Pittsburgh’s Success Stems From Steady Leadership

It’s the weekend, there isn’t a lot going on in Pittsburgh, so I wanted to take a slightly different direction with this one. The big news of this past week is the Pittsburgh Penguins’ thrilling Game 7 win over the Ottawa Senators. Their win, and back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals only reinforces what the city of Pittsburgh represents. Quality, steady coaches.

Mike Tomlin has created and maintained an impressive culture with the Steelers. He may not be lauded for his X’s and O’s the way Bill Belichick is but he commands the locker room just the same. Players fight hard for him and with him. It isn’t a one-way street. Of course, that isn’t all from Tomlin, it’s the longstanding philosophy of the Rooney’s, but Tomlin ran with it and enhanced that feeling. Pittsburgh has been as steady as ever, never having a losing season under him – Noll had four post-dynasty and Cowher had three – and adding another Lombardi to the collection.

I admit I don’t follow the other sports as closely as football but Mike Sullivan has brought similar to the Pens in a much shorter time. He inherited a flailing team under Mike Johnston and immediately turned them around, winning the Stanley Cup in his first season. With a target on their backs this year, and just as many injuries, Sullivan brought the Pens back to the Finals this year.

Both coaches, Tomlin and Sullivan, are guys who seemingly don’t get too high or too low. On its surface, you can’t tell if they’re reacting to a win or a loss. Even in his post-game presser Thursday night, Sullivan was calm and collected, deflecting the praise to the players while congratulating the Sens on a hard-fought series. Adversity, of which there’s been plenty, hasn’t affected either team’s course.

Then there’s Clint Hurdle, who likely would come in third place in the mind’s of most fans when asked to rank the three. The Pittsburgh Pirates may be struggling now but Hurdle inherited a mess, akin to what Noll was brought in to fix. A bunch of lovable losers. By his third season, he transformed the club from basement dwellers to their first playoff appearance in over 20 years. He followed that up with playoff runs the next two seasons before the dropoff in 2016. He has a similar approach to the others; serious when he has to, jovial when it’s appropriate.

I posed the question last week on Twitter and still think the answer is up for debate. Does Pittsburgh have the best three coaches – combined – of a city with an NFL, NHL, and MLB team. Maybe Boston? With Belichick, which gives them a big leg up, and up-and-comer Brad Stevens. Chime in with your thoughts; maybe I’m missing one.

All I know is that I’m grateful for the steady, strong leadership Pittsburgh sports has. It’s rare and something that needs to be cherished.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • JB Burgess

    “Steady” and “good” are two different things. No one can underestimate or under prepare a team like Mike Tomlin can.

  • AndyR34

    Alex – nice coverage article. Whether you are a fan of any of the coaches or not we, are blessed to have three fairly successful ones in the ‘Burgh.

  • RickM

    Sullivan impresses me a lot as it’s really hard to double-up with Stanley Cups. As for Hurdle, I think almost all baseball head coaches are interchangeable. Having a good GM is the key in baseball. As for Mike Tomlin, I think he’s above-average but he has weaknesses that will never improve because he doesn’t recognize them (clock management, getting his team motivated week-in, week-out, etc.). Some of the motivation issues definitely fall on the players as well, but the Head Coach is the ‘driver’.

  • StolenUpVotes

    The Hoosier in me is still salty that Stevens isn’t pacing the coaching box at Assembly Hall. At least Archie is a solid consolation prize.

  • StolenUpVotes

    103-57 says the differ

  • Terrible Towlie

    like Chuck Noll used to say……if he has to motivate a professional player, then he would cut them….the want to to win is motivation enough, and if that dont do it the $$ should

  • RickM

    Why have a Head Coach then if they don’t have any responsibility for motivating players? Just have the OC, DC and all the other positional coaches. It’s ridiculous to suggest Head Coaches don’t motivate players. The most visible examples are their pre-game ‘pep talk speeches’, and when they chew them out, praise them, or tell them ‘not to worry about it’ in games. But I’m sure there are many more instances that go unseen.

    Belichick once called out Brady in practise. I’m totally paraphrasing his comment which the whole team heard, but it was something like: ‘how many times are you going to make that same mistake Brady, causing an interception. You do it in games; you do it in practises. When’s it going to stop?” That’s motivating a player to get better and part of a Head Coach’s job.

  • FATCAT716

    It seems like a lifetime ago when this team was considered old and slow. Even talk of rebuilding but now considered a SB contender

  • Ray Powell

    You only get a team to the AFC Championship game if you’re good!

