Prevailing wisdom says the Pittsburgh Steelers interviewed Mike Tomlin for their head-coaching position because, in part, he's black. Tomlin himself concurs.
Prevailing wisdom and Tomlin are wrong, says Dan Rooney, the man who hired him two years ago and authored the NFL rule requiring teams hunting for a head coach to meet with at least one minority candidate.
Qualified African-Americans such as Tomlin are far more likely to take over the corner office.
Rooney, the Steelers' owner, convinced his 31 colleagues to adopt the interview standard in December 2002. No minority coach had won a Super Bowl and only two were fronting NFL teams.
Today the number is six, and Tomlin could become the second African-American coach to win the Super Bowl when his Steelers face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in Tampa.
"I've always had a great deal of belief in my abilities," Tomlin said this week, "and I thought that if I continued to work and do good things, that eventually I would get my opportunity — Rooney Rule or no. But I definitely see the usefulness of such a rule, and if nothing else, it keeps some debatable things in the public light, which is good."
Indeed, for all the progress we've made, race relations and equal opportunity remain worthy subjects. Not to equate the two, but Barack Obama winning the White House and Mike Tomlin coaching the Steelers are not cause to shelve our discussions and vigilance.
Tomlin worked as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive backs assistant from 2001-05, first under Tony Dungy, then for Jon Gruden. He became the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator in 2006 and, after one season, interviewed for head-coaching positions with Pittsburgh and the Miami Dolphins.
Given Tomlin's youth — he was 34 then — and inexperience, his interviews often are attributed to the Rooney Rule.
"Sure it was one of the reasons," Tomlin said.
"Let me say this," Rooney countered this week. "Mike Tomlin was not part of the Rooney Rule. We had already interviewed Ron Rivera, and so that fulfilled the obligation."
Then the Chicago Bears' defensive coordinator, Rivera is Hispanic. He now works in the same capacity with the San Diego Chargers.
"We went on, had heard about Mike, called him in and talked to him," Rooney continued. "He was very impressive. We got him back and talked to him on the phone often and he just showed that he was going to be a terrific coach, which I think is coming to bear."
No question. The Steelers have won two AFC North titles in as many seasons under Tomlin, and he is the youngest coach in Super Bowl history.
Dungy is the lone black coach to win the Super Bowl, his victory coming two years ago when the Indianapolis Colts defeated the Bears. Chicago coach Lovie Smith also is African-American.
"I'm just humbled by the things that I've been given," Tomlin said Thursday. "By no stretch do I put myself in the category with President Obama or Tony Dungy. I don't see myself that way. Some of the things I get a chance to do, I benefit from some of the roads they've paved."
That Rooney chose Tomlin over two qualified in-house candidates, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, speaks to Rooney's open mind.
That Whisenhunt now coaches the Cardinals and employs Grimm as his offensive-line assistant speaks to life's delicious coincidences.
Glory on a paved road
Mike Tomlin didn't need the Rooney Rule, but it still helped open the door.