Overreactions from Steelers Nation: Mike Tomlin’s coaching tree

Welcome to my weekly edition of “Overreactions from Steelers Nation” a weekly column where I poke fun at fans, reporters, and so-called experts while trying to figure out if some of these hot takes are real – or just for attention.

The latest trend in clickbait comes from the soundwaves as well as the written format: for Mike Tomlin’s storied 16-season career, his opponents now want to argue that he doesn’t have a coaching tree.

If I were a betting man, like those who are new to sportsbooks , I’m sure you’ve heard the counterargument to what I’m about to bring up in this week’s column with some promo codes news. (If not, I’m sure you could Google “Tomlin tree” and find lots of articles from various talking heads begging for your clicks and views!)

What exactly is a coaching tree you might ask? Well, it’s any number of assistants who “branch” off of one head coach to become their own successful head coach in the NFL. For example, Mike Tomlin was a defensive backs coach under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, and thus, can be considered to have come off of “Dungy’s tree”.

The argument, if you will, is that Tomlin hasn’t groomed any young coaches into becoming successful elsewhere: and I believe that’s a bad argument for a number of reasons. Here’s why.

First of all, while I’m not a fan of Bruce Arians, he was a part of Tomlin’s tree – but people won’t give Tomlin credit, as Arians was subsequently retired/let go/fired (depending on who’s story you believe) as offensive coordinator under Coach T at the conclusion of the 2011 season. Don’t forget, Arians was first a quarterbacks coach with Bill Cowher – something which creates more of a problem when discussing trees and Tomlin’s staff, much of which was a carryover from the previous regime. (And despite Arians winning a Super Bowl, his postseason success isn’t glamourous otherwise, but that’s a story for another day.)

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One of several names that illustrate why Tomlin doesn’t have a tree of young, developing staff ripe for another team’s picking is Dick LeBeau, the polar opposite of youth unless you believe he found the Fountain of Youth, combing for 40-plus years in the NFL as a player and coach!

LeBeau, who was on a year-to-year contract with the Steelers toward the end of his run, was already a former head coach and coordinator throughout the league. “Coach Dad” was still coaching at a time when most normal human beings are retired, spending their days with grandkids or on the golf course, and even the Steelers weren’t sure when he was going to step away from the game.

Does that sound like a “young” and “up-and-coming” hire that teams covet? Of course not – so let’s blame Mike Tomlin for it.

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How about Todd Haley, who, after a failed stint as the head of the Kansas City Chiefs, was hired to replace Arians as offensive coordinator in 2012? Surely he would be a coordinator everyone else wanted… out of town!

At a time where other teams avoided a newly fired coach, the Steelers swooped in for an offensive mind they observed from the other sideline during Super Bowl 43. Pittsburgh’s offenses were among their most successful ever with Haley at the helm, but he too had an unceremonious falling out in Pittsburgh, before taking a similar job with the Cleveland Browns and falling out with them too.

Haley can now be heard on Sirius XM radio during the week, and will coach in the USFL this spring. (Once again, blame Mike Tomlin.)

Then there’s Mike Munchak. Fans still rave about Munchak, who went from several decades of service within the Tennessee Titans organization, last as their head coach, to heading up the Steelers offensive line. He would leave shortly after Haley, as the Steelers running game was near the bottom of the league, to take the same job in Denver – not because of Tomlin, but to be closer to his grandkids in Colorado.

To date, Munchak hasn’t taken a head coaching gig anywhere else either. He was entirely out of football in 2022 too. (Blame Tomlin.)

Former Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler, who nosed around for other defensive coordinator jobs around the league, remained loyal to the Steelers, who promised – and eventually delivered – their own coordinator spot to him, following LeBeau’s departure. Butler entered the league with the 1999 expansion Browns, moving from their linebackers coach to that of Cowher’s, and then Tomlin’s, before leading the defense through the 2021 season.

Because Butler didn’t take any head coaching interviews, we should once again speak ill of Tomlin’s tree – or do we blame Cowher or Chris Palmer for this one?

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The kvetching gets thick until you realize, there aren’t any other coordinators to really speak of. There’s former OC Randy Fichtner, who succeeded Haley. He left after three seasons to make way for Matt Canada – both of whom fans wanted (or want) gone.

Current defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is the only other coordinator of Tomlin’s who hasn’t been mentioned. He has held the same posts with Detroit and Cincinnati, and would be more of in the line of Coach T hiring established hands to help on deck than finding newbies.

That’s where former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores fits in too. With a lawsuit against the league, no other staff would touch him last offseason. Now Flores is a hot name in offseason interviews for various head coaching and coordinator jobs – but that’s in spite of Tomlin and not because of him, of course.

