Mike Tomlin, Kevin Stefanski and Eric Bieniemy were among the young coaches bustling about Winter Park when Brad Childress was assembling his first Vikings staff back on Jan. 10, 2006.
Tomlin, 33, was at the podium being introduced as defensive coordinator.
“Mike was the first guy I pursued,” Childress said last month. “I had to get the right guy to run the defense. Mike certainly had some pop to him, which came through when he interviewed.”
The Steelers agreed. A year later, the Super Bowl champs hired Tomlin as Bill Cowher’s successor. Two years later, he became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. Today, he’s 47 and heading into his 14th season as Steelers coach.
While Childress was introducing Tomlin back in January 2006, Stefanski was somewhere far under the radar on his first day in the NFL as Childress’ 23-year-old gofer. Fourteen years of quietly climbing the ranks under three Vikings head coaches landed Stefanski a head coaching job in Cleveland last month.
“I called Kevin after he got the Browns job and he reminded me that his first day in Minnesota was Tomlin’s first day,” Childress said. “He said he got a text from Mike the day the Browns hired him.”
Chilly said the text contained only two words. The first word was “Congratulations!” The second word was a lighthearted expletive that playfully signaled game on in the twice-a-year tussle within the AFC North.
Bieniemy was 36 when he was at Winter Park interviewing for running backs coach on Jan. 10, 2006. His 10-year career as an NFL running back had ended in 1999 with one season in Philadelphia under rookie NFL head coach Andy Reid.
Childress, who was Reid’s quarterbacks coach that year, hired Bieniemy, giving him his first coaching job in the NFL. Today, Bieniemy is 50. He’s now won a Super Bowl as Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City.
And he should be an NFL head coach.
Tomlin and Bieniemy are black. Whereas Tomlin’s hiring in Pittsburgh in 2007 was hailed as a victory in the fourth year of the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” Bieniemy’s repeated rejections the past two years have been used by some, including the Fritz Pollard Alliance, as the leading example that the process of promoting minority coaching hires needs work.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell agreed during his Super Bowl news conference last week.
“Clearly, we are not where we want to be on this level,” Goodell said. “Clearly, we need to change and do something different. There’s no reason to expect we’re going to have a different outcome next year without some changes.”
The NFL will have four minority head coaches, including three black men, for the second straight season. Ron Rivera, going from Carolina to Washington, also marked the second consecutive season in which one minority candidate was hired.
Similar to Tomlin, Bieniemy has an “it” quality about him that comes across as head coaching material. But as he was helping the Chiefs win the Super Bowl, he lost out on the head coaching jobs he interviewed for with the Panthers, Giants and Browns.
“I’m Eric Bieniemy’s greatest fan,” Reid said last week. “I think he’d be a great head coach. … When I talk about leaders of men, you’re not going to find a finer one than Eric Bieniemy.
“He knows all the buttons to push. He’s got a great offensive mind. … I really don’t think he needs to work on anything to become a head coach. I think he’s ready to go. He just needs that opportunity to get in and go.”
That same day, Bieniemy was asked by the Star Tribune if he’s frustrated being the big 5-0 and still looking for a head coaching job.
“Not at all,” he said. “I had an opportunity to interview the past two years. When you go through that process, you get to learn a lot. And then teams get to decide who they want.
“And on top of that, when all is said and done with, I still have a great job. I still get to work with one of the best in the business in Andy Reid. And on top of that, we have an up-and-coming quarterback who is doing a heck of a lot of great things in Patrick Mahomes. So, I have absolutely nothing to complain about.”