Mike Tomlin Belongs on the Chuck Noll Coaching Tree. Period.

You can file this firmly under “Bye Week Banter,” but I uncovered an interesting factoid while researching the Chuck Noll vs. Bill Walsh series published earlier this year.

We’ve all heard about “The Bill Walsh” coaching tree more than we would care to recount. To Bill Walsh’s credit, the tree is extensive and its members have been more successful than not. Those are indisputable facts.

What is disputable is just who belongs on that tree. A search on the key word “Bill Walsh coaching tree” on Google reveals some interesting results.

Internet Consensus on the “Bill Walsh Coaching Tree” Incorrect

Take Wikipedia, for example. Dennis Green is connected to Walsh with a direct line, which is as it should be since Green coached for him in 1979, and then again in the mid-80’s. Yet another direct line connects Green to Tony Dungy, and Dungy has lines connecting him to Lovie Smith, Rob Marinelli and, of course, Mike Tomlin.


This tree doesn’t just show up in Wikipedia, but in the San Francisco Chronicle, Findarticles.com, the sports oasis blog, and about a gazillion dozen other sites.

  • One can quibble about any number of the names on the list, but two concern us here: Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin.

A downside to the internet is that when something gets reproduced repeatedly, people simply accept it at face value as fact. Case in point, the first reference that caught Steel Curtain Rising’s attention (quite a feat, as the site wasn’t even founded yet!) came last year.

  • On August 11, 2007 the Washington Post ran an excellent article about Mike Tomlin.

Excellent except for the fact that it said something to the effect that (this is a paraphrase) “If Tomlin belongs on a coaching tree, he belongs on the Bill Walsh Coaching Tree.” At the time, it seemed like this was just one journalist’s igonrance, but alas, as we mention above, its become accepted as fact.

Let’s get this straight. Tony Dungy, by virtue of the fact that he was Denny Green’s defensive coordinator before becoming Tampa’s head coach is supposed to be a “descendent” of Bill Walsh? And therefore because Dungy gave Tomlin his first job in the NFL, he’s Tomlin is therefore also on the Walsh coaching tree?

19th Century Wisdom from The First Dan Rooney

An insurance man once tried to list Dan Rooney (father of Art Sr., grandfather of the five Rooney brothers) as Welsh (because he’d been born there) instead of Irish. After listening patiently, Pap Rooney retorted:

“Look, if you had a cat, and the cat had kittens in an oven, would you call the kittens biscuits?”*

That settled the issue right there. The Rooneys were Irish.

The same logic applies here.

The Chuck Noll Coaching Tree

If Tony Dungy is part of any coaching “tree” or a prodigy of anyone, then that person is Chuck Noll.


Tony Dungy was a disciple of Chuck Noll. Dungy played for Noll, and Noll made him a defensive coordinator at age 27. Dungy spent his formative years in Pittsburgh under Noll, before moving onto to work under Marty Schottenhiemer (and Bill Cowher) in Kansas City, and then Denny Green in Minnesota.

  • Tony Dungy regularly credits Noll as his mentor.

The offenses that Dungy employed in Tampa were a lot closer to the ones that Noll ran in the 70’s than to Bill Walsh’s “West Coast offense,” and his current offensive coordinator in Indy is none other than Tom Moore, who served as Chuck Noll’s offensive coordinator for 20 years.

  • Tony Dungy has no place on the Bill Walsh coaching tree.

Mike Tomlin’s case is a little more complex, as he spent more time under John Gruden than anyone else. But Dungy brought him into the NFL, and Tomlin regularly cites Tony Dungy as his formative influence. When the Rooney’s were deciding between Mike Tomlin and Russ Grimm, they called Dungy, and Dungy gave his former pupil a ringing endorsement.

Tomlin’s own words are more revealing. During the Steelers 75th Anniversary Game, one of the commentators remarked that Tomlin had told them (this is a paraphrase) “The longer I am here, the more I see that things are done here the way Tony Dungy used to do them.”

That should settle it.

If Mike Tomlin belongs on a coaching tree, he belongs on the Chuck Noll coaching tree, right under Tony Dungy.

*Rooney, Art. Jr. Ruanaidh. Pittsburgh: Geyer Printing Company, 2008. p. 5

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