In search of the real Mike Tomlin The Steelers head coach has been celebrated and derided but rarely understood
In search of the real Mike Tomlin The Steelers head coach has been celebrated and derided but rarely understood
He has one of the most famous faces in football, despite the care he takes to keep it shadowed. It’s a fearsome face, both fatherly and somewhat fanatical, the face of a tender executioner. It shows everything and nothing, and hides everything and nothing. It is stoical, its primary expression a manifestation of will and its secondary expression an acceptance of fate. It distrusts elation as much as it distrusts despair and is particularly good at exhibiting, and then instantly recovering from, disappointment. Its primary features are those of a man going incognito—a beard, the hat pulled permanently down low over his eyes, which tell all his secrets. His eyes never stop moving until they settle, like spotlights, on the object of their outrage or affection. It is not the face of a relaxed man but of one who can’t wait and can’t bear to see what comes next. Sometimes he darts his tongue, or punctuates his sentences by tightening his lips, yet his face is as unlined as a baby’s, as though the act of self-preservation required of every professional football coach—even one who has become a fixture of American Sundays—extends, in his case, all the way to the skin.
Mike Tomlin’s face is the face of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and therefore of tradition; his face is also the face of African-American coaches in the NFL, and therefore of the most provisional and hard-won progress. He is an emblematic figure whose image is minted on both sides of a coin that never stops flipping, at least in part because he has never had to call heads or tails. Winning has not only been a Lombardi-esque everything during Tomlin’s 11 years as the Steelers’ head coach. It has also been enough to make questions of personal and racial identity seem at once beside the point and self-evident, which is how he likes them. He has had the luxury of being always himself and never himself; the caretaker of tradition is also the agent of change. But what happens when he loses games he should have won and people start looking for someone—a face—to blame?
Look at him now, in the dead of winter, enduring a practice on a mild, blue-sky day. He is instantly recognizable as soon as he steps onto the field, but the fans mark his arrival with a deep murmur rather than a greeting, and he acknowledges them with a gesture—a hurriedly raised hand—but not a glance. No one in the stands calls him by his first name or begs for his autograph, but his presence is still oddly electric. He is wearing a red hat instead of his customary black one, and he has exchanged his standard-issue “Property of the Steelers” sweatshirt for a plain white jersey and loose-fitting black pants that billow in the stiff breeze. But the hat is still pulled low. With his hands in his pockets, he goes from player to player and coach to coach, a famously taciturn man chatting them up as if they were guests at a party, changing directions with a little hop step that seems the vestige of an old-school dance move, until at last he settles himself against a goalpost, his right knee cocked at 45 degrees and the sole of his foot pressed against the pad.
It is a pose familiar to anyone who has seen the Steelers take pregame warm-ups. But here’s the rub: Tomlin is not in Pittsburgh. He is not coaching the Steelers. A week before the Super Bowl, he is not preparing his team for the championship game but rather leading a hodgepodge of players at the peak of their powers into a game that underlines the depths of their disappointment: the Pro Bowl. Tomlin, in his every public utterance, spurns all consolations, but here he is, the head coach of the AFC in what is, by definition, a consolation prize.
There are nine Steelers wearing red AFC jerseys, and the size of their contingent offers, like so much else that happened in Pittsburgh over the past year, an example of the abiding success and failure of the man they call Coach T—success because their attendance in Florida is a sign of the deep respect they have for their coach, and failure because it is still hard to conceive how a team with 10 Pro Bowlers as well as a quarterback headed to the Hall of Fame could have lost at home in its first game of the playoffs, again, to the Jaguars.
Mike Tomlin delivers in front of the mic. The Steelers coach always seems to provide entertaining sound bites about the team to the media.
“This is not where any of us wanted to be,” says Garrett Giemont, also known as Coach Gie, one of Tomlin’s assistants who, like all of his assistants, has made the trip from Pittsburgh. “But it’s still a great honor, and everyone’s trying to make the best of it.”
