Mike Tomlin’s career has followed a similar path of a specific Hall of Fame coach

One of the more common complaints I read on the Internet is that Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin “isn’t a good coach”. I spend enough time defending that comment alone that I feel I should be paid to be his personal PR manager. Some of the more egregious comments are calling for Tomlin’s firing, drudging up old “cheerleader” comments that were made by Terry Bradshaw, or claiming that the current coach inherited Bill Cowher‘s team.

If that sounds like a repeated statement, it’s the same one I made in an article I wrote at the end of January. That article grew out of a question I asked our SCU Twitter followers: which of the following four Hall of Fame coaches has the most Super Bowl victories?


My choices were deliberate: three of the four on the list were among the most recent entries into Canton, Ohio. The other is so eerily similar to the Steelers current head coach, that it required its own article.

That coach is a famous name in the world of pro football: John Madden.

As I dug deeper and deeper, it struck me that John Madden’s history has many of the same parallels as Mike Tomlin’s path thus far.

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Madden and Tomlin’s similarities intertwine back to their college days where each excelled on the offensive side of the ball. While Tomlin was a wide receiver and tight end who wasn’t on the pro radar with William and Mary, Madden bounced around to different colleges before being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles as an offensive tackle.

Each had their different paths to becoming position coaches in the pros. Madden would be hired by Oakland Raiders owner and then coach, Al Davis, as their linebackers coach. Tomlin would enter the NFL with Tampa Bay working with defensive backs.

In 1969, Madden would become pro football’s youngest head coach at 32 years of age. Ironically, Tomlin would be only the third head coach hired by the Steelers since the same year. He took over the role at age 34, becoming the youngest head coach to win the Super Bowl: only one coach removed from John Madden’s win at age 40, which was superseded by Jon Gruden (who Tomlin coached under that season).

Age and a single Super Bowl title aren’t the only things which link both coaches. Both Madden and Tomlin reached 100 wins in their first ten seasons as a head coach. Others with that same distinction include the aforementioned Tony Dungy and Mike McCarthy as well.

Which leads to the grand question: why do I believe Madden is a better comparison with Tomlin than someone else like McCarthy? Or is someone else a better fit to compare with Tomlin?

The answer is quite simple: Madden and Tomlin are both successful coaches who just so happened to be caught in the shadow of a dynasty. The one which Madden ran up against is well known to Pittsburgh fans: Chuck Noll and his 70’s Steelers, including a controversial loss to Franco Harris‘ “Immaculate Reception”.

While the “Jesse Caught It” controversy is still fresh in our minds, it may never live up to the play Madden refuses to comment on to this day. Yet, Mike Tomlin has also had to compete with a juggernaut in the AFC with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. While Noll won four Lombardi trophies during Madden’s time with the Raiders, Belichick has won two and appeared in two more during Tomlin’s era in Pittsburgh.

While doing anything short of winning a Super Bowl is often looked at as a failure by most critics, the rarity of which it comes is exemplified by the Hall of Fame coaches mentioned. Further analysis revealed that Madden’s Raiders were only able to win the game’s greatest prize once in eight postseason trips during his ten years as the Oakland head coach.

Tomlin has also only won a single Super Bowl… also in eight playoff appearances, over eleven seasons in Pittsburgh.

For now, that’s where the similarities end. Madden retired from coaching at age 42 as the youngest coach to compile 100 regular season wins. Tomlin is still going strong at age 45 following his eleventh season in the league, with perhaps an opportunity to add to his lore.

But if he were to retire today, where would he rank among the game’s greats?

He’s clearly a match for Hall of Famer John Madden. He currently has a greater career win percentage than Marv Levy, Bill Parcells and Tony Dungy.

That’s something to chew on, as Madden, Parcells, and Dungy are the three most recent coaches enshrined in Canton. They aren’t the only leaders to be immortalized there, as names such as Halas, Lambeau, Lombardi, and Brown grace the halls. So do Super Bowl winners such as Landry, Noll, Gibbs, and Shula.

But outside of those names (and a few select others) just how will history stack up for someone like Mike Tomlin? Will they be revered or overlooked?

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If Super Bowls were the only benchmark, perhaps Madden, Levy, and Dungy would not have made it in. But if we take into consideration their accomplishments when compared with Tomlin’s, there’s a solid argument for not only he, but others like Payton or McCarthy as well as a few more names Kacsmar pointed out like Bill Cowher or Dan Reeves (who are also just as, if not more deserving as their story is already complete).

Add the volatile coaching climate of the present day NFL where teams fire their head guy after only a few seasons to prove their worth, and I’d make a case that the Steelers current head coach may also one day be in consideration to have his bronze bust sitting on the shelf by John Madden’s.

After all, their stories are too similar to just dismiss Tomlin as someone “who consistently struggles with the same problems year after year”.

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