Tomlin, Steelers get things right with Brian Flores hire

Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports /

As his impending class-action lawsuit with the NFL hangs in the air, Brian Flores got a shot after it looked like it may have passed by. But once again, the Pittsburgh Steelers showed why they’re one of the first-class organizations in all of sports.

If there ever was a team to stand on the right side of history, of course, it’d be the Pittsburgh Steelers. After surprisingly being let go by the Miami Dolphins in January and following that up by kicking off Black History Month with a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, it looked like Brian Flores would be passed up in this latest coaching cycle.

And technically, he was. With nine head coaching openings, none were filled by a guy who’s gone 19-14 over the past two seasons, as well as 4-2 overall in three seasons against his former boss, Bill Belichick. In the midst of this lawsuit, Flores could have been the head coaching version of Colin Kaepernick.

But the Steelers made a surprise hire, bringing the former Dolphins head coach in as a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach. As great as it is to see, he’s almost too qualified for the role. Even before guiding Miami to its first back-to-back winning seasons since 2003, Flores had a hand in New England claiming its last four championships.

It makes so much sense for Mike Tomlin to bring Flores in as well. Another no-nonsense coach whose style resembles the likes of the old NFL, the two seem to be a fit together. Especially as two defensive-minded guys, Flores and Tomlin working together could be just what the Steelers need as they look to bounce back from a season where they ranked 24th in the league on defense.

Flores will have a room led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, former first-round pick Devin Bush Jr. and Alonzo Highsmith Jr.

But culturally, the Steelers are just about the only team that could make this hire. They’re the franchise that literally created the Rooney Rule, which was named after the late Dan Rooney (current owner Art Rooney II’s father). They were the first to hire an African-American assistant coach on staff with Lowell Perry back in 1957. 

Joe Gilliam, who backed up Terry Bradshaw on two of Pittsburgh’s title teams in the 1970’s, became the NFL’s first Black quarterback to start in an opening day game in 1973.

The Steelers, more times than not, have been on the right side of history. They were the first in the NFL to hire a Black coordinator, clearing the way for Hall of Famer Tony Dungy as DC in 1984, before going on to name a woman as their head athletic trainer (Ariko Iso in 2002).

So this falls right in line. Bring in a coach that is beyond qualified for his merits on the field, even with the conversation about him now being about the NFL’s poor diversity in coaching hires, specifically with head coaches. Even with the promotion of Lovie Smith in Houston, and Mike McDaniel replacing Flores in Miami, there are now five head coaches of color in the NFL — Smith, McDaniel, Tomlin, Ron Rivera, and Robert Saleh.

The league can say all it wants about its practices, but that’s 15.6% of the 32 head coaches when the league itself is nearly three-quarters Black.

Just look at the numbers, as Joseph Stepansky describes in his Feb. 11 story for Al Jazeera: 

"In 2021, about 71 percent of NFL players were races other than white, according to data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. … The NFL’s own Diversity and Inclusion Report published in February 2021 found that 82 percent of head coaching hires in the league between 2012 and 2021 went to white men.The percentage was nearly the same for general managers."

Did Belichick make a legit mistake by texting Flores instead of fellow former assistant Brian Daboll about the New York Giants gig? Maybe. Could John Elway and the Broncos brass really have been coming back from a late-evening flight like they said they did? Sure. And could the claims of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross encouraging Flores to tank for better draft position be fictitious? Possibly.

But that’s for the courts to decide. As for Flores, that lawsuit alone will not be the period at the end of his NFL coaching life. He’s a damn good coach, and the fact that the politics of the league did not withhold him from being one ever again shows that he won this battle. A battle so largely needed, it helps with the ongoing war on racism that the NFL has had its troubles with over the years.

Flores’ biggest battle could be addressing Minkah Fitzpatrick after the former traded him to Pittsburgh in 2019.

So as football fans, we thank you Pittsburgh. You’ve done it before, and I’m sure you’ll do it again. Let’s just hope more teams take the lead on affecting change the way the Steelers have throughout history.