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Glory on a paved road

Prevailing wisdom says the Pittsburgh Steelers interviewed Mike Tomlin for their head-coaching position because, in part, he's black. Tomlin himself concurs.

Prevailing wisdom and Tomlin are wrong, says Dan Rooney, the man who hired him two years ago and authored the NFL rule requiring teams hunting for a head coach to meet with at least one minority candidate.

While that history is unclear, the heartening impact of the Rooney Rule and other outreach programs is not.

Qualified African-Americans such as Tomlin are far more likely to take over the corner office.

Rooney, the Steelers' owner, convinced his 31 colleagues to adopt the interview standard in December 2002. No minority coach had won a Super Bowl and only two were fronting NFL teams.

Today the number is six, and Tomlin could become the second African-American coach to win the Super Bowl when his Steelers face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in Tampa.

"I've always had a great deal of belief in my abilities," Tomlin said this week, "and I thought that if I continued to work and do good things, that eventually I would get my opportunity — Rooney Rule or no. But I definitely see the usefulness of such a rule, and if nothing else, it keeps some debatable things in the public light, which is good."

Indeed, for all the progress we've made, race relations and equal opportunity remain worthy subjects. Not to equate the two, but Barack Obama winning the White House and Mike Tomlin coaching the Steelers are not cause to shelve our discussions and vigilance.

Tomlin worked as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive backs assistant from 2001-05, first under Tony Dungy, then for Jon Gruden. He became the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator in 2006 and, after one season, interviewed for head-coaching positions with Pittsburgh and the Miami Dolphins.

Given Tomlin's youth — he was 34 then — and inexperience, his interviews often are attributed to the Rooney Rule.

"Sure it was one of the reasons," Tomlin said.

"Let me say this," Rooney countered this week. "Mike Tomlin was not part of the Rooney Rule. We had already interviewed Ron Rivera, and so that fulfilled the obligation."

Then the Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator, Rivera is Hispanic. He now works in the same capacity with the San Diego Chargers.

"We went on, had heard about Mike, called him in and talked to him," Rooney continued. "He was very impressive. We got him back and talked to him on the phone often and he just showed that he was going to be a terrific coach, which I think is coming to bear."

No question. The Steelers have won two AFC North titles in as many seasons under Tomlin, and he is the youngest coach in Super Bowl history.

Dungy is the lone black coach to win the Super Bowl, his victory coming two years ago when the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Bears. Chicago coach Lovie Smith also is African-American.

"I'm just humbled by the things that I've been given," Tomlin said Thursday. "By no stretch do I put myself in the category with President Obama or Tony Dungy. I don't see myself that way. Some of the things I get a chance to do, I benefit from some of the roads they've paved."

That Rooney chose Tomlin over two qualified in-house candidates, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, speaks to Rooney's open mind.

That Whisenhunt now coaches the Cardinals and employs Grimm as his offensive-line assistant speaks to life's delicious coincidences.

Suffice to say both franchises are pleased with the results to date.

"It's really unique in a sense that he's younger and he's more hip, more GQ than you would see any other coach," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said of Tomlin. "In that, he's more compassionate, more sympathetic to what we experience as players: One, being the youth, and two, being a similar cultural background as a lot of the players as well."

Not that having Jay-Z on his iPod qualified Tomlin to coach. But it didn't hurt.

Rooney recognized the cultural component, not to mention sheer fairness, when advocating for the minority interview mandate.

"The idea was to give an opportunity to African-Americans or other minorities to meet with owners and be interviewed and see what they could do," he said. "It's really worked."

Since the end of the regular season, three teams have hired African-American head coaches: Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris, Indianapolis' Jim Caldwell and San Francisco's Mike Singletary.

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell credits the Rooney Rule. Mitchell is black and has coached in the NFL for 18 years, the past 15 in Pittsburgh.

"Had that not occurred, a lot of guys in the league would not have had the opportunity," he said. "All you want as an assistant coach is the opportunity to get your foot in the door, sit down and talk to people. If you don't impress them, then you have some work to do."

The NFL also supports minority internships for coaches, and again, Tomlin benefited. While an assistant at the University of Cincinnati in 2000, he interned during training camp with the Cleveland Browns.

"That was a great avenue to expose the National Football League to me," Tomlin said. "Really, prior to that, I had no intentions whatsoever of coaching in the NFL. I left that internship committed to coaching in the NFL because it was such a positive experience."

Internships and the Rooney Rule, Tomlin added, have "given opportunity to deserving individuals, and I think people lose that perspective. It's about deserving individuals. I think the actions of the men once given the opportunity have proven that.

"I wear it like a badge of honor. … I hope that what I do on a day-to-day basis provides an opportunity for the next deserving man. That's what this business is about. That's what our country is about."

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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