The Pro Bowl exists on the promise that a violent sport can still provide its participants an Orlando vacation, which is why I’ve come to a practice that is a combination walk-through, corporate outing and weekend autograph show. This is as relaxed as people involved in the business of football allow themselves to get, and—as a person who has been tracking Mike Tomlin for the better part of two months—I want to see whether he can relax enough to talk to me. Can Coach T relax? He can with his players, and he can at the Steelers’ complex in Pittsburgh, where he is a booming and even boisterous presence, and where I’ve seen him raise his fist and shout “World domination!” before moving on to get a soft drink. But in public, and especially in the company of reporters, he is so fiercely attached to his all-business persona that his all-business persona seems attached to him and has been since … well, that’s what I want to ask.
I catch him as he leaves the field and find myself trying to keep up, because he never slows down.
“Coach, I’m the guy who’s been asking to talk to you since December. I came down to see if we could make it happen …”
“I’m not interested, my man,” he says briskly but not unpleasantly.
“But Coach, I’m here. The one thing I’ve learned about you is that you like talking to people. Well, so do I. How about …”
And now he comes to a stop, though not to rest. He has a sturdy squarish body and a sturdy squarish face, but there’s a shiftiness about him, a side-to-side energy that takes over once his forward motion ends. He does not reveal his countenance. He does not turn his head, only his eyes under the encroaching brim of his red hat.
“Listen, my man, I respect what you guys do,” he says. “But I’m just not interested. I’m a worker, not a talker.” And then off he goes, setting out on the beelined path he never really abandoned, confirming everything that his players and colleagues say about him and leaving behind a self-description that is only half true.
This is not a story about Mike Tomlin. At least, it’s not entirely about Tomlin, because it can’t be. He’s about something bigger than himself—which is what makes him the second-most famous coach in the NFL and a foil to the first. It is easy to say what Bill Belichick stands for because he stands for Belichick and the Belichick Way, system before player. There is not a coach who has succeeded in enduring the spotlight that comes with the job without first figuring out how to be, as a coach, and what Belichick has figured out is how to turn coaching into a unified field, with everything subordinate to his ruthless quest for strategic and tactical advantage. Because he has won, everything he does stands for winning, even when he gets rid of two of Tom Brady’s key receivers, even the minimalist theater of his news conferences, even his self-defeating grudges against certain players and even, in the end, his mistakes.
It is harder to say what Tomlin stands for, because he has endured a recent run of postseason disappointments and because he’s been saddled with the accusatory accolade of being a “players’ coach.” What he has tried to stand for is nothing less than football itself and the simplicity it requires and rewards—football as a kind of unified field, humanized. He has his own system, after all, although even within the Steelers’ compound, very few people think of it, or him, in terms of X’s and O’s. “That’s not his vision!” Coach Gie says. “His vision is so much bigger than that! His vision is to be a leader of men!” But football is becoming less simple by the day, as Tomlin has discovered on the field and off, as a national audience discovered on a Monday night back in early December, when the Steelers played the Bengals in a game broadcast nationally by ESPN. Billed as a rivalry game, it turned into a demonstration of just how nonmetaphorical a sport football really is, the rivalry touching off a bloodbath, the bloodbath ending with real human bodies littering the field. The game left viewers with one indelible image after another: JuJu Smith-Schuster standing over a blindsided Vontaze Burfict; Antonio Brown holding on to the ball after being upended by a helmet-to-helmet hit from George Iloka; and Ryan Shazier coming off the field on a cart, a spinal injury leaving him without the use of his legs.
Such incontestable carnage from such a brutally contested game might have left other coaches shaken. But Tomlin, in his postgame news conference, did not shake. He simply acknowledged the loss of a player known to be one of his favorites and at the same time the obvious: “Make no mistake, this is a tough game, a tough business. … We care about that man. We care about all the men. But that’s just a tough element of our game, one that we all understand.”
The gravest charge that a prosecutor could bring against the game of football is not that the men who coach it allow the men who play it to end up with their bodies broken and their brains damaged. The gravest charge is that the men who coach it allow the men who play it to end up with broken bodies and damaged brains for nothing—or at least for nothing more consequential than weekend entertainment—and that Shazier suffered a war wound in a game that only pretends to be war. But I knew, watching Tomlin unshakably speak, that he didn’t think about football that way, and that he certainly wouldn’t coach it if he did. He spoke as though he thought—as though he knew—that something very real was at stake when two professional football teams play a game, and I immediately wanted to know what it was.
