A few days ago, Terry Bradshaw, hall of fame quarterback, offered his thoughts on Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. They were not kind:
“I don’t think he’s a great coach at all. . . . He’s a nice coach. To me, I’ve said this, he’s really a great cheerleader guy. I don’t know what he does. I don’t think he is a great coach at all. His name never even pops in my mind when we think about great coaches in the NFL.”
The quote raises obvious questions. What makes a great coach? What does a great coach do? What is a "great cheerleader guy," as opposed to a great coach? Who is a great coach in the NFL today, or ever? And most importantly, what does Mike Tomlin's race have to do with any of this?
Is Mike Tomlin a great coach? His numbers at least put him in the conversation. In his ten years as head coach of the Steelers, he has compiled a 159-102 win-loss record. That means that he has won 64% of his games. In those ten years, he has led his team to the playoffs 7 times, has won the AFC twice, and won one Super Bowl. On its face, this is an impressive record. By way of a comparison, look at everybody's hall of fame coach Bill Belichick. In 22 years, Belichick has a 67% winning percentage, 6 AFC championships and 4 Super Bowl wins.
How do we measure these numbers? How do we compare Tomlin's numbers to all great coaches in the league, past, present and future? I cannot pretend to know. But the beauty of this particular debate is that a lot of people have lots of answers, and they do not always agree with each other. Here's an answer, from Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Tomlin is a good coach, not a great one, "but numbers without context are meaningless." And the only context that matters, according to Zeise, is that Tomlin "has never had to coach even one season without an elite/Hall of Fame-level quarterback." This means that "Tomlin has to be judged on a different scale and with a different curve than most coaches of the past, say, 35 years." Tomlin also inherited a great team. And his drafts have been mediocre. He could be a great coach, Zeise concludes, "but he needs to win at least another Super Bowl, and it wouldn’t hurt if he had a run of successful seasons after [his hall of fame quarterback] is gone."
This is the line that sticks with me: "Tomlin has to be judged on a different scale and with a different curve than most coaches of the past, say, 35 years." I am not about to fact check whether most hall of fame coaches of the last 35 years have had a hall of fame quarterback or not. But we know this: Belichick has won four Super Bowls with the best quarterback of his generation, maybe of all time. Does that take away from his accomplishments? We also know that John Gruden won a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay with what may be, at best a pedestrian quarterback. Does that make him a great coach? And we also know that Don Shula never won a Super Bowl with hall of famer Dan Marino as quarterback.
Is the point, then, that Mike Tomlin's record is as-of-yet incomplete? Is the point that we ought not anoint Tomlin as a great coach until he coaches for longer than ten years? Maybe so. But that's not the point that Bradshaw was making. He was not making an epistemic claim but an ontological one. The point was not whether Tomlin's record was the record of a great coach, but whether Tomlin is a great coach irrespective of his record. He is not, according to Bradshaw. Rather, he is "a great cheerleader guy." That's who he is, and this is something that a better record will not change.
Think about that for a second. What makes a great coach and how do we know? These are old questions. What is merit and how do we determine it? I don't pretend to know. And anyone who pretends otherwise is probably lying, or hasn't given these questions the thoughtfulness they deserve.
A cheerleader guy
Bradshaw did give Tomlin credit for being "a great cheerleader guy." I think I know what that means. Tomlin is not a strategy guy, and Xs and Os guy, a coach who will out-scheme and out-smart the opposition. What he will do, according to Bradshaw, is rally the troops and cheer them on.
This quote reminds me of something I read years ago about Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the greatest managers in English soccer history. Ferguson's greatest strength as a manager, or so I read, were his leadership qualities, the way he could rally a team to fight for a common goal. One could even think of it as "cheerleading." I never thought of it as a negative thing. To be sure, "cheerleading" may be a negative as applied to Tomlin. But without question, the term, standing alone, is loaded. Think of how many Super Bowl winning coaches you know who are considered "cheerleader guys" and nothing more. I can't think of many.
The look of a coach...and race
And this brings me to the elephant in the room. Mike Tomlin is Black. He was hired only after the NFL instituted the Rooney rule, which required teams to interview an applicant of color before moving forward with a coaching hire. Tomlin was not in the team's radar, and the interview was extended only as a courtesy. But Tomlin blew away the interview and got the job. The hire turned a lot of heads around the league. It was unexpected, to say the least. Ten years and a Super Bowl win later, we are still debating whether Tomlin is a good coach, or a great one.
This debate also reminds me of hall of fame quarterback Warren Moon. Or Doug Williams. Or Randall Cunningham. They were all very good quarterbacks, even great, but the football world had a hard time seeing their greatness. They did not look the part of "great quarterback." They were Black quarterbacks before they were great quarterbacks. And yes, race had everything to do with it.
I would love to believe that we don't see race, that we only see merit, and that the world is ready to move past race conscious policy making. But I know better. And if you don't believe me, do a simple thought experiment. Imagine a white coach who has won a Super Bowl and been to the playoffs in 7 of his first 10 years in the league, and whether we would be debating if he was a great coach or merely a cheerleading guy. Or think about how many mediocre coaches get second chances, and how many coaches of color get only one chance.