|Tomlin is 60-28 in five seasons, with three division titles, two Super Bowl berths and a title ring. (US Presswire)|
PITTSBURGH -- The notion broached recently by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook is hardly original. But at a down time on the NFL calendar -- one that, for instance, elevated the decision by Houston tailback Arian Foster to become a vegan into a national headline -- the suggestion that Steelers officials might want to consider a contract extension for coach Mike Tomlin has gained plenty of play in Steelers territory.
Not that team ownership, which historically had addressed a head coach's tenure when his deal has two years remaining, requires prodding. In a city that is at the same time both contrarian and parochial, Cook's column hasn't encountered any of the criticism that often accompanies his strongly-stated stances.
A columnist is paid to churn the waters, to precipitate the kind of passion that is typically roiled up by opinion. Even here, most public debates have relocated from the corner tavern, over an ice-cold Iron City beer, to the Internet. But there's barely been a peep of discord since Cook mentioned the timeliness for a Tomlin contract add-on.
And in my hometown, silence is not only golden, but generally regarded by most as tacit acceptance.
Tomlin, who recently turned 40, is under contract through the coming season, with a team-held option for 2013. Counting the playoffs, he is 60-28 in five seasons, and has been to the postseason all but one year. He owns three division championships and one wild card berth, two Super Bowl appearances and a title ring, and has averaged a dozen victories per year.
The Steelers have anted up handsomely for that impressive record -- a recent Forbes article pegged Tomlin's salary of $5.75 million as topped by only six NFL coaches, and the two-year extension rewarded Tom Coughlin by the New York Giants likely lifted the number to seven -- but it's probably time to dig deep again. Pittsburghers respect digging, still an admirable endeavor, and if the Steelers' brass unearths a new deal for Tomlin before the franchise begins the season at Denver on Sept 9, the move figures to be a popular one.
Not just because Tomlin has established himself here as a winner, but also as a sort of adopted 'Burgher. Sure, the Steelers' coach is a Tidewater guy by birth, having hailed from Hampton, Va., but he has been accepted by Pittsburgh and has embraced the city as well.
Last week, as I was leafing through an old binder before relegating it to the basement, and the mountain of notated material I've hoarded away in past years, I happened upon some scribbled reminders of a conversation with Tomlin from the NFL meetings in West Palm Brach, Fla., earlier this spring. The setting for the chat was the annual dinner hosted by the Steelers, principally a let-your-hair-down dinner for club officials and several media hacks with Pittsburgh ties, and Tomlin mentioned that he felt his two young sons, Michael Dean (often known as Dino) and Mason, might be "Central material" in the future.
Now to a graduate of Pittsburgh Central Catholic, the all-boys school that is more an alma mater to yours truly than his University of Pittsburgh college home, there are no more meaningful words. But Tomlin's potential choice of high schools for his sons, even a prep school with such a strong identification to the city, is just part of what has cast him as a naturalized Pittsburgher. He and wife Kiya live in the city, not in the burgeoning 'Burgh 'burbs to where legions have escaped, and have become a recognizable and essential part of the community.
When the Rooney Family selected Tomlin as coach in 2007, after Bill Cowher opted to depart the franchise for a hiatus and possible retirement, there was considerable discussion about whether Pittsburgh was ready for an African-American coach. With Tomlin less than two months removed from the start of his sixth season with the club, color is a non-factor. The city has embraced Tomlin, and vice versa, and it's hard to fathom the two not moving forward together.
Pittsburgh loves loyalty, the Steelers value stability, and Tomlin certainly seems to be about both of those qualities.
The city could transform Mount Washington -- the craggy but scenic bluff where both tourists and locals congregate for breathtaking views of the three rivers and of a skyline whose architectural stature might be surprising to those who still connote Pittsburgh with the grimy steel mills that once blackened the sky, but which long ago disappeared -- into a kind of Mount Rushmore memorial to its sports heroes. Problem is, there wouldn't be enough room, and the chiselers would periodically have to revive the stone edifice with new faces. But there would be one constant: the players from the Pirates, Steelers, Penguins, and local colleges who hugged the city's work ethic and gleaned pride from membership in the fraternity would be prominently featured in the handiwork.
Sports here are personal, imbued in the civic mentality, woven into the fabric of the populace. And so the more recent nominations for Pittsburgh's version of Mount Rushmore would probably include guys like Hines Ward, Sidney Crosby or Andrew McCutcheon, men who made their homes and vocations here, who either played their entire careers in Pittsburgh or who recently signed contracts that all but certainly will bind them to one franchise for life.
Players who either seemingly snubbed their noses at Pittsburgh or left for allegedly greener pastures are reviled. Just ask Marian Hossa, Jaromir Jagr, Barry Bonds, Zach Parise, Plaxico Burress, and others.
Over the weekend, on an extended visit to help clean out my mother's house so that she can sell it or give it to one of my nieces to keep the old row-home in the family (she is leaning toward the latter), the unabashed pride that Pittsburghers possess in their sports teams was once again evident. On Sunday, standing in front of the family church that has been merged into a newly-created parish, it was notable how many of the folks in Bloomfield, the east-end neighborhood in which I grew up, had taken to Pirates' hats and T-shirts as the resurgent Buccos attempt to rebond with the city after 19 seasons of losing records.
A friend, though, mentioned that, even with the excitement of the Pirates' surge to the top of their division, the Steelers open training camp in less than three weeks. The team, no matter how well Pittsburgh's other franchises are performing, really is always uppermost. And so it would seem fitting that, even with the time left on his contract, Tomlin would get an extended deal.
Since the Steelers hired the sainted Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll in 1969, the club has employed only three head coaches: Noll, Cowher, and now Tomlin, in 44 seasons. Tomlin's .682 winning percentage in his first five seasons is superior to those of Noll (.540) and Cowher (.640) over the same stretches of their careers. The comparison may be palpably unfair, since Noll inherited a franchise that had never won anything, and Cowher a team in need of refurbishing, but it's still notable.
Tomlin's two predecessors, though, became a part of the city's rich sports history, and he is poised to do the same. The Rooneys, and latest generational leader and team president Art Rooney II, are smart people who usually do the right thing, and that probably means a Tomlin extension. Especially given that the departures of Ward and James Farrior and Aaron Smith and others in the offseason has left the Steelers with a perceived leadership void.
Expect that several veteran players, but most prominently Tomlin as well, will step into the breach.