I wound up traveling three times to Pittsburgh in an effort to find an answer, talking to players in the locker room and executives in the compound. But I never spoke to Tomlin, and so, after the third trip, I wrote him a personal email. I didn’t want to talk to him about his life, I said, having been warned from the outset that talking about his life is something he generally doesn’t like to do. But I did want him to tell me something. I wanted him to make “a moral argument for professional football,” because I’d seen his face, that face, and I knew that as a black coach, he didn’t take lightly the obligation of asking his players, most of whom are black, to sacrifice themselves. He felt it.
He declined to respond, through a Steelers spokesman.
He doesn’t always say no. He often says yes, but in the same way he says no—quickly and permanently. You just have to give him the right reason instead of the wrong one and understand that his decisions fly like lightning from the looming thunderhead of his personal history. A few years ago, for instance, a Pittsburgh pastor named Ed Glover was looking to establish a ministry centered on fatherhood. When he prayed to God, he says, God answered in no uncertain terms that he should reach out to Mike Tomlin, whom Glover wound up approaching after a speaking engagement.
“So I walk up and tell him what I want to do,” Glover says. “And he looks at me and says, ‘You want to impact men—fathers and fatherless kids?’
“I say, ‘Yes.’
“He says, ‘I’m in.’
“I’m shocked, because he didn’t hesitate at all.
“I say, ‘Coach, it’s going to be an awful lot of work …’
“He says, ‘I know.’
“I say, ‘So why do you want to do it?’
“And he says, ‘I just buried a father I barely knew.’”
The ministry the two men established is called ManUp, and Tomlin is using his NFL contacts to extend its reach to cities outside Pittsburgh. And that’s Tomlin: There is no story about him that involves waiting. Though he is familiar to fans as a glowering figure with a lethal glare, he is in reality a man who falls in love in an instant and makes other people fall in love with him. He did not intend to end up as a coach when he started coaching. He had been a wide receiver at William & Mary, and one of its former coaches, Bill Stewart, had gotten the head-coaching job at VMI and invited Tomlin to come see him. “He was getting ready to go to law school,” says the late Stewart’s son, Blaine. “But as soon as he got to VMI, my father put him in a room with the wide receivers. A week later, he was the wide receivers coach. My father lured him into it. One week and he was hooked.”
The same thing happened when Tomlin first visited the Steelers, but in reverse. He is known as proof of the promise of the Rooney Rule—the league requirement, championed by then-Steelers owner Dan Rooney, that every team looking to fill an executive or head-coaching position interview at least one minority applicant. When Bill Cowher retired as Pittsburgh’s head coach in 2007, Tomlin was the requisite applicant, with five years as defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay, one year as defensive coordinator in Minnesota and just 34 years on earth under his belt. But the Rooneys themselves knew little about him when they met him other than that they weren’t expecting to hire him. “We had a couple of internal candidates we felt good about,” says the late Dan’s son, Art Rooney II. “We weren’t going to just give them the job, but we figured we’d probably hire one of them. Mike came into the interview a long shot.”
He left a favorite. “If you sit in a room with Mike, you’re going to be impressed,” Rooney says. “He had something we were looking for. You want a person who’s going to be able to get and keep the attention of 50 20-somethings for most of the year, day in and day out. Presence is a big deal.”
That Tomlin is a born closer is the aspect of his personality most surprising to those who don’t know him and most obvious to those who do. When I speak to Ed Glover, he compares Tomlin to a maitre d’ at a restaurant: “If you go to his house, he literally can’t do enough for you.” When I speak to Tony Dungy, he says that when he interviewed Tomlin for the Tampa Bay job in 2001, “I knew after 15 minutes I was going to hire him. When you meet Mike, you’re taken right away by the communication, the openness and the frankness.” And when I speak to Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert, he says that he didn’t know Tomlin until he brought him in as a candidate to replace Cowher. “To this day, we’ve been together for 11 years, and he’s very much who we thought he’d be, as far as being an open book,” Colbert says. “Everybody knows what he’s about, where he stands and how he feels.”
“But he seems like such a mystery from the outside,” I say. “Is it that he becomes less mysterious once you get to know him?”
“A mystery,” Colbert says, “is the one thing he is not.”
