Ron Cook: Were others 'ruled' out by Rooney?
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It's one thing if Mike Tomlin got the Steelers' job because he's the best candidate. If he is, that's terrific. Welcome to Pittsburgh. Best of luck. End of story.
But what if Tomlin isn't necessarily the best choice? What if he got the job because Steelers owner Dan Rooney cares just a little more about his NFL legacy than about his franchise? What if Tomlin got the job, at least in part, because of the Rooney Rule?
Would that be disturbing?
If Tomlin is successful, those questions won't be asked again. No one will care about the reasons behind his hiring as long as he wins. But if Tomlin isn't successful? The questions won't go away, at least not until the Steelers hire the next coach after him.
That doesn't mean Tomlin wasn't impressive at his coming-out party yesterday at the team's South Side headquarters. He made a tremendous first impression. He was properly respectful of the Steelers' proud history. He eased a lot of people's concerns when he announced he was keeping highly regarded Dick LeBeau as his defensive coordinator even though LeBeau runs a 3-4 defense and he prefers a 4-3, saying he was willing to be flexible with his strategy. "Part of good coaching is doing what your guys do well." He was funny at times, especially when he was asked if he was going to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., this week to interview assistant coach candidates.
"They've got some players there, too," Tomlin said. "That's job one. Coaches are overrated. If you've got good players, you've got a chance."
It was good stuff, all of it.
But let's be real here.
No matter how great Tomlin came across, it's impossible to pronounce judgment on his hiring at this point, just as it would be impossible to do if one of the Steelers' other finalists -- their assistant head coach Russ Grimm and Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera -- had been hired. Each of the three men has an impressive resume. Each has worked for mentors in the coaching business -- Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, in Tomlin's case -- who can't wait to tell the world how wonderful he is. Each, on paper at least, appears to need just that one big break.
One more thing, though:
Each has never worked a game as an NFL head coach.
So who can say for sure?
We'll know more about Tomlin after he settles in and does his thing at the team's minicamps and training camp. Certainly, we'll know more once the games count and he has to motivate the players, do all the X's and O's and make instantaneous decisions under the gun and -- don't underestimate this -- match the high level of success established by his predecessor, Bill Cowher.
Only then will we begin to be able to judge Tomlin.
For now, though, it would be a lot easier to endorse Tomlin's hiring if the Steelers were coming off a 4-12 season and had a crying need for major change. But that's not the case. The team went an underachieving 8-8 this season, but the players rightfully believe, with a little luck and good health, they can make it two Super Bowls in three years next season. For that reason and that reason alone, the wish here was for the Steelers to stay in-house with their hire, preferably their former offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, who took the Arizona Cardinals' head coaching job, but, if not him, Grimm. No matter the new coach, he is going to have to learn on the job. Better to do it while maintaining some semblance of continuity than doing it amid significant change, the kind of change Tomlin surely will insist on even after keeping LeBeau and maybe playing some 4-3 defense.
Obviously, the Rooneys disagree.
It's hard to believe the Rooney Rule didn't have some impact on their decision.
It's nice to think we're long past race mattering in sports, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we believe that. We saw as recently as Sunday that race still very much is an issue when everyone -- including the two men involved -- made a big deal of Dungy's Colts and Lovie Smith's Bears winning the conference championship games, putting the first African-American coaches in the Super Bowl and assuring one will win Feb. 4 in Miami.
Race also still has to matter to Dan Rooney, even if he won't admit it. He's chairman of the NFL's committee on workplace diversity and, in 2002, pushed for the rule that mandates NFL teams to interview a minority when it has a head coaching vacancy.
Tomlin acknowledged the Rooney Rule probably opened the Steelers' door to him but downplayed that it had any part in his hiring once the candidates started competing for the job. "Men like the Rooneys want to win."
Rooney, for his part, said race had no impact in the Tomlin hiring.
It would have been shocking if he said otherwise.
That doesn't mean there wasn't at least some pressure on Rooney through this coaching search. The rule is named after him. Two of the NFL's seven black coaches last season -- Arizona's Dennis Green and Oakland's Art Shell -- were fired. Three of the teams that had openings this month, Atlanta, Arizona and Miami, filled them with white coaches. None of it looks good for a league that has a majority of black players.
Rooney knows that.
It's understandable if Rooney has reached the point in his life where he really cares about his impact on the NFL. He's already a giant in the game, a Hall of Famer. The hiring of Tomlin will only enhance his brilliant reputation at league headquarters.
It remains to be seen, though, if the decision turns out to be popular in Pittsburgh and with Steelers fans.
First Published January 23, 2007 12:00 am