Super coaching chess match takes shape

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

PITTSBURGH – Two years after some Pittsburgh Steelers questioned his hiring and two weeks before facing the very coaches those players preferred, Mike Tomlin stood amidst swirling snow and swinging towels.

He gave a hug to the man, owner Dan Rooney, whose hiring decision set this Super Bowl matchup in motion.

Tomlin's Steelers had just delivered a bruising 23-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday that sent them to a clash with the Arizona Cardinals, home to a couple of faces familiar to Rooney.

Two years ago, Rooney needed to hire a head coach. There were three prime candidates. One was Tomlin, who got the job. The other two were Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, who after being rejected wound up head coach and top assistant, respectively, with once-lowly Arizona.

Now everyone will meet again, a world championship on the line, plot lines and deep motivations going in every direction. One coach wants to prove the Rooneys got it right; two others that they didn't.

"The story is going to get a lot of attention," admitted team president Art Rooney II.

It's human nature to the highest degree. Everyone's been rejected at some point in their life. And everyone has dreamed of a how-do-you-like-me-now bit of revenge.

The Rooney family has owned the Steelers since 1933. The franchise took off with its last two coaching hires, Chuck Noll in 1969 and Bill Cowher in 1992. They combined to win five Super Bowls.

In January 2007, Cowher retired. Most people expected one of his top assistants, either Whisenhunt or Grimm, would replace him. They had been on the staff of the Steelers' most recent championship and familiarity, loyalty and that track record was expected to count.

Both were given interviews. So too was a little known 34-year-old defensive coordinator from the Minnesota Vikings named Mike Tomlin.

Tomlin, an African-American, was believed by some to be just a fulfillment of a league mandate to interview minority candidates. Ironically it's called the "Rooney Rule" because the Rooneys lobbied for it.

"He didn't come into it as the favorite, there's no question about it," Rooney II said.

Tomlin's interview blew the family away though.

Whisenhunt sensed it. He wanted to coach the Steelers, one of the best franchises in the league that was full of top-line talent. When he wasn't promised the job after his first interview though, he saw the handwriting on the wall. He accepted the head coaching position with arguably the NFL's worst franchise, the Cardinals.

That left Grimm as the perceived favorite. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review even reported he had gotten the job.

Only he hadn't. Tomlin did.

"He distinguished himself over the course of the interviews," Rooney II said.

Many were shocked. Grimm and fellow assistant Kevin Spencer immediately left and joined Whisenhunt's staff in Arizona. There was talk of hurt feelings and considerable frustration from the coaches. Then there were the returning players.

"I wanted Russ to get the job," then-Steeler Alan Faneca said at the time. "It's a guy we know, and a guy I'm experienced with. When Cowher retired, everybody in the league wanted two of our guys, so you'd think we would want at least one of them."

The Rooneys never flinched at the potential locker room uprising.

Nor are they backing down now, even as they stare down the coaches spurned who have done the unheard of and delivered the Cardinals to their first Super Bowl in two short seasons.

"Look, it was a tough decision," Rooney II said. "We had good people to pick from, there's no doubt about it. Coach Whisenhunt is a great coach, so it was a hard decision. It was just one of those things you had to decide who the right man is for the job at that point in time."

It turns out the Rooneys couldn't have gone wrong. They chose one great coach over two other great coaches; there's nothing to look back and question.

Tomlin set the tone immediately. The loyalists to the old regime were quickly won over. His defense is the league's best. His players swear by him.

"He's a phenomenal coach," veteran receiver Hines Ward said. "To lead us to a Super Bowl in our second year speaks volumes."

It does for Tomlin. And it does for Whisenhunt, too.

Rooney II said he and Whisenhunt have spoken and he doesn't believe there are any hard feelings. He and Grimm have not had more than a passing greeting though.

"I think those guys, they want to go and do a good job and they aren't worrying about the past," Rooney II said. "I'm real happy for all of those guys."

"There's no animosity," Ward said.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The view from Pittsburgh may not be the view from Phoenix. Not that the simmering feelings of a coach will solve the Steelers defense.

Tomlin knows what's coming. He knows there's going to be a group of coaches across the way getting a shot at their old franchise and their old bosses who once passed them over.

And he knows there's going to be two weeks of questions about it. He sounded Sunday like he'd prefer there weren't.

While all he did was win the job and prove it was the right decision, this is the reality of Super Bowl hype.

"We tend to focus on the things we can control," Tomlin offered. "This is the Steelers' story, not my story."

Actually it's a human story. And in this Super Bowl we might find out whether hell hath no fury like a coach scorned.

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