There is a disagreement within the Pittsburgh training compound on the question of what kind of coach Tomlin is—a disagreement between the executive suites and the locker room. “I don’t agree with the outside assessment that he’s a players’ coach,” Colbert says. “The perception of a players’ coach is that a player can treat the coach as a friend. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Coach Tomlin will make no bones about challenging a player or getting after a player or disciplining a player when it has to happen.”
But then, the assessment that Tomlin is a players’ coach is not necessarily an outside one. It’s just that the phrase has a different currency in the locker room than it does in the offices upstairs. In the locker room, Tomlin is considered a players’ coach by one player after another not because he’s easygoing but rather because he’s honest. Indeed, what’s startling about talking to the men who play for the Steelers is the unanimity of opinion about the man who is their coach. Listen to cornerback Joe Haden and you’ve essentially listened to them all, right down to the vocabulary:
“The thing about Coach T is that he’s very, very black-and-white. He’s very, very straightforward. He lets you know exactly where you stand. And he lets you know where you stand in front of your peers if you’re not holding down what you’re supposed to be holding down. If I’m doing it, I’m gold. If I’m not, I either got to pick my stuff up or Coach T is going to tell me he’s going shopping.”
“There are no surprises and no excuses,” says running back Le’Veon Bell. “If there are two guys battling for one helmet, Coach T will let everybody know. ‘Hey y’all, these are two guys battling for one helmet. I’m going to watch them in practice today. I’m going to watch them in practice all week, and we’re going to see who gets this helmet.’ And everybody knows.”
This is the vision Tomlin has brought to his job, and to make sure everyone understands it, he boils it down to maxims and mottos that players, coaches and ball boys commit to memory. Of course, every coach has stock sayings; Tomlin, though, speaks jockstrap Zen as a second language, and when one afternoon, after practice, I ask offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva about Tomlin’s koans, he asks the player at the next locker in turn, and soon there rises a chorus of enormous men in towels reciting the broken poetry of Coach T:
The standard is the standard.
The first step of getting better is showing up.
Don’t take it.
Don’t get caught less than ready.
Don’t be that guy.
And this from Antonio Brown: We are McDonald’s.
And yet for all his insistence on simplicity, Tomlin remains a complicated man and football a complicated sport. For all the unanimity of opinion concerning Coach T, there remains in the locker room a diversity of experience, and so of interpretation. And for all his determination to keep things “very, very black-and-white,” he still has to live in a world of black and white and, yes, gray. And so do his players. Take Villanueva, for example. He is grateful to Coach T because Coach T invented Villanueva as a football player. Villanueva had just been cut by the Eagles as a defensive end in 2014 when Coach T invited him to work out as an offensive tackle. Villanueva came to Pittsburgh, where, he says, “Coach T talked to me for an hour. And the word he used was ‘trust.’” Six feet, 9 inches tall, the son of a Spaniard who served in NATO, Villanueva had graduated from West Point and done three tours in Afghanistan. He recognized in Tomlin a kind of man familiar to him: “Coach T is a battalion sergeant major—a really good battalion sergeant major who knows every detail about every soldier in the battalion. That’s the personality he has. That’s who he is.”
Villanueva rejects any comparison of football to war—“they have nothing to do with one another.” But it was his experience in war that put him in a difficult position during the last weekend of last September, when every team in the NFL responded to Donald Trump’s denunciation of the national anthem protests and Tomlin responded as a football coach, putting team unity ahead of individual expression. The night before the Steelers were set to play the Bears in Chicago, he addressed his players and told them that whatever they decided to do, they had to do it together. The Steelers met, and in a spirit of compromise decided to stay in the tunnel during the anthem. It was something Villanueva couldn’t do, and so he compromised with the compromise, standing alone at the tunnel’s entrance at Soldier Field with his hand over his heart, and becoming something he says he never wanted to be: a poster-ready symbol of the resistance to the Resistance.
“Because of my actions … there was a huge sort of pushback on Coach Tomlin for allowing this to happen. From my perspective, which is as a veteran, I don’t think Coach Tomlin wanted any of this to happen to the team,” Villanueva says. “I don’t think he wanted the protests to start in the first place. He’s an African-American from Virginia and understands the struggles of minorities in this country. He’s not a person who gets into politics; he’s not a person who wants to divide; he wants to unify in everything he does. Every American would love Coach Tomlin if they knew him personally.”
