Mike Tomlin is 34 years old. He learned football under Tony Dungy, who learned under Chuck Noll, who learned under Paul Brown, who learned from Jock Sutherland, who learned from Pop Warner.
It only took five degrees of separation to connect Tomlin to a man who began coaching in 1895 and is regarded by most historians as having the single greatest influence on the game of football. Warner put in the wing formations, added shoulder pads and put numbers on jerseys. Mike Tomlin sure must know a lot about football.
Of course, Tomlin is one of the candidates to become the next Pittsburgh Steelers coach this week. However, the process has become muddled.
The Steelers, after interviewing the four candidates generally believed to be their best candidates, brought in Chan Gailey and are trying to bring in Mike Sherman.
So what's going on here? Is it possible the Steelers don't like the influences, or "coaching tree," that has produced what once were believed to be shiny apples Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt? Both Grimm and Whisenhunt claim to have fallen from the Joe Gibbs tree, but they have in fact been spawned by the Cowher tree as well. Cowher already has sent six former assistants into the league as head coaches. Here's the breakdown:
• Dom Capers – Cowher's first defensive coordinator rode the Steelers' success in 1992-94 to a job as head coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers. He led them to an improbable 12-4 record in his second season and advanced to the NFC Championship game. But it would be Capers's only winning season in Carolina. He was fired after four seasons. A glutton for punishment, perhaps, Capers assumed the reigns of the expansion Houston Texans in 2002 but was fired after four losing seasons. He's now the defensive coordinator for the coach-less Miami Dolphins. Career record: 48-80 regular season, 1-1 playoffs.
• Chan Gailey – Introduced the five-WR set to the Steelers as Cowher's WRs coach in 1994 and became the de facto offensive coordinator by the end of the 1995 season. He took the job officially in 1996 and left after the 1997 AFC title game to become coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He led the Cowboys into the playoffs twice in two seasons but was fired by Jerry Jones and became offensive coordinator of the Dolphins. He was hired by Georgia Tech in 2001 and prior to the 2006 season signed a five-year extension for $5 million. His team went 9-5 (the best of his 37-26 five-year record) at Tech last season but star player Calvin Johnson is leaving for the NFL as a junior and quarterback Reggie Ball never developed into an effective player under Gailey. Career record: 18-14, 0-2.
• Jim Haslett – Succeeded Dick LeBeau as Cowher's defensive coordinator in 1997 and lasted three seasons before he was hired to coach the New Orleans Saints. He took the Saints to the playoffs in his first season and became embroiled in an ugly sideline-to-field shouting match with opponent Cris Carter. Haslett never reached the playoffs again and was fired following the 2005 season. He's now the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams. Career record: 45-51, 1-1.
• Mike Mularkey – Was promoted from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator under Cowher in 2001 and the Steelers reached the AFC title game that year. His Sam Wyche-influenced stint lasted until the end of the 2003 season, when he was named coach of the Buffalo Bills. Mularkey lasted two seasons in Buffalo before getting the axe. He's now the Dolphins' offensive coordinator. Career record: 14-18.
• Marvin Lewis – Cowher's linebackers coach from 1992-95, Lewis blossomed in Baltimore, where he coordinated the Ravens' defense to a Super Bowl title. He took a lateral move to the Washington Redskins before landing the head job in Cincinnati in 2003. He's had the most long-term success of Cowher's former assistants, but is regarded as the architect of the most criminal team in the NFL. Career record: 35-29, 0-1.
• Dick LeBeau – A man who should be in the Hall of Fame for his role as an assistant, LeBeau faired poorly as the head coach of the Bengals from 2000-2002. He did gather the nucleus for Lewis's teams, but departed after a 2-14 final season. Career record: 12-23.
So that's the fabled Cowher coaching tree: six coaches, no championships, a .444 career winning percentage, and a 2-5 record in the playoffs.
But perhaps the branches that sit above Cowher on his personal tree offer the prospect of a better pedigree. Let's see, Cowher learned from Marty Schottenheimer, who's responsible for having the phrase "Marty Ball." According to Wikipedia, the "Marty Ball" style "emphasizes offensive attacks consisting of a running play, another running play, a pass attempt if necessary, and a punt."
Schottenheimer credits defensive mastermind Bill Arnsparger as his major influence. Arnsparger had a head-coaching record of 7-28. Arnsparger's main influence was Woody Hayes, who's responsible for the phrase "three yards and a cloud of dust." Apparently, that philosophy has morphed into "three yards and a cloud of Marty Ball."
So, no, the Cowher coaching tree and its forbearers haven't really produced much fruit at all. It's certainly not on a level with the fabled coaching tree that spawned young Tomlin. Perhaps the double-clutching the Rooneys did this past week on their two top candidates – the Cowher-influenced Grimm and Whisenhunt – is a sign that they too are reading the tree leaves.