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Mike Tomlin Says Keith Butler Was First Defensive Coaching Mentor At Memphis: ‘That Was The Beginnings Of It For Me’

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is pretty much universally regarded as a defensive coach. His first job in the NFL was as a defensive backs coach, and when he got the job in Pittsburgh, he was coming off a lone season as the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings.

Fans also know, however, that Tomlin was a wide receiver at William & Mary. His first coaching job was as a wide receivers coach at the Virginia Military Institute in 1995, the year after his college playing career ended. The next year, he took a graduate assistant job at Memphis in 1996.

It was there that he flipped over to the defensive side of the ball, working not only on special teams but also with the defensive backs. And it was there that he met Keith Butler, the Steelers’ former linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. That proved to be a significant connection.

Butz was a guy who really took an interest in my growth and development”, he told Ben Roethlisberger recently on his Footbahlin podcast. “I had no defensive background, so I go to his office during downtime and learn defense, talk defense and stuff like that, and that was the beginnings of it for me”.

Butler began his coaching career at Memphis, working with the linebackers, defensive ends, and the special-teams units from 1990 through 1997. His time with Tomlin overlapped for just one year, one most notable for an upset win over Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers in 1996.

Buter left for defensive coordinator job at Arkansas State in 1998, where Tomlin had spent the 1997 season as a wide receivers coach. But by the time Butler got there, his mentee was back coaching defensive backs.

The two parted ways after that as Butler entered the NFL, first as the linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns in 1999 before taking the same job with the Steelers in 2003. He held that job for over a decade, including after Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007, until he was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2015.

As for Tomlin, he spent two more years in the college ranks as a defensive backs coach before getting his first NFL job under Tony Dungy with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001, helping them win a Super Bowl a year. He left to take the defensive coordinator job in Minnesota in 2006, and then just a year later got the Pittsburgh job.

One wonders, perhaps even more now in hindsight, what role Butler might have played in helping Tomlin get his foot in the door with the Steelers during the head coach interview process. He was a young coach with minimal coordinating experience, and the Steelers had other equally or more qualified candidates under consideration.

Most will say that history showns that they made the right decision. Some of that group, however, will argue that his time has run its course. But in a fairly significant way, you can thank Butler for helping Tomlin get here.

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