A rule of thumb

Dale Lolley: The Rooney Rule worked in the Steelers' favor.

On Sunday, Indianapolis' Tony Dungy and Chicago's Lovie Smith broke a barrier when they won their respective conference championship games to become the first black head coaches to lead their teams to a Super Bowl.

On Monday, the Pittsburgh Steelers broke a barrier of their own, hiring Mike Tomlin to replace Bill Cowher as the team's head coach, making him the first black to hold that position with the team.

It's significant until you realize Tomlin's hiring brings the total of black head coaches in the Steelers' division to three. Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis and Cleveland's Romeo Crennel are the others.

And Tomlin is the sixth current African American head coach in the NFL and 10th in league history.

We're inching closer to a time when it won't matter what color a man's skin is in this process. Until then, NFL teams, spurred by the league's minority interview mandate – the so-called Rooney Rule – will make sure qualified minority candidates have a chance.

The rule is named after Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, who championed it at a time when the NFL was behind the NBA and Major League Baseball when it came to minority hires. It was a significant move for Rooney to hire a minority coach.

"We were choosing the best guy available," Dan Rooney said. "The Rooney Rule is very good. You have two guys in the Super Bowl right now. I'm not saying that either one of them is only there because of the Rooney Rule, but the Rooney Rule's intention is to get people with ability interviews."

In this case, it worked.

Once Tomlin got his foot in the door, he did the rest, impressing the three-man interview team of Dan Rooney, team president Art Rooney II and director of football operations Kevin Colbert.

"It gives people an opportunity to present themselves, their ideas, their visions," said Tomlin. "The decisions that people make after that are based on who they think is capable of doing the job. I think it's been an awesome experience and it helped open the door for me that may not have been opened had it not been for the rule. But I think once you get into the competition phase of it and you're competing for work, men like the Rooneys want to win and they want to hire men who give them the best chance to do that."

The Steelers believe Tomlin is that man.

Perhaps they believe it so much because they have so much respect for Dungy, the man Tomlin considers not just his coaching mentor, but also a life mentor.

"We don't have enough time for me to talk about how I feel about Coach Dungy," Tomlin said. "But I'm very happy for him and Lovie Smith and what transpired (Sunday). Two deserving men. My relationship and respect and admiration for Coach Dungy goes beyond football."

Dungy played for the Steelers in the '70s and got his start as a coach with Pittsburgh in the '80s before leaving in 1988. Tomlin downplayed obvious comparisons between Dungy and himself.

"I'm not going to give myself that much credit," Tomlin said. "Coach Dungy is Coach Dungy. He's meant a lot to me, but at the same time, I've got to be myself."

There will also be comparisons to Cowher and what he accomplished in Pittsburgh, taking Pittsburgh to 10 playoff appearances in 15 seasons. The two men were both relatively unknown 34-year-old defensive coordinators when named head coach.

Much like when Cowher took over for Chuck Noll in 1992, the Steelers feel they have a team that is built to win – soon.

"Thinking about when Bill took over, we felt like we had the nucleus of a good football team," said Art Rooney. "We said that to Bill and I think Bill agreed that it was not a reconstruction project. And as we know, Bill came in and won right away. I think we feel we're in a similar situation. We have a good core group of players and we're only a year away from winning a Super Bowl, and really if you look at the last few years this team's won a lot of football games. We think we have a team that can win immediately and I think Mike agrees with that."

It will be interesting to see how much of a honeymoon period Tomlin gets with fans as the Steelers' first black head coach. It's unfortunate, but Pittsburgh remains a city with racial biases.

Ask former Pirates' manager Lloyd McClendon about it. Or maybe former Steelers' quarterback Kordell Stewart. Maybe Tomlin can help change some of those ridiculous sentiments.

If Tomlin has a successful run, maybe it won't matter what race the coach is who succeeds him.

Maybe by then, the NFL will no longer have a need for the Rooney Rule.

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.

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