In four years as head coach of the Buffalo Bills, Sean McDermott '98 has had three winning seasons. That's one more than the franchise had in the 17 years leading up to his arrival. The Bills are in position to make their third playoff appearance in four years for the first time since the late 1990s.
The least surprised person on the planet is Jimmye Laycock, who coached Tomlin '95 and McDermott '98— teammates during the 1993 and '94 seasons — at William & Mary.
"There wasn't any doubt that both of them would be successful," Laycock said. "They were smart, intelligent, hard-working, and disciplined. They had all the things you need to have.
"I knew both of these guys, like a lot of our players, would be successful. They found their niche and they're obviously doing pretty well."
Obviously. The Steelers were 11-0, their best start ever, before Monday night's loss to Washington. The Bills have a one-game lead atop the AFC East, a division they haven't won since 1995 — back when Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith were still playing.
For the second year in a row, Tomlin and McDermott will coach against each other as the Steelers visit Buffalo Sunday night. Laycock was in Pittsburgh for last season's game (a 17-10 Bills win) but, because of the pandemic, will not be able to attend Sunday's rematch in Orchard Park.
"I'll be watching," Laycock said. "I watch their games, and I'm really pulling for those guys. I guess I'm learning how tough it is to be a fan of a team. I've certainly turned into a Steelers and Bills fan."
At 144-75-1, Tomlin is the third-winningest active coach in the NFL behind New England's Bill Belichick and Kansas City's Andy Reid. In a victory over the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 1, he passed Tony Dungy winningest Black coach in league history.
A former wide receiver at W&M, where he is tied for fourth among the career leaders with 20 touchdown catches, Tomlin never gave Laycock the impression that he wanted to get into coaching. But immediately after graduation in 1995, he was hired by Bill Stewart (a former Laycock assistant) at VMI.
Stops at Memphis, Arkansas State and Cincinnati followed. Then, in 2001, Dungy hired Tomlin as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Five years later, he was brought on by Brad Childress as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator.
In 2007, Tomlin became the Pittsburgh Steelers' third head coach in nearly four decades. In his second season, he became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl at the age of 38.
"He had an outgoing, effervescent personality, and I thought he'd probably go into business or law, something like that," Laycock said. "In fact, I questioned him when he made that decision to go into coaching.
"I questioned him several times during his career to make sure it was something he still enjoyed. He always came back as typical Mike: 'Coach, I love it! I love it!'"
In 1993, McDermott came to William & Mary as a walk-on safety from outside Philadelphia. He ended up starting every game his final two seasons and was named team captain as a senior.
After graduation in '98, McDermott began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for Laycock in 1998. In '99, he began an 11-year stay with Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles. He started out as the scouting administrative coordinator and eventually became the Eagles' defensive coordinator.
In 2011, McDermott was hired as the Carolina Panthers' DC. Then, in 2017, the Bills came calling.
Apparently, Buffalo is satisfied with its choice. This season was to be McDermott's fourth of a five-year deal. Instead, in August, the Bills signed him to a four-year extension that will run through the 2025 season.
Laycock is proud to see both his pupils flourishing in the NFL.
"The overriding thing is, they're both good people," he said. "And they are who they are. A lot of times, you have guys who have success and think they need to be a certain way. But Mike and Sean are who they are, whether they win or don't win."
Although Pittsburgh and Buffalo are in first place, neither has clinched anything. The Steelers haven't been to the playoffs since 2017, their longest drought in two decades. And McDermott is well aware that his team was 9-3 at this point last season before losing four of its last five games (including the postseason).
Laycock will be watching Sunday night. If somehow both teams could get a W …
"I'm excited for them because I know the effort they put in," Laycock said. "Watching their games, they play so hard and they're both so disciplined. That's a trademark for both of them in their coaching philosophy.
"I'd like to see them keep on going and keep on winning. But regardless, they are both really, really good guys. And they deserve it."