  • Marcel Chris Chauvet

    There couldn’t be 3 more different coaching situations in all of sports. Lol. Hurdle has no support from management. He’s trying to compete with no resources. And he has done a heck of a job in that regard. Sullivan is part of a franchise that will let you go if you underperform. And the hallmark of his coaching style has been the willingness to adapt to changing situations, whether its been because of injury or scheme. He’s more like Belichik than any coach in Pittsburgh in that regard. Mike Tomlin is a guy who, when he has more talent than his opponents, he goes deep in the playoffs. He doesn’t defy any odds. At the same time, he is certainly not a liability. Given the current roster composition, you have to like the Steelers’ chances of making a big push this year.

    I must say, though, I have rarely if ever seen any of the 3 out of control emotionally. I may have never made the connection between them had you not pointed it out, Alex. Kudos to you on that one. I don’t know that it is the defining characteristic of any of the three, but I don’t think the connection between their success and that trait can be dismissed as coincidence.

    As far as coaches in other cities go I do think that Boston has a strong cast. Brad Stevens is a really helping their case right now. Then again, Sullivan is really helping ours. I’d say we’re holding a slight edge right now. Especially if the penguins win the cup.

  • Dorian James

    Great job Alex, speaking for myself I tend to take Mike Tomlin for granted as a coach. But I want to address all the tomlin haters on this site just this one time and then I’m done with this topic!
    Mike Tomlin is NOT the greatest coach, nor does anyone claim he is. But I’m so damn tired of the absolute hate that he gets on this site. Most of you haters, I’m now convinced that it’s strictly PERSONAL. You’ve become as bad as my fellow Yankee fans who hate Joe Girardi for absolutely no reason at all. You act as if this man Works in a vacuum, if he was as bad as all of you say don’t you think this organization is bright enough to have gotten rid of him and gotten a better option by now. When the Steelers win it’s Ben’s doing when they lose it’s Mike tomlin’s fault. You’ll never be satisfied with anything he does. In the unfair comparisons between he, bilicheck, and Knoll, need to stop. Those guys are considered Legends for a reason. It’s a shame that Mike Tomlin is more popular outside of the Pittsburgh area then he is in it. You should all be grateful your not Jets fan, or browns, fans, or any team that hasn’t won a championship in decades. I find myself wishing he wasn’t the coach of this team just so I don’t have to hear y’all F*&%*** Mouths any longer.

  • Idiot!!!

  • Alex Kozora

    Sure, I didn’t want to get into the specifics overall. If you ranked ownership, the Pirates would come in last. No doubt about it. If anything, that’s another feather in Hurdle’s cap.

  • Jeff McNeill

    So are you saying that Noll should have been fired because he did not believe it was his job to motivate players?

  • Jeff McNeill

    The haters will complain unless the team wins the Super Bowl every year, and I am not convinced that would even stop them.

  • SkoolHouseRoxx

    It won’t stop SuperBowl or not. Don’t know why, but whatevs! Tomlin has been my guy ever since he first got signed, the first time I heard him speak, and the first time he hoist that Lombardi!

  • Maureen A Gomes


  • RickM

    I am saying it is a far different time than 40 years ago and coaches have different styles. Players who earn millions of dollars today may need more motivation and coddling than players who played three to four decades ago. Why everyone feels football comments made 30-40 years ago are guaranteed true today is beyond me. The game has changed dramatically. And that is not a knock on Chuck Noll who was a great head coach.

    If Tomlin did not feel he had a role in motivating players, he would be passive on the sidelines during games. He wouldn’t be encouraging his players, congratulating them, etc. And he wouldn’t be giving pre and post game pep talks. Those are obvious motivational actions. Bill Cowher also motivated his players before, during and after games. What Chuck Noll said 30-40 years ago is his opinion and it worked well for him. But it is not a rule for today’s coaches, or for today’s players for that matter.

  • Jeff McNeill

    I think that players today should require far less motivation than the players of Noll’s era because they make millions and the contracts are not guaranteed. I was asking the Noll question of you because you said coaches need to motivate players. I think that Tomlin is a motivational coach. Not to the degree Cowher was but not many are like him. The main job of the head coach, in my opinion, is formulating a game plan and evaluating which players give the team the best chance of winning. I think he is a top 5 coach in the NFL and I would not trade him for anyone not named Belichick.

  • RickM

    I’m speculating, but my guess is the OC and DC are tasked with developing the game plans. The Head Coach will review them and request changes, but the spadework is likely done by Haley and Butler. I see the Head Coach as more of a captain of all his coaches and he runs the practises and make personnel decisions. I know Head Coaches in the past have made comments like ‘we had a great week of practise’. So right or wrong I task the HC with properly gauging the motivation level and preparedness of his football team. Ideally you’d like the players to always motivate themselves equally week to week, but it just doesn’t work that way as the 34-3 beatdown in Philly and the 30-15 drubbing in Miami demonstrated. The players take by far the major responsibility for coming out flat, but I don’t think the Head Coach gets off scot-free

    As for players being more motivated by the money, yes and no. For sure there’s absolute motivation to get the big money. The challenge is to make sure players don’t lose some of that motivation once they cash in. Lamarr Woodley is a great example of someone whose work ethic changed pre and post his big contract. He shouldn’t have to, but sometimes head coaches have to motivate players to keep their edge.

