Friday, December 29, 2023

The Standard

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

At some point, the sun set.  The exact moment is foggy, shrouded by years of ineptitude.  Such details are irrelevant.  What does matter is that, for a time, it was bright – squint, reach for some cheap convenience store glasses, blinding bright.  Sundays would come and good times would roll.  Stressed vocal cords required days of recovery.  The stadium was packed by the blessed souls in attendance (there was a decades-long season ticket waiting list).  Games were appointment television for those lacking a ticket to ride.  Fans of division rivals were sent home in shame and with a regrettable beer buzz on the regular.  It was a destination town for players, a place they longed to be; the team turned the marginal into solid contributors and the good into masters of their craft.  The organization was run with class and ranked among the league’s very best.  Characters with character filled the locker room.  Supporters felt like more than just fans; we were part of something – our region, our town, our team.  A family.

And then?  Darkness.  The sun dropped below the horizon.  The light faded.  The beautiful colors glistening off the clouds disappeared.  Coaches departed.  An owner passed away.  Cornerstone players moved on without comparable backfills.  The head coaching gig felt like a series of temporary hires.  Big name players came to get paid, not to perform.  The losses mounted.  The business ethics disintegrated.  The passion faded.  The ticket waiting list disappeared.  There was no apparent accountability on the field or within the organization.  There was no legitimate ability to imagine anything beyond mediocrity.  There was, after three decades of rot, no hope…for the Washington D.C. football team. 

About six hours northwest of Southern Maryland, there’s a place that’s like ours used to be.  The journey there wraps around D.C., heads up the I-270 corridor, snakes through Hagerstown into southwestern Pennsylvania and due west on the PA turnpike.  After a short drive down I-376, it appears: Pittsburgh…Black and Gold country.  There, the beloved Steelers are in the midst of recording another winning season (they haven’t finished below .500 since 2003!) and are firmly in playoff contention – again and, seemingly, as always.  The fanbase is passionate.  The stadium is packed.  There is a palatable energy exuding from the franchise, into the city’s pores and through a nation of fans across the globe. 

But there is a fly in the ointment.  The Steelers are hardly winning in style this season and, by any objective measure, haven’t been Super Bowl contenders in years.  The alibies are sound.  The late-career version of Ben Roethlisberger was choppy, and transitioning from a Hall of Fame quarterback is often difficult.  Accelerating Pittsburgh’s fall from the league elites was Antonio Brown’s disturbing career self-sabotage and Le’Veon Bell ruining a budding legendary Steelers career in a bizarre contract squabble.  Regardless, for a city that is accustomed to winning titles, frustration has grown with the good/not great Steelers of recent vintage.  And now there’s this: the once whispered calls for head coach Mike Tomlin’s job are now aired openly.

Such are the quibbles of the uninitiated to the depths of NFL despair.

Removing all emotion, it’s remarkable what Tomlin has done in Pittsburgh in recent years.  The gap between roster talent and on-field results is significant – the latter being greater than the former.  But the importance of Tomlin to the Steelers transcends the overachievement of his teams.  Tomlin inherited a unique, winning culture in Pittsburgh and has dutifully sustained it.  When faced with adversity, he defiantly refers to “The Standard” – a level of expected performance regardless of circumstance.  Tomlin maintains a link to the franchise’s decorated past and is a cornerstone for a brighter future.  He’s a foothold for the organization: an example for new arrivals and a conscience for veterans with wavering commitment. 

Lose a foundation like Tomlin, and it becomes easy, perhaps inevitable, to remain adrift.  Same applies in any professional setting.  Same applies in life.  Without a North Star, so to speak, it can all go dark – trust me.  If you can be a beacon like Tomlin, do so; if you find one, grasp it tightly.  

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