Tradition Collides on Sunday at Heinz Field
49ers Coach Jim Tomsula, who will take on the Steelers Sunday, is the most recent addition to the ranks of NFL coaches from western Pennsylvania.
It’ll be a home opener and a homecoming when the Steelers host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Both occasions are worth celebrating to western Pennsylvanians, even if some might find themselves a little conflicted in the process.
For the Steelers, it’s a chance to begin again after a forgettable regular-season opener in New England.
And for Homestead’s Jim Tomsula, it’s a triumphant return.
Upon being named the 19th head coach in 49ers history back on Jan. 14, Tomsula became the most recent from the region to assume such a position. He joined Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis and Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy among the ranks of current NFL head coaches from western Pennsylvania.
Lewis and McCarthy had been following in the footsteps of Bill Cowher, Todd Haley, Jim Haslett and Dave Wannstedt, who had been following in the footsteps of Mike Ditka, Joe Walton, Marty Schottenheimer and Chuck Knox, among others.
“I would never put myself in that same sentence with all those guys,” Tomsula insisted.
Carrying the torch for our region behind the scenes for years, the way so many NFL scouts and assistant coaches and front office types had previously and continue to do at whatever NFL outpost would have them, is another matter entirely.
There are enough of those guys that they’re referred to in NFL inner circles as the “Southwestern Pennsylvania Mafia.”
“It’s like a fraternity,” said Packers scout and Plum native John Wojciechowski, whose parents first purchased Steelers season tickets in 1974.
“We come from the same football culture, the same football background.”
The common bond is home, whether home is Sewickley, Aliquippa, Upper St. Clair, McDonald or Greenfield.
And it’s a bond that’s shared whenever and wherever these NFL western Pennsylvanians get together.
Former Steelers special teams coach Kevin Spencer once described a typical exchange at an NFL Scouting Combine or an NFL Draft.
Spencer — he’s not from here — did so with equal parts amazement and bewilderment.
“The first thing they’ll ask each other is, ‘When’s the last time you’ve been back?’” Spencer explained. “‘Six months? Oh, I haven’t been back in a year.’ It’s like they were talking about Paris, not Pittsburgh."
“And then it’s, ‘How’s your mother?’”
That’s always the case, Spencer maintained, whether the meeting involves NFL western Pennsylvanians who knew each other or merely knew of one another.
Tomsula, 48, took that tradition a step further in March at the NFL’s annual meeting in Phoenix.
“Are you from Pittsburgh?” he asked a reporter who had merely asked him about Pittsburgh. “I love the accent.”
Then came an announcement made for the benefit of the rest of those seated at a table in a hotel ballroom for a group interview.
“We got a Pittsburgher over there.”
No one else cared, but Tomsula seemed genuinely excited at the discovery.
He also was more than happy to educate any and all within earshot about his hometown.
“Being from Pittsburgh, you know the pride level when it comes to football and how important it is to all of us,” Tomsula said. “I still remember back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Rooney family, what they did for that community and the way it gave everybody a shot in the arm. I watched football help a community. I think we all did.”
Perhaps that’s why it’s about so much more than players when it comes to the NFL and its links to western Pennsylvania.
You don’t have to be Joe Namath, Joe Montana or Dan Marino.
If you’re in the game, you’ve made it.
And if you’ve made it, you’ve confirmed for western Pennsylvania the work ethic, the resolve, the physical and mental toughness, the pride and the passion, all of the qualities and attributes western Pennsylvanians like to believe define western Pennsylvania.
“Doesn’t it go back to those steel mills and just that mentality of everybody there?” Tomsula continued.
“Football fits. Determination, fighting through the struggles and getting up every day and earning your way, physical work, loyalties; all those words that make you feel good, you get from Pittsburgh. I watched my dad, my grandfather; you get up, you work like crazy and you know what? When it’s funny, have a laugh, too. If it’s funny, laugh. If it’s sad, cry. And if you’re mad, let somebody know.”
It’s going to be awfully hard to root against that guy on Sunday, no matter how hard you root for the Steelers.