This surely is not a unique trait, but one of the great commonalities that all of Mike Tomlin’s coaching hires have had—or at least his more successful and popular ones—has been that they displayed a genuine interest and investment in the wellbeing of their players as people.
In spite of his relatively short time here, Darryl Drake quickly became a beloved coach, and we learned more and more the extent to which the entire Pittsburgh Steelers organization loved and appreciated him in the wake of his shocking and untimely passing during training camp last year.
His sudden death left the Steelers’ wide receivers at a loss, and it would be impossible to deny both on a personal and professional level that they felt his absence throughout the 2019 season, even with interim wide receivers coach Ray Sherman evidently filling in ably.
Sherman was already semi-retired when he agreed to take the job, though, and pretty much only did so because he was already working and observing the group during training camp at Mike Tomlin’s request, which is a common occurrence throughout the NFL, to bring in coaches to observe and help, whether as interns or otherwise.
But his service came and went, and Tomlin earlier this offseason hired Ike Hilliard to take his place. A former wide receiver himself primarily for the New York Giants, he has spent the bulk of his coaching career with their Washington rivals, but with the staff upheaval there, he was let free and available to Pittsburgh.
Players haven’t even gotten the chance to interact with him face to face, yet he’s still left a positive impression. In fact, James Washington sees some certain similarities to his late position coach that he really appreciates.
“Coach Drake was one of my favorite coaches. The thing about him is I feel like Coach Ike is kind of like Coach Drake”, the third-year wide receiver said. “What I really enjoyed about it was the first time he called he didn’t call to talk about football. He called to talk about family and try to help me understand the kind of person he is”.
All of this is deep-rooted in Pittsburgh, going back to Chuck Noll, and really right back to the root of the franchise in Art Rooney, Sr. Football has always been more than just a business in the Steelers organization, and that’s something that new free agents continue to observe and note—and contrast with their prior experiences—when they come here.
“He seems like a family man first, and then a football coach”, Washington went on in describing Hilliard. “I feel like he really cares about the player. He wants the best for us. He isn’t just there for the job. He wants to make sure we are good men and good players”.