Steelers Training Camp Preview: A Closer Look at Mike Tomlin’s New Assistants

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 NFL Draft class won’t be the only new faces feeling their way through their first training camp at Latrobe. So will three new assistant coaches. And that’s unusual.

  • Unlike his predecessor Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin isn’t trigger happy when it comes to firing assistant coaches. 

So it’s understandable that Mike Tomlin’s coaching shake ups in after the Steelers 2009 and 2011 seasons captivated Steelers Nation’s attention. Yet Tomlin’s coaching changes in the wake of 2012’s disappointment’s barely raised an eyelid.

  • Perhaps that shouldn’t be the case – at the very least some patterns appear to be replicating themselves…

Let’s take a closer look.

Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin, From Trigger Happy to Trigger Hesitant on Assistants

In his first season Bill Cowher assembled a team of coaches who’d never worked together before. Dick Hoak was the lone hold out from Chuck Noll’s staff. Cowher had cold called offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt out of the blue.

  • Skeptics wondered if it could work and 1992 Steelers 11-5 take the league by surprise season shows it did.

But unity did not last long. The day after a blocked punt in a wild card game at Kansas City ended the 1993 Steelers playoff run Bill Cowher fired, in summary execution style, special teams coach John Guy, receivers coach Bob Harrison and defensive line coach  Steve Furness (Furness, a veteran of the Steel Curtain, dismissal was the most surprising, and friends said he never recovered.)

Assistant coach firings became the norm for the Cowher years as Ron Erhardt, Ray Sherman, Kevin Gilbride, and Tim Lewis all got the boot and that’s only counting the coordinators. Other coaches such as Bobby April left because they found Cowher difficult too work for.

In contrast, Mike Tomlin went two years without firing any assistant. Word is that he resisted pressure (who knows why) to fire Bob Ligashesky after special teams disasters sabotaged the Steelers 2007 season.

Tomlin likewise went to the mat in 2009 to defend Bruce Arians job, but he did nonetheless make other coaching changes.

A Closer Look at Tomlin’s Coaching Changes

Although he saved Arians job (with Ben Roethlisberger‘s help), Tomlin fired Larry Zierlin and Bob Ligashesky. Ken Anderson retired as quarterbacks coach creating another vacancy.

Back in 2010, to fill those vacancies, Tomlin hired:

  • Al Everest to coach special teams
  • Sean Kulgler to coach the offensive line
  • Scotty Montgomery to coach the wide receivers 

The vacancy at the quarterbacks coaching spot was filled by Randy Ficthner, who’d served as receivers coach.

Fast forward to 2012. Art Rooney II again pressured Tomlin to fire Bruce Arians, and this time Tomlin declined to stick his neck out for his coordinator, even though he’d already invited Arians back.

Despite the Steelers 8-8 finish, Tomlin fired no assistant coaches, but there’s been plenty of turnover nonetheless. Amos Jones followed Bruce Arians to Pittsburgh West (aka the Arizona Cardinals), Sean Kugler left to coach UT El Paso, and Scotty Montgomery returned to Duke University.

Those departures resulted in Tomlin hiring:

So, in two years time Tomlin has replaced the exact same set of position coaches…

…Does that mean anything? Perhaps not but it’s a coincidence that deserves recognition. Jack Bicknell has no ties to the Steelers or Tomlin, but the same cannot be said for Danny Smith and Richard Mann.

Danny Smith is a Pittsburgh and Central Catholic graduate. He coached at William and Mary, Tomlin alma mater and also coached in Detroit while Kevin Colbert was there.

Richard Mann has worked in the NFL long enough to coach for the original Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Colts and the Baltimore Ravens. He also happened to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just when Tomin was breaking into the NFL.

So while Tomlin might have shuffled some assistants some, not all of them are exactly new faces. Perhaps that will turn out to be a good thing. Time will tell.

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