There are only four head coaches left in the NFL playoffs.
Two of them were once colleagues at VMI.
Mike Tomlin got his start in coaching with the Keydets in the 1995 season. Another VMI newcomer that season was Dan Quinn, then in just his second year in the coaching business.
On Sunday, Tomlin will steer the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC title game. Quinn, the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, will guide his squad in the NFC title game.
“It’s great to see. It’ll be a fun weekend to watch, to see if they can get to that Super Bowl,” said Radford High School and Ferrum College graduate Kevin Sherman, who was the VMI quarterbacks coach in 1995 and who is now an assistant at ACC member Pittsburgh. “I remember the days when we were all at VMI in the staff room.”
VMI is hardly Alabama. It is an FCS school that had not had a winning season since 1981. And yet in that 1995 season, the late Bill Stewart had two future NFL head coaches as restricted-earnings assistants.
“I’m proud of both of them,” said current Richmond assistant Carey Bailey, who was the defensive ends coach on the 1995 VMI staff. “Both of them were very, very sharp guys.
“Mike was just a sponge, always in the film room, always trying to find an extra edge. … Dan wanted to know the entire ins and outs of how a thing worked schematically.”
Quinn, a Salisbury University graduate, had been a volunteer assistant at William and Mary in the 1994 season. He moved on to VMI not only for a paying job but also because he was about to marry a VMI assistant trainer. He has been married to fellow Salisbury graduate Stacey Quinn since June 1995.
Quinn became the defensive tackles coach for the Keydets.
“Dan would get in the drills with his players,” said Donnie Ross, then the VMI running backs coach and now the vice president of the Keydet Club, which is the VMI athletic department’s fundraising arm.
Quinn, 46, has already won a Super Bowl as the defensive coordinator for Seattle.
Tomlin also made the move from William and Mary to VMI. The former W&M receiver had played against the Keydets as a senior in 1994.
He broke into coaching as VMI’s receivers coach.
“You could see it in just in his personality, his energy, that he was a guy that you knew was going to go far,” said current William and Mary assistant Bob Solderitch, who was the VMI offensive line coach in 1995. “He was very cerebral.”
Tomlin, 44, is in his 10th season at the helm of the Steelers. He has already led Pittsburgh to two Super Bowls, winning one.
Stewart later became the head coach at West Virginia. His 1995 staff also included current Oklahoma State assistant Dan Hammerschmidt.
“It was a great staff with a bunch of young, hungry guys,” Sherman said.
As the University of Pittsburgh receivers coach, Sherman sees Tomlin all the time because their teams share the same training facility. They have reminisced about their time at VMI.
Sherman said Tomlin was an “energetic, passionate” assistant at VMI.
“Very smart, sharp. You knew he had a bright future in coaching,” Sherman said. “He jumped right in and did a heck of a job for us.”
Ross said Tomlin, a Newport News native, was very inquisitive in VMI staff meetings.
“Mike was a natural,” said Ross, the brother of former NFL and college coach Bobby Ross. “Danny Hammerschmidt used to take him on recruiting trips down in Tidewater — Mike was well-connected down there, being a graduate of Denbigh [High School].”
Tomlin lived on the VMI campus in the Bachelor Officers Quarters, while Quinn and his wife lived in a small apartment in Lexington.
VMI had gone 1-10 in 1994, which was Stewart’s first year at the helm. VMI improved to 4-7 in 1995, including a win over rival The Citadel.
Tomlin and Quinn each spent just one season at VMI.
Quinn left VMI to become an assistant at Hofstra. He later joined the NFL ranks with an entry-level job on the San Francisco 49ers staff in 2001.
Tomlin left VMI to become a graduate assistant at Memphis for Rip Scherer, who had been James Madison’s coach when Tomlin played for William and Mary. Like Quinn, Tomlin joined the NFL ranks in 2001, becoming Tampa Bay’s secondary coach.
Ross said Tomlin wrote him after getting the Tampa Bay job.
“I can’t thank you all enough for what you did for me at VMI,” Tomlin wrote, according to Ross.