Villanueva apologized to Tomlin and the team two days after the anthem protests, even though Tomlin said Villanueva had “nothing to apologize for.” But now he apologizes again, not only to Tomlin but for him.
Now take another example. Mike Mitchell came to Pittsburgh in 2014 as a successor to the hard-hitting safeties who have helped define the Steelers tradition. He is, unapologetically, a punisher, and two days after his teammate Ryan Shazier left the field in Cincinnati with no feeling in his legs, he offered an unapologetic defense of his punishing sport in an 11-minute monologue that became notorious on the internet as Mitchell’s “rant.” It was not a rant but rather a considered treatise on violence and what Mitchell termed “a matter of legacy”—on football as a compact a man enters with himself to secure a better life for his family. And when I heard it, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I also heard Tomlin. I wound up meeting with Mitchell, who comes to the interview brandishing a letter he had just received from the NFL notifying him that he had been fined $36,000 for unnecessary roughness.
I had wanted Tomlin to make a moral argument for football. But Mitchell makes a moral argument for Tomlin and does so by doing what Villanueva would never do—by comparing football to war. “I don’t carry an M4 or an A2 and put bullets in people’s heads,” he says. “But at the end of the day I have a physical job to do. You have to be a combatant.” Does Tomlin use that kind of language when he speaks to his team? “I take responsibility for the language I use,” Mitchell says. But Tomlin does speak as though well aware of what’s at stake in an NFL football game, especially for a black man. And what’s at stake? “Everything,” Mitchell says.
And that, for Mitchell, is the difference between Tomlin and nearly all the men who have coached him before. “When you get an African-American man as your coach, the communication can be very clear. When Coach Tomlin says something to me, at no point in my mind do I think he’s dicking with me, or wonder what he’s thinking of me. I’ve had coaches in the past, maybe it’s their Southern accent, but when they’re yelling at you, you’re like, ‘Damn, how did they mean that?’
“With Coach Tomlin, there’s none of that. It’s like having a conversation with my father. Oftentimes he’s telling you something you don’t want to hear, but it’s for your own good. I find immense joy in playing for one of the greatest African-American coaches ever to coach the game.”
And then, two months later, Tomlin and Colbert cut Mitchell from the Steelers’ roster in order to make room under the salary cap.
Talk to white players who play for a black coach and they will tell you that the color of their coach’s skin does not matter. Of course it doesn’t matter, why should it matter? It doesn’t matter one bit. Talk to African-American players who play for a black coach and they will tell you that the color of their coach’s skin matters deeply, powerfully, necessarily and unavoidably. Of course it matters, it has to matter, it’d better matter, you’re damn right it matters, because it matters, just for starters, to them.
And this is the insoluble paradox at the heart of the racial conversation in the United States, circa 2018: that white America speaks of race as a consideration to be transcended, and black America speaks of race as a force to be acknowledged; that white America believes that the purpose of talking about race is to one day end the conversation, and black America believes that the purpose of talking about race is to one day get the real conversation started.
Mike Tomlin is a black man who is also a coach. Does that make him a black coach, or has he transcended categorization and earned the right to be thought of as a coach, period? After all, he is not only one of the most successful African-American coaches in the history of the NFL but also the only coach since Curly Lambeau not to finish a season under .500 in any of his first 11 seasons. And yet, if he deserves to be thought of as “more than a black coach,” he also deserves to be thought of as nothing less than a black coach, a coach whose importance lies not in the fixed and monumental face he shows the world but rather in the heart he shows his players.
It is, you see, an African-American heart, which is to say a father’s heart, armored and exposed and aching. He is not just a father to his players; he often seeks and finds players who have lost their fathers or who are trying to man up and be fathers themselves. The man with a ministry is also a coach with a mission, the difference being that the coach’s mission includes sending young men into the front lines of something very much like battle. It is well-known that Shazier was and is one of Coach T’s favorites, a player he loves like a son. “I was there the week before Ryan got hurt,” Dungy says. “It was very clear, the relationship that they had, the depth of that relationship.”
