Talk to the athletes who played for Vince Lombardi or Paul Brown or Chuck Noll. They will tell you that those coaches didn't just draw up X's and O's. Those leaders took pride in coaching their players, trite as it might seem, on the larger field of life. They considered it part of the job.
Mike Tomlin never had the pleasure of playing for those men; his career as a wide receiver ended with graduation at William & Mary. But he did follow Noll into the celebrated role as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach. When he was introduced as the franchise's 16th head coach in 2007, Tomlin, then 34, became one of the youngest head coaches in league history.
Noll, who led the Steelers from 1969-91, produced a record of 193-148-1 (.566) in regular-season games. He was 16-8 (.667) in the postseason and won four Super Bowls in a span of six seasons. He was a nearly unanimous choice as one of the top 10 coaches in NFL history, as selected by an ESPN panel.
"I think it's the men that he instructed," Tomlin said. "The men that he nurtured and raised, if you will. Whether it's Joe Greene or John Stallworth or Lynn Swann or Terry Bradshaw. Obviously, he was influential in those people's lives when they were young people and probably in a lot of ways helped mold them into the people that they are.
"And I think his biggest legacy are those people and what it is they do and have done inside our game and out."
Tomlin has done his part in the Steelers continuum. Following Noll and Bill Cowher (1992-2006), he has led Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl berths in his six seasons. One of them was a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
"I'm continually reminded of the platform that we have as coaches to help people, to direct people," Tomlin reflected. "To be significant catalysts for change in people's lives so they can go on to do great things."
There are three active head coaches on ESPN's all-time top-20 list, and they have all, in different ways, taught their players life lessons over the years. Bill Belichick has led the New England Patriots to five Super Bowls in the past 12 seasons. Tom Coughlin and his New York Giants beat Belichick and the Patriots at the end of the 2007 and 2011 seasons. Mike Shanahan, who might be building another championship team in Washington, won back-to-back Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos in 1997 and '98.
Those men are now all in their 60s and seem destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But which other active coaches have the stuff of these champions? Who might join them one day in Canton, Ohio?
Here is a handful (in order of most wins, including postseason) who could find themselves on the top-20 list a quarter century from now, when Vince Lombardi would have turned 125:
80-42 (.656), seven seasons, one title: He's only 49 years old, but ESPN voters placed McCarthy in a class with Dan Reeves, Mike Ditka, Tom Flores and Dick Vermeil. He's got perhaps the best quarterback in the league in Aaron Rodgers, and Rodgers' new contract means McCarthy will have him for a while.
Case for: McCarthy's regular-season winning percentage (.661) places him fourth overall compared to the coaches with the 10 best all-time win totals, behind Don Shula, George Halas and Paul Brown. Of the 91 NFL head coaches with more than 100 regular-season games under their belts, only eight have a higher winning percentage than McCarthy.
Case against: It's early. His body of work can be tied directly to the success of Rodgers.
68-36 (.654), six seasons, one title: The Steelers have employed only three head coaches since 1969, which means Tomlin, still only 41, is likely to be around for quite some time.
Case for: He's already been to two Super Bowls, losing Super Bowl XLV to McCarthy and the Packers 31-25. With Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback and an organization that consistently produces a talented roster, he's likely to be successful for years to come.
Case against: What happens when Roethlisberger, already 31 -- and a banged-up 31 -- retires?
67-37 (.644), six seasons, one title: That win total would be higher if Payton hadn't spent last season out of football for his part in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal. It was the first time in NFL history a head coach was suspended for an entire season. Even with the draft sanctions imposed by the league, the Saints will be back. Yes, Payton, 49, is that good.
Case for: He had the Saints playing at a high level when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asserted his authority. Payton still has Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, general manager Mickey Loomis and the organizational skills that built this team once before.
Case against: The scandal fallout will be tough to overcome, at least in the short term.
63-30 (.677), five seasons, one title: In five seasons under Harbaugh, the Baltimore Ravens have the league's best home record. He's 50 years old, is bristling with energy and has Ozzie Newsome, one of the game's best general managers, assembling the roster.
Case for: Quarterback Joe Flacco is only 28 and is locked up for the long term. In recent years, the organization has become one of the league's best. The Ravens have already taken steps to avoid the Super Bowl hangover that has cursed the past eight winners.
27-9-1 (.743), two seasons, zero titles: He's the only coach on this short list without a Super Bowl victory. That could change as early as next February in New Jersey. At 49, Harbaugh has already been enormously successful.
Case for: Look at that record. And to think, the San Francisco 49ers were 6-10 the season before he arrived. Last season, San Francisco fell a field goal short in Super Bowl XLVII, when Harbaugh's older brother John and the Ravens prevailed. Jim Harbaugh managed to do this with a second-year quarterback from the University of Nevada who, until recently, had escaped much national attention.
Case against: Can he take the 49ers to the next level? With Seattle, Green Bay and Atlanta coming into their own, Harbaugh will be challenged to dominate in the NFC.