Did Bill Cowher’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame just seal Mike Tomlin’s fate?

(January 12, 2020).  When it comes to NFL franchises, the Pittsburgh Steelers definitely have the head coaching thing figured out.  

In the past 51 years, dating to the 1969 hiring of the legendary Hall of Famer Chuck Noll, only three men have had the honor of coaching the Steelers – the team with the most Super Bowl championships (tied at six with the Patriots).  Note: the Steelers have only had four head coaches in the 54-year Super Bowl Era (with Bill Austin being the first from 1966-68).

On Saturday, just before the hated Baltimore Ravens were surprisingly trounced out of the playoffs by the not-as-hated (this year) Tennessee Titans, Noll’s successor Bill Cowher learned that he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame with this fall’s centennial class.

Former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher will be inducted to the HoF in September 2020.

Cowher, who led the Steelers from 1992-2006, returned the Steelers to Super Bowl glory in his penultimate season, a place the franchise hadn’t been since Noll’s fourth SB championship (in the span of six years) during the 1979 post-season.

Bill Cowher, a Crafton, PA native, was surprised at the announcement, which came from the Hall’s president David Baker during CBS’ “NFL Today” program on Saturday evening.

Quite frankly, I was surprised, too.  

Not because I don’t think Cowher deserved it – as one of his biggest fans and a lifelong Steeler fan, I believe he does – but because I didn’t think one Super Bowl victory (out of two appearances) would be enough for the voters who were charged with making the decision.

Those voters, by the way, were a “blue-ribbon panel” consisting of the Hall’s board of selectors, league historians, other Hall of Famers, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a sure-fire future Hall of Famer himself and a longtime friend of Cowher.

The blue-ribbon panel clearly saw Cowher’s entire body of work, which includes ten playoff appearances and six division titles in fifteen seasons, as enough to justify his enshrinement.

But those numbers, which are stellar by almost any measure, beg the obvious question: does Cowher’s successor Mike Tomlin also deserve to get into the Hall of Fame when he’s eligible?

Mike Tomlin will be entering his 14th season with the Steelers this year.

Consider the following: Tomlin has matched Cowher’s Super Bowl success with two appearances and one victory in thirteen seasons coaching the Steelers.  

In fact, Tomlin had his second Super Bowl appearance by only his fourth year coaching the team (something it took Cowher 14 years to do).

Tomlin, whose 2019 Steelers barely missed the playoffs during what was arguably his finest coaching moment (the team was without any big name offensive playmakers after future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season in Week 2 and other injuries plagued the team), has never had a losing season.  

Cowher, on the other hand, had three records below .500.  His worst record as the Steelers’ head coach was 6-10 (twice; in 1999 and 2003), while Tomlin has never been below 8-8 (three times in 2012, 2013 and this past season).

Their numbers are pretty similar in other areas, too.

In thirteen seasons – just two fewer than Cowher – Mike Tomlin has made eight playoff appearances, also just two fewer than Cowher.  Tomlin has won six division titles (vs. Cowher’s eight).

Tomlin has made three AFC Championship game appearances, losing only one of those to the eventual SB champion Patriots after the 2016 season.  Cowher shows up slightly better in that category, having made six conference title game appearances, although he lost four of those games including two to the Patriots, who also won the SB those seasons (2001 and 2004).

With two fewer head-coaching seasons, Tomlin’s regular-season win total is 133 games, just sixteen under Cowher’s 149, which ranks the former coach 20th all-time.  Tomlin, who has regularly shown a penchant for winning, has had four seasons with 12 or more wins, versus Cowher’s three in that category.

In other words, all Mike Tomlin has to do is remain with the Steelers during the next two seasons and keep doing what he’s done without fail for the past thirteen to match and likely exceed Cowher’s win total of 149 games.  Tomlin will be back for the final year of his current contract in 2020 – his fourteenth season with the Steelers.  With a better roster and possible playoff appearance next season, there’s little to suggest that he wouldn’t also be back in 2021.

Two Steelers legends…Mike Tomlin (left) and Bill Cowher

The numbers on Cowher and Tomlin:

Stats don’t lie
Bill Cowher Mike Tomlin
Seasons w/ Steelers1513
Losing Seasons30
Playoff Seasons108
Super Bowl appearances22
Super Bowl Wins11
AFC Championship games6 (4 lost)3 (1 lost)
Seasons w 12-wins or more34
Total regular season wins149133
Division titles86
Longest playoff drought 3 years 2 years
Worst record6-10 (twice)8-8 (thrice)
Hall of FameYes?

Few people have ever mentioned Tomlin’s name and Hall of Fame in the same sentence.  Instead, many Steelers fans – myself, at times, included – have questioned his on-the-field decision-making, his approach to player discipline, and the team’s underwhelming ability in the past to play down to lesser opponents’ levels and squander opportunities to really be great.

Some have even gone as far as to say that Tomlin’s early success was with a team created by Bill Cowher, suggesting that even a bad or mediocre coach can win with another man’s team simply by showing up – a notion to which I’ve never subscribed.

Or worse, fans (including many Steelers ones) have suggested that Tomlin, who is African-American, merely benefited from the NFL’s Rooney Rule – a sort-of affirmative action policy championed in 2003 by the late Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney that requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching jobs in a league where 75% of players are minorities.  

The suggestion implies that Tomlin was not truly qualified for the job and his hiring would not have occurred otherwise.  (How stupid is that considering it was the Rooneys who hired Tomlin in the first place and they would likely have interviewed him whether or not their own rule was instituted by the NFL?)

But Tomlin’s entire body of work – like Cowher’s – proves that, not only did he qualify for the job, but he has been better than most at doing it, even in a city with extremely high expectations and football standards like Pittsburgh.

All of that aside, it was Saturday’s announcement that once again brought the Steelers’ long lineage of stellar head coaching to the forefront with the naming of Bill Cowher as a member of the next HoF class.

And it just begs the question, with credentials that are just about equal to Cowher’s, will Tomlin be the next Steelers coach to be inducted?

If you agree that Cowher’s numbers justify his entry into the Hall, then the answer should be an unqualified yes.

Congratulations to Bill Cowher on being the 327th inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame!

The Cowher chin is legendary…
But Tomlin could give Cowher a run for his money in that category, too.

DJRob

PS, this is normally a music blog, but as a lifelong Steelers fan, the blogger took a detour and covered the best sports news a fan could receive on a Saturday evening with the Bill Cowher announcement (in addition to the Ravens being knocked out of the playoffs). Now back to regularly scheduled programming...

DJRob is a freelance music blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current events!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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