It is also well-established within the Steelers’ compound that Coach T is working hard to teach safer tackling techniques, repeating “Don’t hit the head, don’t use the head” so many times that it’s become one of his maxims. But as every father learns, neither love nor tutelage is any guarantee of protection, and Shazier used his head against the Bengals, ending up with an injury that changed the course not just of his career but also of his life. Tomlin couldn’t even stay on the field as the medical staff attended to him, because that was Colbert’s job—or, as Colbert says, “My job at that point was to keep Coach informed, and his job at that point was to understand but to try to win the game.”
He won the game even as the game became infamous, because that’s what he does. He is not just a black coach and not just a players’ coach; he is first and foremost a football coach, so his story is one of moral advantage, unflaggingly accrued but then devastatingly applied. It is one thing to inspire players with the language of common sacrifice; it is quite another to see them commonly sacrificed, week after week and year after year. But that is Tomlin’s job, which he does with eyes shadowed and heart on one of the yellow sleeves of the Steelers varsity jacket he wears on the sideline. Along with Dungy, he is one of the two most successful African-American head coaches in the history of football, but he is also a black man who bears the ancient and excruciating obligation of speaking to his sons as if they were warriors and speaking to warriors as if they were his sons.
“I’m a worker and not a talker,” he tells me when I encounter him at the Pro Bowl.
In fact, he works by talking and talks incessantly. He is a chatterbox, even during games, especially during games. That’s how he competes. When the Steelers played New England in December—and Tomlin squared off against Bill Belichick—he spent the entire game roaming the sideline in bright white sneakers, engaging his players in conversation. He talked to them individually, and he talked to them in units. He talked to them when they came off the field, and he talked to them before they went back into the game. He talked to them when they talked to him. He talked to his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, and he talked to his defensive captain, Cameron Heyward, and he talked to Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell. He talked to L.T. Walton and Vince Williams and Stephon Tuitt, and he talked to Mike Hilton and William Gay. He talked to Tyson Alualu and Brian Allen, and he talked to Mike Mitchell and Sean Spence and Artie Burns, and he talked several times, and with high passion, to Sean Davis, who had to cover Rob Gronkowski and got eaten alive.
And what did he say? “Stay together,” says Heyward, a defensive end whom Tomlin has asked, explicitly, to lead and to “be the heart and soul” of the Steelers’ defense. “No matter how crazy the situation gets or how pissed off you get, stay together. Coach T doesn’t talk just to talk. What he says is very meaningful and straightforward. You have to appreciate that during a game. It’s not always going to be nice. But he’s challenging us to get better, and we can challenge each other.”
And then they lost.
They lost because the refs applied the fractal geometry of the NFL’s catch rule to a Pittsburgh touchdown and somehow proved that it never happened. But they also lost because Tomlin didn’t have any timeouts to stop the clock before the last play of the game. They lost because he forced Roethlisberger to improvise, and Roethlisberger meatballed a pass to a New England defensive back.
And then three weeks later he lost again, in the Steelers’ first game of the playoffs, against Jacksonville. He lost because his Steelers were overwhelmed at the outset, and because when they finally came within seven points of a tie, Tomlin called an onside kick that, with 2 minutes and 18 seconds left to play, effectively ended a game that should have been contested to the last tick of the clock.
He had spent the season out of character. Or, more precisely, he had spent the season more and more in character, with the mask he has worn for so long—that fierce and wary expression of pure will—coming slightly dislodged. As his friend and former player Ryan Clark of ESPN says: “You get tired of working hard not to be you.” Maybe Tomlin got tired; or maybe he finally felt comfortable enough to start showing his personality. Before the New England game, he gave an interview to Dungy in which he let down his guard altogether and stated forthrightly that even if the Steelers lost, they’d be playing the Patriots again, in the AFC championship game. “Most coaches wouldn’t say that, even if they believed it,” Dungy says. “But Mike said what he believed.”
When the 13–3 Steelers lost again in the playoffs, there would be no rematch with the Patriots. There would be no inevitable AFC championship game, and suddenly things were what they never are in Pittsburgh: different. Tomlin came under attack from newspaper columnists, television commentators and even a consortium of owners with a minority stake in the team, not merely for tactical errors he’d made at crucial moments of crucial games but for being himself and then for not being himself. He was slapped for doing what he had been slapped for not doing—for talking too much after a career of not talking enough, and for not only allowing his players to talk but also for being foolish enough to encourage them. There were stories of James Harrison falling asleep in meetings before he was cut, and offensive coordinator Todd Haley getting in a bar fight before he was let go, and Le’Veon Bell coming late for workouts before asking for $15 million a year, and suddenly one of the most controlled and controlling human beings on earth found himself characterized as an enabler of chaos.