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Thus has been the pattern of Tomlin hires. Aside from former players hired to head up certain position spots, Mike Tomlin seeks out other experienced coaches to shore up his staff with knowledge. And of course, several of those names can still be linked back to Cowher, including John Mitchell, who is about to enter his 30th season with the team. (Others include linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky, and former tight ends coach, James Daniel.)

Taking a job in Pittsburgh could be for life. And despite some of the player-coach hires that passed through town, such as Joey Porter or Carnell Lake, Tomlin players have, in fact, gone on to success with other staffs: such as Larry Foote, Deshea Townsend, and most recently, former Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.

What makes the coaching tree comments more puzzling is that Tomlin’s peers have a wide disparity in their own trees.

Take Tony Dungy for example, who is credited with not only Tomlin, but Jim CaldwellHerman EdwardsLeslie FrazierRod MarinelliLovie Smith, and Frank Reich. That’s a mixed bag of success if there was one.

Tomlin’s AFC nemeses over the years include Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh.

Belichick has an awfully wilted tree, yielding some names like Romeo CrennelAl GrohEric ManginiJosh McDanielsNick SabanBill O’BrienMatt PatriciaBrian FloresJoe Judge, and Brian Daboll. Harbaugh can claim luminaries such as Hue JacksonChuck PaganoRex RyanMike PettineDavid Culley, and Vic Fangio.

I mean, Saban stands out, but not for his NFL exploits. There could be some “To Be Determined” fare among that lot, but should we be celebrating John or Bill because someone was duped into hiring Joe Judge or Hue Jackson as their head coach? By the same token then, why are we blaming Tomlin?

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Despite being a head coach in the league for 17 seasons, Pete Carroll doesn’t have much to brag about when it comes to Dan QuinnRobert Saleh, or Gus Bradley either. Sean Payton? Yes, the same guy who led the Saints for 15 seasons and a single Super Bowl – who teams were tripping over to offer draft picks to sign in the last few weeks, can only be credited with the likes of Dennis AllenDan Campbell, Marc Trestman, and Doug Marrone.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is the only current one who can claim the richest tree, with some of the same names branching off of his as noted above, such as Brad ChildressLeslie FrazierJohn HarbaughSteve SpagnuoloRon RiveraPat ShurmurTodd BowlesDavid CulleyMatt NagyDoug Pederson, and Sean McDermott.

Then again, 24 years as a head coach helps that stat too!

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Likewise some other greats don’t have wild, sprawling trees either. Dallas Cowboys legend Tom Landry can claim Mike Ditka and Dan Reeves: it’s your opinion as to whether they were good at their job or not, as with many of the others below.

Marty Schottenheimer can be credited with with a lot of crossover names, such as Cam CameronBill CowherGunther CunninghamTony DungyHerman EdwardsLindy InfanteHue JacksonMike McCarthyTony SparanoBruce AriansRob Chudzinski, and Marc Trestman.

Mike Shanahan boasts an impressive list, with Gary KubiakArt ShellAnthony LynnMatt LaFleurMike McDanielSean McVay, and of course, Kyle Shanahan.

Bill Parcells has maybe the only other list which compares, including Bill BelichickTom CoughlinRomeo CrennelAl GrohTodd HaleyRay HandleyEric ManginiChris PalmerSean PaytonTony SparanoMike ZimmerAnthony LynnTodd Bowles, and Freddie Kitchens.

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And that’s sort of the problem too: coaches, by nature, are nomads. Outside of Pittsburgh, and a few select rare exceptions, longevity in one place, with one staff, under one head coach, is less likely to happen. You can see it with the above crossover, especially when there’s successful runs like Parcells with the Giants or Reid’s with the Eagles and Chiefs.

Otherwise, coaching trees are generally overblown. The list of “branches” from each of the major lists above looks like more misses than hits. And sometimes, it took the branched off coach a few attempts to gain notoriety – and not always in a good way.

Despite any lack of “tree”, the long-term employment and success of Pittsburgh’s staff over the years points to how the organization operates differently from that of others. Instead of hiring and having to replace upstarts, Tomlin’s goals have been toward finding battle-tested minds who are in it for long haul.

So the next time someone brings up a “tree”, as yourself this: who was going to hire LeBeau or Butler, or Arians, Haley or Fichtner?

Aside from Austin and Canada, that’s a total of seven coordinators in 16 seasons on both sides of the ball. By comparison, the Cleveland Browns have had nine head coaches in that same span!

That speaks to the consistency of the Steelers and their head coach, versus some fake award for getting other guys hired to be successful elsewhere.

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