Before Barack Obama, there was Mike Tomlin.
At least that is how Pittsburgh Steelers fans see it on this Super Bowl weekend. Some of them are wearing black-and-gold YES WE CAN T shirts—with a picture of the football coach where the president should be.
In many ways, Obama and Tomlin share a similar, almost paradoxical, outlook: they are pathbreaking traditionalists. In racial terms, they of course represent social change. But the message of their lives, families, careers and public styles could not be more old-fashioned—a bedrock, even throwback, kind of conservatism.
They stand shoulder to shoulder for hard work, academic accomplishment, family values, attentive parenting and performance-based, no-excuses accountability on their chosen battlefields.
That's how Obama ran his campaign and lives his personal life—and, we can only hope, how he will run his administration. Same for Tomlin, who likes to quote Robert Frost ("iron strengthens iron") and who draws inspiration from the movie "Glory" and the World War II Iwo Jima saga "Flag of Our Fathers."
On a national level, race has nothing to do with the Tomlin story. After all, he is the 10th black coach in the National Football League—hardly a trailblazer. There have been African-American coaches in the Super Bowl, too—indeed, facing each other.
Still, if you know Pittsburgh, you know that it was a monumental, if unspoken, sociological deal when the Rooney family, owners of the team and deeply admired city fathers, chose Tomlin to take control of the cultural and civic icon that is the Steelers.
In spite of its rich history of black culture and achievement (from Billy Eckstein and the Hines family to The Pittsburgh Courier and August Wilson), the city has a history of racial and ethnic separatism.
In one stroke, the Rooneys ended that narrative by hiring Tomlin to assume a role occupied by no-nonsense, blue-collar, steel town tough guys such as Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.
Tomlin has delivered, and that doesn't just mean that he's won lots of games. It's the image and the actions: focused, direct and intense. He is a poetry-quoting drill sergeant who tries to have breakfast at home with his three kids almost every day, who closely supervises their homework, who keeps almost ludicrously detailed notes on every aspect of his football work life, who preaches disciplined teamwork with an almost religious zeal.
Obama is more laid back, but the traditionalists approach is the same—witness his superbly organized and self-disciplined campaign.
The two men share some similarities in their roots and rising. Both were separated from their birth fathers; in Tomlin's case, he credits the stepfather he came to know and love for showing him the character-building possibilities of sports. Both men played sports in school, which helped them gain access to excellent higher education. In Tomlin's case, that was the College of William and Mary—a "public Ivy" where, as he said, there are "no dummies."
Both men are products of urban life. Tomlin's version of the South Side of Chicago was Newport News, Va., where industrial shipyards dominated local life. When he got the Steelers job, he didn't head for the leafy suburbs but bought a house in a distinguished old city neighborhood near the universities—a neighborhood similar to Obama's Hyde Park.
Both men are careful about their own public appearance and that of the people around them. During the campaign, Obama lectured hip-hop kids on the need to literally pull their pants up; historically black colleges have tightened dress codes as a result. Tomlin insists that players wear only team-issued gear when they practice. As for him, there's nothing showy: he does drive an Escalade, and he arrived in Tampa in shades and silk threads. But there is nothing "out there," just the look of a new Establishment.
The Rooneys chose Tomlin about the same time Obama launched his presidential campaign, so perhaps it's no surprise that they joined forces. The normally Republican Rooneys endorsed Obama; so did several players and, eventually, their coach.
Dan Rooney presented the game ball from the AFC Championship game to President-elect Obama on the weekend before his inauguration.
And now President Obama is on the team. If his hometown Chicago Bears aren't involved, he said, he was backing the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Of course Pennsylvania is a blue state, Arizona a red one!)
No matter what happens Sunday night, Tomlin's already won, and so has Pittsburgh.