Obviously enough, Tomlin's favorite word is 'obviously'

In his news conferences, he used the adverb seven times in 2010 -- and 322 times in 2013

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It's Dec. 30, the last Steelers press conference of the season. And as the elite of the city's sportswriters, photographers and talk radio jocks file into the briefing room on the South Side, they take their best shot at guessing something almost as anticipated as the season's final record:

Exactly how many times will head coach Mike Tomlin say "obviously" today?

"We fell short this year of getting ourselves in the tournament to chase the ultimate prize, which obviously every year is our intention," the coach said to the cameras. Someone makes a tick in his notebook. "... Obviously, I don't want to make emotional decisions, and obviously we've been on an emotional journey."

Obviously enough, Tomlin's favorite word is 'obviously'

Mike Tomlin seems to enjoy using the word "obviously," given its prominence in his many press conferences. A speech pathologist explains why people favor certain words. (Video by Andrew Rush; 1/12/2014)

Mr. Tomlin is widely regarded as one of the most well-spoken coaches in the National Football League. In contrast to his predecessor Bill Cowher, he remains remarkably even-keeled after both wins and losses.

He is, however, obviously in something of a rhetorical rut. Over the past four seasons, his use of that four-syllable modal adverb has skyrocketed, from seven times in 2010 to more than 300 in 2013. He now says "obviously" an average of 20 times per press conference, more than he says "football."

(Click image for larger version)

It has become a cultural marker for the coach, who declined comment for this story, and no impression is complete without it. Talk radio gleefully announces the count each week, replete with replays. A new car dealership TV ad spoofing Mr. Tomlin's press conferences includes no fewer than two "obviouslys" from a faux coach.

So does it mean anything?

The Post-Gazette pulled transcripts from every regular-season and post-season Tuesday press conference Mr. Tomlin has given since 2010 -- the Steelers kindly type them up for reporters -- and ran a word-frequency analysis on his statements. "Obviously" is the coach's 25th-most frequent word, topped only by "the," "that" and other monosyllables we all need to put sentences together. (He's shown a vocabulary of about 7,000 words.)

The stats also reveal that Mr. Tomlin's reliance on the word increases after the Steelers lose a game. Over four years, the coach said it 11 times in Tuesday press conferences following a loss, compared with an average of just five times after a victory.

Armchair psychologists might conclude each instance of "obviously" shows Mr. Tomlin is on the ropes, dodging tough questions about the team's performance or puffing his chest out in defense.

The real truth might not be so -- pardon the expression -- obvious, speech researcher Michael Dickey says.

"We have certain habits, certain turns of phrase which we use all the time," said Mr. Dickey, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "Some of it is laziness. We do things we've done frequently in the past -- use words, follow a particular pattern in our house. It's just something we naturally do."

"But," he adds, "that kind of increase in three years is this particular context is pretty striking. That would make my eyes pop."

Mr. Dickey suspects the Steelers coach has no idea he's picked up a new speech pattern -- unless he listens to AM sports radio. As people talk, they build pathways in their brains that become stronger over time, making it more likely they'll repeat certain phrases or idioms. These patterns are unique, forming a vocal fingerprint that instantly identifies the speaker (and thusly gives the professional impersonators on "Saturday Night Live" a living).

Indeed, "obviously" may be Mr. Tomlin's flavor of "uh" or "um," those filler words that buy us time to form our next word, Mr. Dickey said. But if that's the case, the coach has made an intriguing choice.

" 'Obviously' has the interesting property of drawing you in as a listener," the professor said. " 'Of course you agree with me,' 'of course you saw this,' or 'we all know this.' " The implication: Everyone agrees, and if you don't, you're missing something -- well, obvious.

Broadcaster Stan Savran, who hosts "The Mike Tomlin Show" on the ROOT Sports television network, can't pin down the date he heard Mr. Tomlin first say "obviously."

"Now, you're kind of waiting for it," he said. "When the first word is 'obviously,' that's a bad sign. You're greasing the tracks, then."

The veteran broadcaster has heard it all before. Longtime Steelers coach Chuck Noll favored the phrase "Get on with your life's work" when he had to let a player go. If he wanted to shut a reporter down, he'd simply say, "If you say so."

For Mr. Cowher, the line was, "There's a fine line in this business," which he applied to all manner of situations, Mr. Savran said. Mr. Cowher also had a reputation for repeatedly mispronouncing certain words, prompting winces every time he misspoke "deter" as "de-tier."

But he had another coach in his corner: his wife, the late Kaye Cowher, who watched most of his press conferences and pressed him to perform better.

"I don't know if Mike's wife, Kiya, watches," Mr. Savran said. He laughs. "I know his kids watch the coaches' show and make fun of him."

Mr. Savran believes Mr. Tomlin's overuse of "obviously" is just a verbal crutch, despite grumbling that it comes off as a condescending dig. In the end, the broadcaster doubts the coach has given his verbal twitch much thought.

"I don't know if he even notices it," he said. As obvious as it may be.

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.

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