When you think of NFL Head Coaches, what do you think of? Individuals with advanced coaching pedigrees, perhaps. They probably even attended a big football school and experienced success at the professional level during their playing days. While those are the stereotypes, they’re not always true. Fun fact: two NFL coaches (out of the mere 32 that exist in this world) attended the College of William & Mary. For a “small academic school” with an FCS football program, that’s one pretty incredible statistic — and one that doesn’t happen by accident.
One of those aforementioned NFL Head Coaches is W&M alum Mike Tomlin (’95), whom we all know as the Head Coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In that time, Tomlin has amassed an eye-popping 124-67 record, and is the youngest head coach in NFL History to have won a Super Bowl. Below, we detail Tomlin’s path to the NFL, dating back to his playing days at…you guessed it: William & Mary. Roll Tribe Roll.
William & Mary Playing Career (1991-1994)
Mike Tomlin grew up in the great state of Virginia, in Newport News. Proving himself as an outstanding athlete in high school, he chose William & Mary specifically because of its academic prowess and athletic reputation — two reasons we continue to hear W&M student athletes describe today. In a more recent interview, Tomlin reminisced of his days in the ‘Burg, stating that, “on a day-to-day basis, [William & Mary is] a proving ground. I think that’s why so many young people that come to this university and through this athletic department are successful in whatever they choose to do.” We hear you Coach, and couldn’t agree more; maybe that’s why we also have another Head Coach in the NFL, the Buffalo Bills’ Sean McDermott! #OneTribe
During his illustrious career with the Tribe, Tomlin proved himself as a three-year starter at wide receiver, donning the number 4. He would go on to become an all-time great, finishing his career with 101 receptions, 2,046 yards, and 20 touchdown receptions. In fact, his 20 career touchdown receptions still ranks 4th all-time in William & Mary program history. Tomlin was also named co-captain his senior season (1994), earning First-Team All-Yankee Conference honors that same year. When it was all said and done, Tomlin graduated William & Mary holding school records in career yards per catch (19.6) and single-season average per reception (25.5). Due to his success on and off the field, Tomlin was ultimately inducted into the William & Mary Hall of Fame in 2012 — forever etching himself into the annals of Tribe football lore for decades to come.
Following his graduation in 1995, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Tomlin has spoken fondly of his former Head Coach, Jimmye Laycock. “I love Coach Laycock, I love him now; I loved him then.” said Tomlin. “He had a quiet confidence about him. He was very professional. His passion for the game showed through even though he was a somewhat reserved personality. I wanted to be like him, and that’s probably one of the reasons I got into professional coaching.”
Tomlin has also stated that the Tribe will always hold a special place in his heart: “Because of my experiences [at William & Mary], the people I met, the way I was able to grow personally, I feel a sense of obligation [to the Tribe].”
2008 William & Mary Commencement
In 2008, Tomlin served as the primary speaker during W&M’s commencement ceremony. A month later, he returned to the ‘Burg to help dedicate the Jimmye Laycock Football Center. Below is a video of Tomlin talking about life as a William & Mary alum.
Early Coaching Career (1995-2000)
Tomlin’s first 5 years of coaching was spent with 4 different teams. He first started as a wide receivers coach for VMI in 1995. In 1996, Tomlin worked as a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis, where he was a defensive backs and special teams coach. Tomlin was then hired by Arkansas State University in 1997 to coach defensive backs, before ultimately being hired by Cincinnati as defensive backs coach, from 1999-2000.
NFL Coaching Career (2001-Present)
After 5 years coaching at the collegiate level, Tomlin made the jump to the NFL in 2001 when he was hired as the defensive backs coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Tampa, Tomlin learned Tony Dungy’s infamous “Tampa 2” defense that Tomlin would utilize in future coaching gigs; perhaps just as importantly, Tomlin was able to work under well-known coaches such as the aforementioned Tony Dungy, in addition to Jon Gruden while he was with the Buccaneers, gaining valuable experience that would undoubtedly serve him well moving forward in the professional ranks.
Tomlin would serve as the defensive backs coach for Tampa Bay from 2001-2005. Over that span, the Buccaneers led the NFL in Total Defense (in 2002 and 2005), with Tampa Bay’s defensive unit never ranking worse than 6th overall. In fact, the team won the Super Bowl in 2003 — a game in which Buccaneer defense notched a Super Bowl record five interceptions, three of which were returned for touchdowns (they won 48-21 over the Oakland Raiders). Wow.
After five successful years as the defensive backs coach in Tampa, Tomlin was hired as the Defensive Coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings in 2006. Another fun fact: at the time Tomlin was hired as the Coordinator for the Vikings, two players on the Vikings roster were older than Tomlin. In 2006, the Vikings finished with the NFL’s 8th best defense, ranking as the top-ranked defense against the run.
Head Coaching Career
After just one season with the Vikings, in 2007, Tomlin was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers to be their 16th Head Coach. Tomlin replaced the legendary Bill Cowher, and it’s safe to say that he has never looked back. As mentioned, Tomlin’s career record is 124-67 (.649). He is the youngest Head Coach in NFL history to win the Super Bowl. He is also the 10th African-American coach in NFL History and the first for the Steelers, and the second-ever African American Head Coach to win the Super Bowl.
During his first season as Head Coach, the Steeler’s had the top-ranked defense in the NFL — do you notice the theme yet? He led the team to the 2007 AFC North Division Championship and a 10-6 record that same year. In fact, Tomlin would go on to set a Steelers Head Coach record by notching 22 wins over his first two years at the helm. He also became the first Steelers Head Coach to win division titles in his first two seasons. And when the Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the 2008 AFC Championship Game, Tomlin became the youngest ever NFL Head Coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl. He also became the third African-American to bring a team to the Super Bowl, following Chicago’s Lovie Smith and Indianapolis’s Tony Dungy.
Tomlin was named the 2008 NFL Coach of the Year. On February 1st, 2009, he became the youngest Head Coach to win the Super Bowl at age 36 when the Steelers defeated the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. In 2010, Tomlin would lead the Steelers back to the Super Bowl, for the second time in three years, but would lose the game to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, 31-25. Finally, and most recently in 2017, Tomlin became the 3rd coach in NFL history to finish with a .500 or better record in his first 10 seasons with one team. The only other coaches to do that are John Madden (with the Raiders) and Curly Lambeau (of course with the Packers) — good company to keep, right?
In summary, Mike Tomlin is not only one of the most successful W&M football alums in history, but he’s also one of the most successful living W&M alums out there today — everyone included. What he’s done for the Steelers has been nothing short of amazing. Even better, he continues to perform at a high level with the Steelers, continually vying for the AFC crown year after year. We at the W&M Sports Blog couldn’t be more proud to call him one of our own, and we look forward to seeing Tomlin back in the Super Bowl.
LET’S GO TRIBE!!!