Sam Ross Jr.

Sam Ross Jr.

Now that the Pittsburgh Pirates have parted ways with manager Clint Hurdle and the Pittsburgh Steelers have stumbled out of the gate, the suggestion is being made that it could be time to end the Mike Tomlin era.

This is not exactly a new song from disgruntled Steelers fans, who periodically express angst over Tomlin’s coaching performance.

It’s not his overall record. 

It’s his teams’ performances in big games and the tendency for Tomlin to produce questionable game management that often comes back to haunt him in those critical contests.

The question is, could it happen, could Tomlin be axed if this season ends with yet another absence from the playoffs and perhaps Tomlin’s first losing record?

The prospect is unlikely, despite the 1-3 start, given that before training camp Steelers ownership extended Tomlin’s contract through the 2021 season.

Cynics might suggest that vote of confidence was due to fears of exactly what has happened, a rough start, and this was a preemptive move to head off coaching speculation.

Tomlin supporters, and they are many, point to his regular-season record of 125-64-1, a .645 win percentage. He did lead the Steelers to two Super Bowls, winning one.

Detractors note that since the Steelers lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV following the 2010 season, the franchise has missed the playoffs entirely in three seasons and the combined Steelers playoff record since that Super Bowl loss is 3-5, just a .375 winning percentage.

It also became painfully clear last season that Tomlin had allowed his locker room to splinter over the distractions caused by the absence of running back Le’Veon Bell and the unstable presence of wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Similarly, the inability to control the clubhouse ultimately had to have been a factor in the Pirates deciding Hurdle couldn’t stay. There were fist fights, verbal confrontations and the odd felony charge against a player.

Like Tomlin, Hurdle was under contract through the 2021 season courtesy of an extension from September 2017. Few thought the Pirates ownership would be willing to eat the remaining contract of Hurdle, who inexplicably was one of the highest paid managers in Major League Baseball.

Hurdle ended nine seasons as Pirates manager with a 735-720 regular-season record. He got the team to the playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015, going a combined 3-5 there.

But the Pirates have posted three losing records in four seasons since, capped by this year’s 69-93 finish, good for the NL Central basement. The last time the Pirates resided at the absolute bottom of the division was in 2010, which got then-manager John Russell fired and opened up a job for Hurdle.

It is a valid point to note Hurdle’s production pales in comparison with that of Tomlin. It also is valid to note Tomlin came onboard an established winning Steelers franchise, while Hurdle took over a Pirates franchise in the midst of a two-decade run of losing seasons.

And to argue that managers or head coaches with recent championships on their resume can’t be fired is to disregard reality.

Just last week the Chicago Cubs parted ways (they didn’t use the F-word) with manager Joe Maddon, who in 2016 had managed the Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years.

Maddon never had a losing record with the Cubs, and had a playoff winning percentage with the Cubs that was over .500.

But the Cubs missed the playoffs this season and the thinking given for moving on from Maddon’s leadership was a change was needed.

There must be something about Chicago when it comes to what-have-you-done-for-me-lately thinking.

Joel Quenneville coached the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups in a six-season stretch from 2009-10 through 2014-15.

Two first-round playoff exits followed, and then came a playoff absence in 2017-18.

Quenneville only made it 15 games into the 2018-19 season before the Blackhawks pulled the plug on him.

Quenneville accomplished more for the Blackhawks than Tomlin has with the Steelers. Yet when his results diminished, Quenneville was shown the door.

The point is, increasingly coaches and managers should come with expiration dates, like those on milk cartons. We often hear how players stop listening, or the message got old to explain dismissals.

Will we be hearing such rationalizations regarding a Tomlin firing this season or next? Probably not. But should it happen to Tomlin, a guy with a championship and high winning percentage on his resume, it would not be without precedent.


Sam Ross Jr. is a freelance journalist who writes a weekly column for The Tribune-Democrat.

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