When Mike Tomlin was a young defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay, Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin would occasionally make trips with Tomlin to visit Pete Carroll's USC Trojans.
Carroll and Kiffin have a long history coaching together dating back to 1977 when Carroll was a graduate assistant at Arkansas, but Carroll didn't know much about Tomlin at the time other than that the young assistant coach had Kiffin's seal of approval, which has always carried weight with Carroll.
It would have been impossible to predict at the time when those three defensive-minded coaches got together to trade thoughts on football, but nearly two decades after they first crossed paths, Carroll and Tomlin will meet again on Sunday as two of the longest-tenured coaches in the NFL.
"Man, I've got a lot of respect and admiration for Pete," Tomlin said on a conference call. "It's funny, one of his best professional friends is Monte Kiffin. I worked for Monte almost 20 years ago. Monte and I, we'd go out and visit with him when he was the head coach at Southern Cal and talked defensive football and secondary play specifically. It's always been a good and informational relationship."
In an era of ever-decreasing patience, Carroll and Tomlin, as well Sean Payton, the head coach of the Saints, Seattle's next opponent, are a rarity. Since 2017, 19 of 32 NFL teams have made head coaching changes, including eight teams that have new head coaches this year.
New England's Bill Belichick, who has led the Patriots since 2000, is the league's longest-tenured coach, followed by Payton (2006), Tomlin (2007), Baltimore's John Harbaugh (2008), and Carroll and Dallas' Jason Garrett (2010).
"He's just always a really good guy," Carroll said of Tomlin. "I know Kiffin thought the world of him and that's all I needed to hear. I didn't know Mike much other than through his reputation, and then everything else has just jumped off the charts about the kind of guy he is and the coach that he is and how he's affected the league. He's been such a great, positive influence to so many guys."
To stick around in the NFL, a head coach obviously has to win a lot of games, and Carroll and Tomlin have both done that. Under Carroll the Seahawks have been to the postseason seven times in nine years, won four division titles, two NFC championships and one Super Bowl. The Steelers, meanwhile, have been to the postseason eight times under Tomlin since 2007, winning six division titles, two AFC championship and one Super Bowl. The Steelers have never had a losing season under Tomlin, while the Seahawks have enjoyed seven straight winning seasons after going 7-9 in each of Carroll's first two seasons.
But while it's easy to point to why coaches have longevity in terms of results, the trick is finding a way to keep winning in a league that is set up to create parity. The right quarterback certainly helps—Ben Roethlisberger has been leading the way in Pittsburgh since before Tomlin arrived, while Wilson is heading into his eighth season—but there's more to it than that.
"I think it's being able to be consistent and find the consistency where the people around you can count on you," Carroll said. "Mike has been nothing but that. He's been great, done everything. To be consistent, you have to have your philosophy in order, you've got to have your principles in order so that you can keep coming back to it. If you're flip-flopping and changing and you're some style this year and another style another year, you're likely going to stumble and get into trouble. Just think about, it's Ben, it's their style of play, it's their defense, it's always been tough and physical. They've been consistent throughout."
Seahawks defensive tackle Al Woods played for Tomlin earlier in his career, and while Carroll and Tomlin have their differences in terms of personality and coaching styles, he sees a couple of key similarities behind their success.
"They're consistent with their message, they make every day exciting, and they make you want to work for them," Woods said. "That's a big key, when you've got a team that's willing to work for you, that's big. When you've got a team that doesn't want to play for you, that's hard."
K.J. Wright, who has played his entire NFL career under Carroll, said, "He does a good job of bringing in guys who will buy into what he's saying. His message is one he'll continue to say, compete, get the ball, that stuff wins ballgames. He hasn't changed a bit, and it's been fun my whole nine years here with him."
Having played with teammates who have experienced high levels of coaching turnover, Wright appreciates the consistency he has been a part of since arriving as a fourth-round pick in 2011.
"I don't take it for granted," he said. "Talking to Mychal (Kendricks), he's had a few coaches, and he's like, 'Man, it's good you guys have Pete, you guys can go to his office and talk to him, and he comes and talks to you guys. It's not like that everywhere.' I definitely have a strong appreciation for him, and I don't take it for granted at all, because I know when new coaches come in, they bring in new personnel, new players. Things have been pretty consistent and smooth since I've been here."
Another key factor when it comes to a long coaching tenure is stability at the top of the organization. Paul Allen hired Carroll and general manager John Schneider 10 years ago, and since his death last fall, his sister Jody Allen has been in charge as the Chair of the Seahawks and Trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust. In Pittsburgh, the Rooney Family has owned the team since its 1933 founding, a big reason why the Steelers have had only three head coaches since 1969—Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin.
"This has been a very fortunate opportunity for us, for both of us," Carroll said of his partnership with Schneider. "To be with the Allen family and consistently stay together with these guys and their representing here. It's been a great opportunity for us, and I'm thrilled that this happened. I had no idea that this would be what happened when we went to the league again. Honestly, I thought it would be a lot different. I'm real proud of it. I'm proud both of how we've represented, but also how we've been able to stay consistent with what we believe in, and John has been awesome to be together with. We're still clawing and scratching every day for every opportunity that comes and we're not one bit different in that regard. I think it gives us a chance to stay in good shape and have a chance to win every year."
The Seahawks and the Steelers will meet this Sunday in Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Week 6 of the 2021 season. Take a look back at photos from the past games between the two teams.