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The Way Mike Tomlin Shut Down the USC Rumor Revealed More Than You Might Realize

It is harder for Black football coaches to land jobs, and harder for them to prove they should keep them. From that lens, the Steelers coach’s response makes perfect sense.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked Tuesday about possibly coaching USC, and he managed to pull off a rare double: He gave a response that went viral, and people still missed the point.

Here is the Tomlin quote that made the rounds:

“Hey guys, I don’t have time for that speculation. I mean, that’s a joke to me. I got one of the best jobs in all of professional sport. Why would I have any interest in coaching college football? And that will be the last time I will address it. Not only today, but moving forward. Never say never. But never. O.K.? There’s not a booster with a big enough check.”

That was such a contrast to the usual non-denial denials from coaches. We are so accustomed to coaches saying, “I’m focused on the job I have” or, “I’m not going to comment on rumors” while simultaneously reaching in their pockets to call their agents.

Tomlin gave a hard no. It was admirable, and it was red meat for the millions of Americans who like to rip Urban Meyer. But there is so much more to what he said.

Watch to the end of the clip:

Yup: “Is anybody asking Sean Payton about that? You know? Is anyone asking Andy Reid about stuff like that?”

No. They are not. And Tomlin seemed angry when he said it. That was different, too. Normally, if a coach genuinely isn’t interested, he can laugh off speculation or at least stay calm, because it is all irrelevant and at least nobody asked why he punted on fourth-and-2. But Tomlin was really annoyed.

Why? Well, he didn’t say. But it’s probably easy to figure out. Payton is white. Reid is white. And if—if—Tomlin is annoyed by the racial implications here, he has every right to be.

Mike Tomlin will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday. He is already more accomplished than some coaches who are already in there. He has won a Super Bowl, and he has never had a losing record in 15 seasons in Pittsburgh. After all that, people are asking whether he might want to try his hand at college football?

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Yes, some coaches prefer the college game. Nick Saban went back. So did Jim Harbaugh. So did Al Groh and Bobby Petrino. But they had all been college head coaches before. Tomlin has not worked in college ball since he was 28 years old and coached Cincinnati’s defensive backs. As far as I can tell, he has never lived within 1,700 miles of the USC campus and has never expressed any interest in becoming a college head coach. Tomlin didn’t even play major-college ball (he attended William & Mary), so it’s not like coaching his alma mater has some sentimental appeal to him.

The tone Tomlin used for “college jobs” is the same tone Aaron Rodgers might use if you asked him about being a “game manager.” He has proven he doesn’t need to do that. It is insulting to imply he does.

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USC Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, who told Dan Patrick he was as involved in the coaching search as they’d let him be, started this speculation by saying Tomlin could coach the Trojans “if he wants out,” but why on earth would Tomlin want out? He went 12–4 last year. He is 49. The Steelers have had three head coaches in his lifetime.

Once Palmer said that, the story got legs, and inevitably somebody was (understandably) going to ask Tomlin. This is how it goes, right? USC is a great job and Tomlin is a great coach, so connecting the two might not seem like a big deal. But think of the implications here: Tomlin should move down a level; he might thrive as a rah-rah college coach who “connects” with players he recruits; he might “want out” and find a soft landing spot. Of course that should make him mad.

No matter what Black football coaches achieve, a segment of the population sees them as less than they are simply because they are Black. I am not saying Palmer was thinking that, and if Tomlin was thinking about it, he didn’t say it. But that truth is a daily presence in the lives of Black coaches—even extraordinarily successful ones like Tomlin. It’s harder for Black coaches to get head-coaching jobs, and so they can’t be choosy if they get them. And whatever they achieve is cast in a negative light.

Think about the public conversation surrounding Jim Caldwell and Anthony Lynn, then look at their records. Caldwell went 62–50; Lynn was 33–32. Then think about how many times Kyle Shanahan (31–39 in four years) has been called a genius. The point here is not to trash or overpraise any of the three. But in football, you are what your record says you are—unless you’re a Black head coach.

Tomlin is right: We don’t ask these questions of Andy Reid or Sean Payton. There is no reason to look at Tomlin and think he might coach college football next year. We should look at him and wonder why he doesn’t have a coaching tree. Plenty of Reid and Payton assistants went on to become NFL head coaches. Tomlin has a higher winning percentage than both. Why aren’t teams raiding the Pittsburgh staff? Why isn’t he seen as a great coach who develops other great coaches like Reid and Payton are?

Most people following the USC coaching search understood that Tomlin was never going there. The interesting story is not that he said he isn’t going. It’s how angry he got when he was asked.

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