Mike Tomlin criticizes NFL's lack of Black coaches, calls Eric Bieniemy situation a 'head-scratcher'

Cassandra Negley
·4 min read

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin made a rare offseason media appearance last week on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." The winningest Black head coach in NFL history criticized the league's hiring practices and lack of diversity in coaching ranks.

He followed up his comments in a more in-depth look at the issue with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook on Saturday. The lack of minority coaches is "unacceptable," he said, and the fact Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy doesn't have a head coach position is a "head-scratcher."

Tomlin on NFL's diversity failure

Tomlin called the lack of diversity hires a "global, collective failure from my perspective" while on Real Sports.

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The Steelers hired Tomlin in January 2007 after one season as a defensive coordinator. He replaced Bill Cowher, who retired, and became the 16th coach in franchise history. Tomlin has long been associated with the Rooney Rule, which requires every team to interview a minority candidate for a head coaching opening (and now front office positions). That's likely because it was named for the late Steelers team owner Dan Rooney.

“Maybe the Rooney Rule got my name on the original list, but it didn’t get me in the door,” Tomlin said, via the Post-Gazette. “My presence wasn’t necessary to satisfy the rule. Ron Rivera did that. Those words came from Ambassador Rooney’s mouth.”

He was one of four Black NFL coaches then. Today he is one of three. Per the Post-Gazette, only three of the 27 head coaching vacancies in the past four years have gone to Black coaches. The lack of diversity in the ranks is a "critical issue for us," Tomlin said, and views it as important for not only the league but for society.

Chiefs' Eric Bieniemy wasn't hired

Tomlin singled out Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy in his conversation with Cook.

“Bieniemy is a real head-scratcher for me,” Tomlin said, via the Post Gazette. “Every offensive coordinator Andy Reid has had in the last 20 years got a head job. One of those guys, Brad Childress, hired me in Minnesota in 2006. Now, Andy has the best offense he’s ever had and [Bieniemy] can’t get a job?”

Bieniemy interviewed 14 times with 13 teams over the past three seasons, but hasn't been hired despite back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. He's been used as an example of the system working against Black men given his experience and peers who have instead been given the job.

Tomlin noted that many Black coaches don't get second chances, while many white coaches such as Bruce Arians in Tampa Bay do get those looks.

As for his own staff, which does not have a Black coordinator on it, Tomlin said he believes in hiring within in most cases and has had good Black coaches leave for jobs elsewhere. Two went back to work in college ball.

Tomlin: 'Hate is winning in 2021'

Tomlin has been widely criticized in Pittsburgh since his hiring on issues football related, but also more race-based. He said he "can't fight the hate" and doesn't worry about what people are saying about it, especially since it can "grow and fester" in dark places on the internet.

“Hate is winning in 2021,” he said, via the Post-Gazette. “What we saw in 2020 as a society is proof of that. That’s why it’s hard for me to be optimistic. I have sons who are young men now. They are facing the same situations that I did when I was their age. We’ve gone a generation without improvement.

“If you are against hate, stand up and be heard because your silence is contributing to it.”

Tomlin, 48, is recovering from "minimal" symptoms after testing positive for COVID-19.

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