Black leaders hailing Steelers' pick of Tomlin
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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Mike Tomlin talks football after being introduced as the new head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While Mike Tomlin and his family were watching NFL playoff games on Sunday, just like millions of families in America, he got the call from Art Rooney II that his services were wanted as the coach to succeed Bill Cowher.
Audio commentary from new Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's inaugural press conference Monday:
He is the 16th coach in the 74-year existence of one of football's most storied franchises, and the first African-American to become head coach of the Steelers.
The call, coincidentally, came on a noteworthy day. The Bears of Lovie Smith and the Colts of Tony Dungy earned berths in Super Bowl XLI. Never before in history had an African-American coached his team to a berth in the title game, and now there are two. The game will be played the first Sunday in February, which is Black History Month.
The meaning of the moment was not lost on Tomlin yesterday as he faced about 70 reporters and 15 TV cameras in his introductory news conference. But he didn't dwell on the Super Bowl alignment.
"I acknowledge it is significant," Tomlin said. "I'm happy for those men [Smith and Dungy] because I know those men. There will be true advances in this process when [race] is no longer an issue."
As for his own status, Tomlin also acknowledged that the so-called Rooney rule may have helped him get noticed, but not to get the job. The rule is so named because Dan Rooney, as chairman of the NFL's committee on diversity, instituted a policy in 2002 that teams interviewing for a vacancy must consider a minority candidate.
"Men like the Rooneys want to win," said Tomlin. "They were looking for someone who they think is capable of doing this job."
Like the NFL, Pittsburgh has been cited by black leaders as being slow in the march toward economic and social parity.
M. Gayle Moss, head of the Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, cheered the choice but confessed some shock in that she has often pointed out the sluggish pace of blacks holding mainstream leadership positions in Pittsburgh.
"Here we are on the cusp of Black History Month, two black coaches are in the Super Bowl, Don Barden wins the casino and the Steelers announce their decision. It scares me," Moss said. "It's a step in the right direction to get the city talking about inclusion and getting African Americans to the table with more than sports."
She referred to Tomlin, who graduated from one of the country's top colleges and who has had a meteoric rise in the coaching ranks, as a "role model for African-American young males who face all too often the tragic things like death and killings."
But a football coach, especially one who follows in the footsteps of a Hall of Famer in Chuck Noll and a Super Bowl winner in Bill Cowher, can expect the harsh glare of the microscope. It comes with the territory, especially in football-mad Pittsburgh.
One person who has lived under that microscope is Lloyd McClendon, the former manager of the Pirates who was hired in late 2000 as the first African-American to lead a major professional sports franchise in this city.
He called it a "tremendous accomplishment" for Tomlin and he applauded the Rooney family for giving him the job. He also said that his firing in 2004 had everything to do with losing records and nothing to do with race.
"I got plenty of negative reaction, but it had nothing to do with being African-American," McClendon said with a chuckle. "The fans there were tremendous under the circumstances. For what we put out on the field, they were outstanding and even carried us at times. We gave them everything we had. We just didn't have enough."
When he was hired, McClendon quoted the dreams of the late Martin Luther King, and he paraphrased those sentiments yesterday.
"People should be viewed by what they bring to the table, not the color of their skin," McClendon said. "If you're qualified, you're qualified."
Dr. Larry Davis, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work and head of its Office of Race and Social Policy, rarely watches sports. But, he said, thought the greatest benefit of Tomlin's selection is that it says blacks can do more than just play sports.
"Obviously, he's smart enough to lead a whole team," Dr. Davis said.
There will be pressure, but Dr. Davis said the new coach is probably "pretty used to pressure. I doubt he'll be overwhelmed."
One football coach who celebrated the selection was Terry Smith, the head coach at Gateway High School in Monroeville for five years. A black coach in a predominantly white school, he has taken his Class AAAA team to the WPIAL playoffs every year. Gateway was in the finals in 2004.
"This is a tremendous opportunity," Smith said. "For the Rooneys to step out there and back up what they've preached for minority recruitment and hire a young African-American coach, [it] will impact the entire community."
The pressure to win transcends race, he added.
"Any coach that didn't win, fans would gripe. They are used to success with the Steelers," Smith said. "But he's smart and been around. He has to expect it."
In the phone conversations Terry Hammons had over the past few weeks with Tomlin, his friend and teammate from college, there was plenty of football talk but nary a word about breaking ground on the racial front or being a pioneer.
"It never came up," said Hammons, a graduate of Upper St. Clair High School who like Tomlin was a wide receiver at the College of William & Mary. "It really is a non-factor. He knows at the end of the day, he has to win. It's a profession. It's a business.
"He knows he stands of the shoulders of guys who came before him like Tony Dungy," added Hammons, a lawyer with a Philadelphia-based international energy company. "He's comfortable in his own skin. And he knows he has to win."
When they were teammates, the two men shared a silent signal. If things got tough, they'd put their hands in front of their faces and smile -- a gesture of smiling in the face of adversity.
"He is not going to back down from a challenge. He's a football coach first. Race is really not relevant. If he wins, they'll be naming streets after him."
First Published January 23, 2007 12:00 am