Most players under his leadership came to respect Tomlin’s ability to wed football acumen with a sense of fairness and a consistency, engendering a behind-the-scenes kinship and historic success on the field.
He has not had a losing campaign in his 14 seasons as a head coach, navigating the Steelers through controversies that could capsize other franchises. Through it all, Tomlin’s stone-cold facial expression has been as much of a constant as the Steelers’ postseason berths — Pittsburgh hosted the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the playoffs this past Sunday evening — even as the NFL has evolved greatly since he became the youngest head coach and second African American coach to win a Super Bowl after the 2008 season at age 36.
In public, Tomlin is full of scowls and digestible platitudes showcased throughout games and in news conferences, a vastly different demeanor than his players see.
Tomlin’s steadiness has been felt especially this seesaw season amid the pandemic. Pittsburgh began the season by reeling off 11 straight wins before its pursuit of a perfect season evaporated with three straight losses as defenses started encroaching on aging Ben Roethlisberger’s short-passing game.
Tomlin declined to speak for this article, and he’s rarely gone into depth on his background the way he did during a roundtable discussion this summer with Vernon Lee and Carl Francis, co-founders of the Hampton Roads (Virginia) Youth Foundation.
Tomlin has been involved with the organization since he started as an NFL assistant with Tampa Bay, helping to mentor the area’s youth.
The three men, all natives of coastal southeast Virginia, discussed familiar streets, high schools and area legends. Tomlin eventually discussed the one motto that drives him.
“Young people don’t care what you say,” Tomlin said in the talk. “They watch you move.”
Tomlin should know. In the roundtable, he detailed growing up in Hampton, Virginia, with his older brother, Ed, “a product of a broken home. My parents separated before my first birthday, and myself and my brother, we moved back in with her parents,” he said, referring to his mother’s parents.
Adults steered Tomlin. His stepfather, Leslie Copeland, was a large influence. Tomlin followed his older brother’s path into football, joining a league at age 7. Coaches of other teams showed genuine interest in the well-being of the young wide receiver, proving to Tomlin that if it took a village, he had found the correct one.
Tomlin envisioned a career playing football by the time he arrived at Denbigh High in Newport News, Virginia. He doodled plays in class, to the chagrin of his freshman geometry teacher, Gail Gunter.
Gunter challenged Tomlin. Two years later, Gunter served as a counselor for the students competing in Odyssey of the Mind, a scholarly competition. The other students had recruited Tomlin to participate in constructing a vehicle, but Gunter could not locate him when it was time to start.
“Mike would come moseying on in after all the football players had left because he didn’t want them to see him coming into something that was academic,” Gunter said.
The team finished second in the state. Tomlin had asked the other students not to disclose his involvement, which coincided with him asking his mother not to display his honor roll sticker on her car’s bumper.
At the College of William & Mary, Tomlin continued drawing a distinction between football and his other pursuits. “I’ve referred to him before as a bit of a closet nerd, even though he tries to downplay how smart he is,” said Terry Hammons, a fellow receiver and one of Tomlin’s closest friends at the university.
David Aday, a professor of sociology and American studies, taught Tomlin in a criminology course. Tomlin sought to understand the racial, social and class links between mass incarceration — topics, Aday said, that are typically difficult to discuss.
“The fact that he was a young Black man, some of the implications were a little more threatening, distressing,” Aday said. “There are a couple of ways you can deal with that. You can put your head down and say, ‘We’ll get through this conversation and move on.’ Or you can ask, ‘What’s going on here? What do we know that could help us to understand this?’”
His hopes of an NFL career fading, Tomlin became the wide receivers coach at Virginia Military Institute in 1995, carving a path to stay involved with the game and using the intellect he had gained from studying it since his youth.
He quickly worked his way up the college ranks with stops at Memphis, Arkansas State and Cincinnati, along the way learning the benefits of meticulously planning and documenting his days and charting goals in old Franklin Planners.
“I got this Franklin Planner, and I bought these cassette tapes, right?” Tomlin said during the roundtable. “And I committed to a day of watching these cassette tapes and organizing my life through this Franklin Planner — just thoughts, quotes of the day, appointments, critical notes, callbacks, etc., etc. I needed that organization because I was drowning in life at that time.”
That propensity for planning paid off in 2007 when, after six seasons as an assistant in Tampa Bay and Minnesota, he interviewed to replace Bill Cowher as the Steelers’ head coach. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and assistant head coach Russ Grimm were the favorites to win the job, but Tomlin impressed owner Dan Rooney and team president Art Rooney II in his interviews by presenting a detailed plan for the franchise over the next calendar year.
The Steelers appointed Tomlin as the franchise’s third head coach since 1969 on the same day that two Black coaches, Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears, met for the first time in the Super Bowl.
“Mike ended up getting his job at a time when there was a lot of discussion about African Americans being able to get a job, being able to hold it if you got it, and who was qualified,” said Terry Robiskie, a longtime NFL assistant coach. “It was always the discussion that they could never find anyone that was qualified.”
Tomlin’s hiring was viewed as a success of the Rooney Rule, named after Dan Rooney, that requires teams to interview minority candidates for high-profile vacancies. Tomlin joined six other Black men with NFL head coaching jobs the year he was hired; with the Los Angeles Chargers’ recent dismissal of Anthony Lynn after the 2020 regular season, the number of Black NFL head coaches is down to just two — Tomlin and Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins — in a league where nearly 70% of players are African American.
Tomlin is now a veteran coach. The career of Roethlisberger, the Hall of Fame quarterback he inherited, is winding down. Members of the stingy defense passed down to him are long retired. Tomlin’s reputation as a player’s coach was dinged through running back Le’Veon Bell sitting out the 2018 season while seeking a new contract and Antonio Brown’s cycles of drama.
Change has swept the broader NFL landscape, too. As the NFL has struggled with its place in the national reckoning on race, Tomlin last year came to the defense of backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, who is white and was accused of using a racist slur toward Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, who is Black, during a brawl between the two teams.
“He brings the perspective as a Black man with children, but he doesn’t try to force his view on his players, and that’s what he’s done from the beginning,” Hammons said.
Instead, Tomlin allows his players to deliberate issues collectively to land on a unified response, “allowing them to have a vested interest in the ultimate decision,” Hammons said.
“I think, whenever you’re a Black coach in his position, that other people put so much pressure on you to do everything,” Pouncey said. “And he’s not here for that. And if you really know coach Tomlin, he’s a football coach. That’s what he loves. That’s what he dedicates his whole entire life to.”