Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talked yesterday about the hiring of new defensive backs coach Tom Bradley, and his comments were very interesting. He said that in a way he considered his lack of prior coaching experience at the NFL level a positive. Even though he has not coached professionals, however, he is still very experienced at the college level.
This got me to thinking about Tomlin’s history of hires over the course of his NFL career, and overall, I don’t think there is any clear pattern. He has shown a willingness to scour the college ranks before, and he has given opportunities to novice coaches as well. But he has also turned to veteran hands, whether that experience came at the pro or college level.
Consider his very first hires, such a Kirby Wilson and Larry Zierlein. Both of them had long coaching history at the college level, but only a handful of seasons under their belts at the professional level. He pulled Randy Fichtner directly from the college ranks as well, though he is somebody that he worked with himself at that level.
At the same time, he held over as much as the old staff as possible and also promoted from within where applicable, moving Bruce Arians to offensive coordinator and giving John Mitchell the title of assistant head coach. The big keep was Dick LeBeau, whose defensive system was at odds with Tomlin’s background.
Nothing really changed for a few years, but in 2010, quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson retired, and Tomlin shuffled Fichtner from the wide receivers coach to the quarterbacks coach, hiring Scottie Montgomery to coach the wide receivers. Montgomery had just a few years’ experience at the college level doing that job, and his time in Pittsburgh was short, but that was only because he found a promotion at his alma mater, and is now a head coach (at another school).
When Ray Horton, the defensive backs coach, got a defensive coordinator job a year later, Tomlin hired Carnell Lake to take over. Lake had very little coaching experience, and at the college level at that, before being given the job, and he was here through 2017, resigning for personal reasons, and now replaced by Bradley.
Following turnover at the offensive line coach position from Sean Kugler to Jack Bicknell, Jr., he looked for a decisive answer in going after Mike Munchak, who has been a big piece of the coaching staff for the past several seasons and has a long history of success at the NFL level.
The same could be said for the hiring of Todd Haley to take over the all-important offensive coordinator position, which was arguably the biggest coaching personnel decision he has made to date. Recently, his changes at coordinator have been essentially succession plans, Keith Butler following LeBeau and now Fichtner following Haley.
When Montgomery left, Tomlin took the opposite approach, going after one of the most veteran wide receivers coaches in the league in Richard Mann. And when he retired, Tomlin sought another NFL veteran coach in Daryl Drake.
After Butler was promoted, Tomlin split up the linebacker duties to two novice coaches, naming Joey Porter the outside linebackers coach and Jerry Olsavsky the inside linebackers coach. In this way, he gave young coaches opportunities, but with less on their plate.
When Tomlin shifted Mitchell from his defensive line duties to a full-time role as assistant head coach, he didn’t make that decision without a veteran name in mind, bringing in Karl Dunbar, who has had success at both levels.
If there is one theme at all in his signings, it is that he gives opportunities to coaches he has worked with. Just off the top of my head, Fichtner, Mann, and Dunbar are all coaches that he has worked with at some point along his coaching path.
There are probably even other connections that I’m missing. But over the past decade-plus we have seen Tomlin follow no clear pattern in terms of a coach’s level of experience either as it pertains to his NFL or his overall resume. His latest three hires are yet another example of that. All three are veteran coaches, but Bradley does not have experience at the NFL level.