No... it's not what you were probably thinking, but in the spirit of Martin Luther King Day and the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama... please keep reading.
During the recent presidential elections, U.S. Rep. John Murtha (PA) declared to a global TV audience that his constituents, the folks in western PA, were racist. The next day he backpedaled a bit, saying that he only meant that they were rednecks. To show their unified disapproval of Rep. Murtha's characterization, the folks in western PA promtly re-elected Murtha to another term.
Way to send the country and Mr. Murtha a message, folks back home!
Sadly, there was an element of truth in Mr. Murtha's original statement. One of the most personally-revealing experiences I've had with this reality was in the Steelers' hiring of Mike Tomlin to replace Bill Cowher, following Cowher's resignation after the 2006 season. The hometown crowd was, quite frankly, unimpressed by the Steelers "equal-opportunity" hiring of Tomlin. Yes, I heard it called that. Many folks disguised their sentiment by pointing out that the Steelers had two excellent (white) coaches, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, already on staff. It made no sense to go outside the organization and bring in some (black) guy with only one year of coordinator experience... in Minnesota, no less. Not exactly a franchise celebrated for its winning tradition. The underlying sentiment was that a rapid collapse would almost certainly befall the Steelers. The further underlying insinuation was that this travesty would be directly related to Tomlin's race. It shames me a bit to admit such things in a public forum such as this, especially about an area that I will always think of as home. But it is impossible to clearly illustrate progress without clearly establishing a starting point.
Fortunately for Mike Tomlin, or more accurately because of him, the Steelers far exceeded the fans' immediate expectations. Following a Super Bowl XL win, Cowher led the Steelers to an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs, before resigning after the 2006 season. In his first season, Tomlin led essentially the same team, minus Pro-Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, to a 10-6 record and a last-minute playoff loss to the Jaguars. In his second season, Tomlin led the Steelers to a 12-4 record and #2 playoff seed, despite a schedule filled with the NFL's strongest opponents and the loss of Pro-Bowler/team captain, Alan Faneca. Despite these challenges, Tomlin has now equalled Cowher's number of home-field AFC Championship wins. With a Super Bowl XLIII win on February 1st, Tomlin will equal Cowher's number of Super Bowl wins... in only two seasons as the Steelers' head coach.
Still, some are quick to credit Cowher with Tomlin's immediate success. There is a perception, more accurately a misrepresentation, that Tomlin was handed a custom-tailored championship team. Indeed, much of the Steelers' Super Bowl XL roster remains intact. However, to suggest that Tomlin owes his immediate success to Cowher is ludicrous. Tomlin inherited a veteran-laden team following an 8-8 season, one year removed from a Super Bowl win. His immediate challenge was to win the respect of a close-knit locker room, recently departed by the longest-tenured NFL coach. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was gone, having accepted the head coaching position with the Cardinals. Offensive-line coach and assistant head coach Russ Grimm, upset with being passed over in favor of Tomlin, followed Whisenhunt to Arizona. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was willing to remain on Tomlin's staff. Despite significant differences in defensive philosophy, Tomlin checked his ego and wisely retained LeBeau. To his credit, Tomlin understood the tradition of excellence associated with the Steelers and knew that it would not be enough to field a competitive team. As he has stated in numerous interviews, "I pass 5 Lombardi's (trophies) on the way to my office each morning." Although the Rooney family has historically shown remarkable patience with the team's development, Tomlin knew that he had to put a winning team on the field immediately or risk losing the support of the Steelers' extensive fan base. Steeler Nation, especially the local western PA area, has never been patient with a losing team.
Tomlin's management of the players he inherited is perhaps his most impressive accomplishment. When Tomlin took over as head coach, James Harrison was a tempermantal special-teams kamikaze and reserve linebacker. Cornerback Ike Taylor appeared to be a highly-paid bust, having finished the 2006 season on the bench and in Cowher's doghouse. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was a looming question mark after a 2006 season marred by a nearly-fatal motorcycle accident, appendectomy, and overall sub-par performance. Tomlin's first draft class included linebackers Lamar Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, tight-end Matt Spaeth, cornerback William Gay, and punter Daniel Sepulveda. With the exception of Sepulveda, lost in the preseason to a knee injury, all have made critcal contributions in their second professional season... leading to the Steelers franchise's remarkable 7th Super Bowl appearance. Tomlin's second draft class in 2008 has remained mostly anonymous, relegated to special teams and development. It was Tomlin's decision, not the NFL's, to remove starting wide receiver Santonio Holmes from the lineup for a primetime matchup, following an arrest for marijuana possession. Despite a tough loss, the message to the team and the fans was clear. Under Tomlin's supervision, the character and integrity of men who wear a Steelers uniform is more important than the outcome of a football game.
Cowher is an accomplished, and likely eventual Hall of Fame coach. However, he deserves credit for little, if any, of Tomlin's immediate success. Regardless of Super Bowl XLIII's outcome, Mike Tomlin has established himself as a worthy successor to the legacy of Noll and Cowher. We have all come to appreciate that, like his recently-retired mentor (and former Steeler) Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin is an excellent coach and an excellent man. More importantly, western Pennsylvania and other previously resistant parts of Steeler Nation have begun to see Tomlin as, in fact, only half Black... and half Gold. That's about as colorblind as Steelers fans can be.