Somewhat by circumstance but later through unwavering admiration, Larry Irvin became a die-hard Steelers fan living in New Orleans.
It began when Kordell Stewart, a standout dual-threat quarterback at rival John Ehret High School in Jefferson Parish, was drafted by the Steelers in 1995. It grew with their success under Bill Cowher and the respect he had for the Rooney family and their progressive establishment of the NFL’s Rooney Rule.
That meant a lot to a Black man whose mom was a child educator for more than 30 years in New Orleans. And it would ultimately have an influence on what he does today as the founder and innovator of Brothers Empowered to Teach, an organization that recruits and trains men of color to become teachers.
“I almost feel like they called on me as a youngster,” Irvin said.
But there is little question which member of the Steelers has inspired him in his professional life — created a standard, if you will, that he studies and humbly tries to emulate on a daily basis.
And it is not just about what Tomlin has accomplished in 16 years with the Steelers: Winning more games (163) than any Black coach in NFL history and never having a losing season since becoming their coach in 2007.
Above all else, Irvin passionately admires the way Tomlin speaks, the uniquely creative language he uses, the catchy phrases he coins, the way he handles the media, the manner in which he controls the room and every answer he gives. He never flinches, never stumbles, never is caught off guard.
“I aspire to be that great of a speaker,” Irvin was saying recently on the phone. “Mike Tomlin is at the top of the list as far as my personal influences. I want to wow people when I speak. I feel I’m on that road. I want to do that, but Mike Tomlin sets a really, really high bar.”
Irvin’s organization, founded in 2014 and currently with centers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is all about putting Black men in front of a classroom, teaching them and empowering them to be symbols of education in America’s public schools.
According to data, Irvin said only 3% percent of teachers are Black. To date, he said he has trained and graduated 185 teachers, 80% of whom remain in the classroom.
His role model is Tomlin.
“Once I started listening to his interviews and seeing him speak, I kept asking myself, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Irvin, an LSU graduate. “He’s a multiple speaker, orator. Historically, some of the greatest leaders are great speakers. I literally study Mike Tomlin interviews a lot — how he responds to the media. He’s very colorful, very clever. I never heard anything like that when it comes to sports interviews. It’s such a unique experience to listen to him speak and his use of language.
“I always aspired to be a speaker with the work I do. I’ve been on big stages. But it’s not just the speaker aspect. He’s a great leader of men. I’ve never met the man, but just from what I see, his interactions with young men, his molding of young men, the combination of the two has really made me a big-time fan and a student. As a Black man, we’re not really held in high esteem when it comes to speaking in front of a room in an intellectual capacity. He’s off the charts, not just as a Black man, but as a man in general. He’s one of the greatest speakers and owners of a podium I’ve ever seen.”
Irvin is trying to change that narrative with his organization, which uses the logo “BE2T.” And he is using Tomlin as his inspiration.
Nonetheless, it isn’t always easy. Irvin said the expectations for Black children since kindergarten have been merely for them to “be on your best behavior,” a tone that was set at home and in school. He said Black children were not expected to “thrive in education” and grow intellectually.
“We don’t walk into education with the disposition we’re going to be the greatest and we’re going to be the smartest and we’re going to win spelling bees,” Irvin said. “It was just make sure we’re being quiet. We’re making sure behavior is the benchmark.”
Without Black teachers in front of a classroom, Irvin said the environment creates what he calls a “subliminal subconscious message” to all students that Black men “can’t and don’t teach.” That’s what he is trying to fight with his organization.
“All this screams and yearns for a need for Black men to be in a classroom,” Irvin said.
That’s where Tomlin, a man he has never met, comes in.
His unique expressions have inspired Irvin to command the room when he speaks and motivate his future teachers to do the same. Of all the Tomlin-isms, Irvin said his favorite is, “We don’t seek comfort.” The “standard is the standard” and “paint the barn red” are right behind.
He said he looks forward to Tomlin’s postgame press conferences as much as he does the game itself.
“Win or lose, it’s a real treat,” Irvin said. “I’m waiting on him, I get inspired. I want to be that. It’s something to aspire to be. He sets such a high bar. For everyone, particularly as a Black man, wanting to be seen in that light, I can’t articulate what that means as far as that representation. I can’t put that into words.”
As Tomlin might say, Larry Irvin won’t run from that; he’ll run to it.