The term ‘player’s coach’ is one that has been bandied about to describe Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin for a long time now—probably from the time he was hired on, or shortly thereafter. It’s a term with which he has a complicated relationship, because it’s invoked in different contexts to mean different things, but he is, of course, a player’s coach. His players are the first ones to say it.
Like fifth-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has in a very meaningful sense grown up under Tomlin. He came into the league as a young 19-year-old, and he joked with Rich Eisen that early on Tomlin told him he has kids as old as he is and that he could babysit him. Their relationship, of course, has grown since then.
“For me it’s just like, our relationship has always been like a brother relationship, like an older brother that I could talk to about anything”, he told Eisen. “Because at the end of the day, we’re grown men. You’re on the field playing a sport that has a lot of grown guys around me. Coming in at 20 years old, he kind of took me under his wing and pretty much made me who I am today”.
The familial term that comes up most often to describe a player-coach dynamic is that of a father figure, not necessarily a brother. I will lead the observer read into that discrepancy what they choose to, as to the differences in a sibling relationship and that of a father and son.
“He’s definitely a player’s coach, a guy that I can see that I can talk to about anything outside of football, and he’s been there to help me along the way”, Smith-Schuster said, giving an example of some advice that he was given from Tomlin.
“He told me, just make sure you are good first before you help others, because if you’re not good, then you won’t be able to provide what you want to provide”, the 24-year-old receiver said. Probably good advice for a people pleaser like Smith-Schuster.
At the very least, he will have one more season with ‘big brother’ Tomlin watching over him, after re-signing with the Steelers this offseason on a one-year, $8 million contract. If things actually go according to plan this year, he should raise his price tag to something beyond what the front office would reasonably entertain.
But you get the sense that the relationship Tomlin forges with many of his players, such as Smith-Schuster, will last long beyond their working relationship. We often even hear about free agents who come in with stories about their own interactions with Tomlin. Outside of the lack of winning in the postseason, it seems only those who tire of his cliches and the local media who feel like he doesn’t help them do their jobs seem to have a problem with the man.