has a reputation for vision, strategic planning and finding talent where few are looking. The Steelers aren’t perfect, but they are as competent as it gets. They are a model organization that balances the dueling needs for urgency and patience, rarely reaching for temporary hype to manufacture hope and usually making decisions with their big-picture values and philosophies in mind.

The message of the moment is a shameful one: Only the extraordinary survive.

Senior NFL official: ‘Double standard’ for Black coaches when it comes to keeping jobs

Tomlin is a role model, for sure. He’s 49, and he has a .643 career winning percentage, two Super Bowl appearances and one championship. He has led the Steelers through about four retooling efforts without falling through the floor. He has a long history now, so you can nitpick his tendencies and wonder whether he’ll bend on some of his classic coaching methods as the game changes. But you can’t question his ability to motivate players and his flexibility in figuring out ways to maximize any roster he is given. He is an accountable professional who seldom makes excuses.

Every young coach, regardless of race, should hope to have a similar approach. But there aren’t many Pittsburghs out there to appreciate, nurture and amplify those potential leaders. Owners are too busy hiring familiar-sounding and familiar-looking clowns who play to their egos during interviews. Insecure general managers and team presidents are in pursuit of sycophants instead of partners who may have different but complementary ideas. Few with influence are thinking far enough beyond the introductory news conference, and that’s how coaches such as Culley get one year to clean up an absolute mess before a team pivots to the next sucker.

Minority coaches must turn backflips just to land bad jobs that will turn over before they get to fully implement systems.

“There is a double standard,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, told The Washington Post this week. “I don’t think that that is something that we should shy away from. But that is all part of some of the things that we need to fix in the system. We want to hold everyone to why does one, let’s say, get the benefit of the doubt to be able to build or take bumps and bruises in this process of getting a franchise turned around when others are not afforded that latitude?”

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Tomlin is brilliant, lucky and historically resourceful. That’s what it takes to persist. Don’t hail him as an example of the possibilities without lamenting how exacting that standard is.

A few days ago, Tomlin was talking about the resilience of his team, one that has been playing for its postseason life for several weeks.

“We’re collectively getting comfortable in many circumstances where most are uncomfortable,” he said. “We’ve been hardened by this process. It hasn’t been an easy journey for us, and I think we’re getting comfortable with being in these scenarios.”

It makes sense that the Steelers would be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Their coach is 15 years into a career of taunting discomfort. For Black coaches, Tomlin is both an uplifting success story and an enduring example of how implausibly hard it is to receive a true fair shot.

What to read about the NFL

Scores | Stats | Standings | Teams | Transactions | Washington Commanders

The latest: Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, announced that the committee intends to issue a subpoena to compel the testimony of Commanders owner Daniel Snyder.

Exclusive: An employee of Washington’s NFL team accused Snyder of asking for sex, groping her and attempting to remove her clothes, according to legal correspondence obtained by The Post. A team investigation concluded the woman was lying in an attempt to extort Snyder.

Civil suits settled: Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has reached settlement agreements in 20 of the 24 active civil lawsuits filed against him by women who accused him of sexual misconduct, the attorney for the women announced.

Jerry Brewer: “The Browns were prepared for initial turbulence, but they assumed they were getting Watson at the end of his troubles. Now his disgrace is their disaster.”

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