It was not a failure of leadership, and in the end Art Rooney II is not going to fire a leader of men. But it was a failure of the unified field Tomlin has tried to create, because he stood for different things to different people in different situations. The face of Steelers tradition was now the face of the Steelers’ tradition of underachieving in the playoffs, and the face of the most successful black coach in the NFL was now the face of a players’ coach who lost control of his players. Tomlin had tried to change with the times, explaining the latitude he offered his players on social media and in locker room interviews as nothing more than an acknowledgment of a new reality. But in truth he had not changed at all—he remained what he always was and always would be, a man determined to treat his men as men. That’s what made him a players’ coach, and that was his moral foundation. The only difference is that he was learning what a coach like Belichick has always accepted as part of the deal: The only moral argument that matters in football is winning.
I don’t mean to stalk him. But I do. During Pro Bowl week, a resort hotel in Orlando has been given over to the NFL and its minions, including players and their families. It offers them privacy, behind a gate and a checkpoint, but it also offers credentialed journalists an opportunity to see Pro Bowlers at play and at peace, and I take it. After leaving my car with the valet, I walk through the grand entrance, only to bump into Mike Tomlin, very nearly literally. As I’m going in, he is going out, and for a moment we stand face-to-face. He is wearing a gray pullover sweater and, yes, a hat that shadows his eyes—but it’s a driver’s cap, in a snazzy gray that matches his sweater. His wife is with him, and they are going out to dinner or for a night on the town.
“Coach!” I hear myself exclaim.
“How you doing?” he says, and hustles outside to wait for his car. I lurk in the lobby for a while to see what kind of car it is. But he disappears before I get a chance to see, and I find myself witnessing a stream of famous football players, along with their wives and children, heading to another part of the building, down the stairs. I follow, and discover a mass of them, waiting to board tour buses for Universal Studios, which is open to them and exclusively them from 8 ’til midnight. But Tomlin is not going with them—of course he isn’t. He has never played the fool, and he’s never let anybody get famous at his expense, and he’s sure as hell not going to scream on someone else’s roller coaster. From the start of his life in the public eye, he has reserved for himself the right of refusal, and both then and now he has exercised it with a flourish.
The next day, I see him again at practice. He’s wearing the same uniform he wore the day before, a coach who believes in keeping things black and white, dressed in a white jersey and loose black pants, flapping in the wind. On my first day in Orlando, I’d asked Villanueva whether anything had changed after the loss to the Jaguars, and he’d answered, “The only thing that’s changed is that we lost. You wouldn’t be asking that question if we’d won.” But they didn’t win, and how big a change that represents can be seen right now, with Tomlin, a man who coaches as if everything is at stake, sentenced to coach a game that means nothing at all, a parody of a game that shows what football looks like stripped of the sheen of war. He has nothing to lose, and neither do I, so when the honk of a horn signals the end of practice, I approach him once again. He sees me coming and frowns as though I’ve stepped on his shoes.
“Coach, whenever I talk to your players, they tell me about your maxims and slogans—you know, ‘The standard is the standard.’ So I’ve been wondering if you might have one for civilians. I’m wondering if you might have one for reporters—for me.”
I am hoping that I can get a “Don’t be that guy” out of him. But of course by now I am that guy, so he stops short and for once faces me squarely, with a pained expression. “You took me by surprise, man,” he says, without intending a compliment, and then he shrugs. “I got nothing for you.”
But that’s not quite right.
I’ve asked him for what he doesn’t want to give; he’s given me what I don’t want to get. There has been a misunderstanding, a question asked and answered in two different languages, but that doesn’t mean that nothing of value has been exchanged. He has given me a look at his face, which is not even close to a unified field but rather a face that has to choose between refusal and reconciliation, between self-protection and authenticity, in every flip of the coin. He is even generous enough to give me the glare, before he gives me his back, and is gone.