    As for wear Tomlin ranks, that’s such a subjective decision. I think he’s above-average for sure. But until I see him without a HOF QB, I wouldn’t make a guess. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Cowher was Top 5 given he made the playoffs and reached a SB with several QB’s (before Ben) who were nowhere close to the HOF. If Tomlin wins without Roethlisberger, he’s absolutely in the Top 5. The last word is yours.

  • Jeff McNeill

    Since Belichick has never done anything without a HOF QB then I guess you would not rank him either. He was with Cleveland and only made the Playoffs once in 4 years and he did not have Brady 2 seasons and missed the playoffs both years. I Don’t prescribe to that philosophy. I think Archey Manning would be a HOF QB had he played for a number of different teams, including Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Dallas. I doubt Ben would be HOF material had Cleveland drafted him. I say Belichick is the best coach of all time.

  • Jeff McNeill

    With the logic you are using how could you rank Noll as a coach? Without his HOF QB he only made the playoffs three times, afccg once and no Super Bowls. Plus Cowher took basically the same team he went 7-9 with, to 11-5 and a division win.

  • RickM

    Winning 5 SB’s with any QB obviously sets any Head Coach apart and they don’t have to win them with multiple QB’s. Belichick is clearly in a league of his own. But winning 1 SB in 10 years with the advantage of a HOF QB (Tomlin) or 1 in 11 (McCarthy) is not exceptional.

    As for hypotheticals about how QB’s would have done with other teams it’s a bit of a waste of time. I could say that Roethlisberger would have 3-4 SB’s under Belichick, but I have no idea if that would have happened. I prefer to focus on what is. I’ll stick with Mike Tomlin as an above-average Head Coach but won’t categorically put him near the top unless he wins a 2nd one with Ben, or fields a playoff team with a QB other than Ben.

  • RickM

    Come on Jeff. We both know that any HC who wins 4 SB’s is an elite Head Coach. As for my logic, it is based on the Steelers only winning one SB to date with Ben. If Tomlin wins a second one with Ben, or if he gets the Steelers to the playoffs without Ben he becomes Top 5 instantly. Until then, it’s debatable that he is.

  • Jeff McNeill

    I think Noll is an all time great. But he only did it with basically the same team and he was never even close after that team was gone. Just using your logic, which I believe is very questionable on this. How many coach in the history of the NFL with 10+ season have never had a losing season? Plus Tomlin is facing perhaps the greatest dynasty in NFL history. I don’t believe saying Tomlin is top 5 among current coaches is any kind of debate. I think saying top 5 is selling him short. If I were to rank current coachs I would put him 2. If someone wanted to put Carroll ahead of him I can see the logic. No one else would I put ahead of him. Who are the coaches you would or could see ahead of him since you think it’s debatable?

    On a different note, you are one of the posters here I respect the most.

  • RickM

    I appreciate the respect and it’s mutual. I can tell from your comment farther down that you feel it’s a racism issue for some. I think you’re almost certainly right. Personally those folks stand out like a sore thumb because they never give Tomlin credit for anything. I wish thinking like that didn’t exist, but sadly it still does.

    Personally, I make all judgements based on facts and what I see. For instance, I think Cowher mailed in the 2006 season as his intensity was gone after winning the SB. With Tomlin, the non-losing season argument is probably the weakest there is for me. You could flip that and say he had two seasons wear he didn’t have a winning record, i.e. the team finished .500. So just personally that stat does little for me given the HOF QB and two .500 seasons.

    The much stronger arguments are getting his team to the SB twice, winning one, and after a re-building process having us play-off competitive again. But you know those are the strongest plusses. I really can’t rank the Top 5 because it’s Belichick and everyone else. I can list coaches who I would be totally happy having as our top guy more easily: Tomlin, Belichick, Carroll, Quinn, Arians (most will hate that one) and Reid. Now that I count them, it’s only 6. So I have Tomlin in my Top 6. I think the other 5 after Belichick have all impressed me for different reasons. That’s definitely it for me. Thanks for the chat. Cheers.

  • popsiclesticks

    I do find it odd that the guy who can’t draft and only won with Cowher’s players is now apparently underachieving with a great roster. How do people reconcile those two critiques?