The Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction every year likes to honor a Sportsman of the Year, and that has, often enough, been a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last year, for example, it was James Conner, and this year, as I wrote about yesterday, it will be Cameron Heyward.
But they hand out other awards, as well, and one will be given to head coach Mike Tomlin this year. That will be the Freddie Fu Leadership Award. And rarely has Tomlin’s leadership ever been tested more than over the course of this past season, somehow willing the team to an 8-8 record despite some catastrophic injuries, and that following a traumatic offseason that even included the death of a coach during training camp.
Nobody has been with Tomlin as long as Kevin Colbert, nor has anybody worked as closely with Tomlin over that course of time as has the general manager. Colbert has been around for this entire century, several years before Tomlin arrived, but they are so much in sync that sometimes it seems as though they had never not worked together.
“Coach Tomlin is a natural leader”, Colbert said of his offseason BFF, via the team’s website. “When you walk into a room you know who he is, what he is about. And he knows you without even meeting you. And he knows how to help you become a better, more productive player, scout, GM, whatever, because not only of his willingness to work with you but show you how you can be better through his own merits and effort. It’s so natural, it just happens”.
One of my favorite Tomlin anecdotes comes from nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch, who was already long established by the time the coach had his first NFL role as a defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The young position coach spent a lot of his time preparing for meetings with his new players, going over film of each of them with the intention of breaking their game down. Didn’t matter how tenured you were. You got a list of your flaws and what you needed to work on. Lynch scoffed when he was handed his. Until he read it, and saw that he was right. It didn’t take long for him to earn respect.
“Coach Tomlin will walk into a room and he is in charge”, Colbert said of the Steelers’ head coach, who has now been in the post for 13 seasons. “It’s just a presence that runs with him. It goes in our building, on the practice field and in the community”.
Despite his long tenure, there are no indications that it will be coming to an end anytime soon, at least not against his desires. The Tomlin-Colbert pairing, however, may not be much longer for this world. Colbert is now taking things year by year as he gets up there in age, contemplating retirement.