View Full Version : WP: Nice Man Cometh to Coach Steelers

08-11-2007, 03:47 PM
You know, even if it takes the Steelers a few seasons to be in Super Bowl contention -- not that I think it will, but I'm just saying -- I still think we're incredibly lucky to have this man as our coach, and I hope he's here for many, many years to come.
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WP: Nice man cometh to coach Steelers
Tomlin impresses players with friendly, direct approach
By Les Carpenter
The Washington Post

LATROBE, Pa. - The line began forming presumably before the skies turned a ghastly purple, thunder rumbled and the rain began to pour down. By the time Mike Tomlin, the new head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, saw the mass of people gathered around a sign advertising his appearance to sign autographs at the end of a recent practice he was already drenched with water rolling down the brim of his cap. Up on a hill, the team's owner, Dan Rooney, sat in an idling car, waiting to talk to his coach.

A team official gently suggested maybe rescheduling for a drier day. Another coach, probably any other coach, would have said yes.

But Tomlin glanced at the throng gathered in a sudden summer monsoon, all of them there for him, and shook his head. "As long as they've been waiting" he said softly, letting his words trail off. Then he walked to a small tent at the front of the line, pulled out a black Sharpie pen, said "Hey bro!" to the first child in line. And he signed every mini helmet and Terrible Towel thrust into his hand, posed for pictures with each fan and laughed and shook hands until the crowd was finally exhausted.

On the side, a team official was asked, "How many NFL head coaches would do something like this?"

"Very few," he replied, shaking his head. "Very few."

In many ways, Tomlin is nothing like the men who walked these fields before him. Those were coaches with cold eyes and rigid jaws who kept a small space between themselves and the rest of the world beneath them. Tomlin moves quickly around the Steelers camp, slapping players on the back, waving to fans and playing practical jokes on his assistant coaches.

It is not the kind of behavior expected of a head coach. Certainly not here, where there have only been two in the last 38 years and no one ever mistook Chuck Noll or Bill Cowher for the kind of man to engage in training camp hijinks or standing patiently in the driving rain to pose for pictures with fans who have to take extra time because they forgot to turn their cameras on.

Of course, Noll and Cowher won a combined five Super Bowls. And when Cowher left after last year, the 35-year-old Tomlin, who had been defensive coordinator for only one year in Minnesota, beat out two internal candidates, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, who were longtime Cowher assistants and well respected within the team.

Tomlin was even unknown to John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance which tries to find opportunities for minority coaches. Wooten called his confidants, the men whose opinions he trusts the most, such as Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy (who hired Tomlin as a defensive backs coach in Tampa seven years ago), Kansas City's Herm Edwards and Bears Coach Lovie Smith.

The answer came back the same each time: "He is totally ready to be a head coach," Wooten said.

The best recommendation came from former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, now personnel executive with the Buccaneers who told Wooten that when things got tough in Tampa Bay and the team needed someone to come in and inspire the players, Tomlin was the assistant they trusted the most. He was the one who could move from locker to locker shouting in their faces, demanding more, challenging them to be better and expect that they would listen.

"Believe me, those guys are going to respect him," Williams told Wooten.

But even with the recommendations of the league's top coaches and a push from the Fritz Pollard Alliance, Tomlin had to be considered a long shot for any head coaching job, especially a job with a team that had won the Super Bowl a year earlier, as the Steelers had.

Tomlin didn't even have much of a playing pedigree. He had been more attractive to colleges as a high school student in Newport News for his grades than his football. He eventually turned down West Point and the Naval Academy to become a wide receiver at division I-AA William and Mary.

Yet he had something the other coaching candidates seemed to lack: a certain charisma, a sense that he was better prepared than everyone else. He brought to his interview with the Steelers a complete plan for the entire year, something that he had pieced together from the piles of notes and practice schedules he has kept from every coach he ever worked for. Rooney was impressed.

"The more we listened to him, the better he sounded," Rooney told Wooten.

In a Xerox football world where most head coaches come freshly copied from one of two schools of development — the Bill Walsh coaching tree or the Bill Parcells coaching tree — Tomlin is something of a new generation. His great mentor is Dungy, who hired him at age 28 after toiling at such non-football factories as Memphis and Cincinnati. But while Dungy technically falls under the heading of Walsh disciple, having played for Walsh and coached for Dennis Green, he is also his own man. For instance he is not beholden to the West Coast offense the way most Walsh devotees are.

When asked what he learned most from Dungy, Tomlin doesn't hesitate.

"Every day — win, lose or draw — he kept it in perspective," Tomlin said. "That's a tough thing to do in this business, but he taught me this is what we do but not who we are. I use that on a daily basis and sell it to the guys. And it's not just digging yourself out of a hole, it's learning to deal with success. Keeping it in perspective. This can not define us, it's simply what we do."

But isn't that hard in a sport where every play is dissected, where every decision is questioned in a week of talk radio shows and internet chats?

"Sure it's hard," Tomlin said with a dry laugh. "That's why you have to work on it."

He laughed again.

"Heck yeah it's hard."

Tomlin seems to feel the easiest way to keep things in perspective is to be blunt. It's a word people around the team use constantly in describing their new coach. He is blunt in meetings. He is blunt in casual conversations. He is blunt on the field. He does not offer platitudes. Nor will he dwell on mistakes. You did this right. You did this wrong.

The players seem to welcome such frankness, such as cornerback William Gay, a cornerback from Louisville who was discouraged at falling to the fifth round in the draft. Tomlin called Gay into his office and said the reason he didn't go higher was because he wasn't considered fast enough. But, he added, finding a cornerback who has proven to be adept at covering receivers in the fifth round is something too good to pass up so the Steelers picked him.

"A lot of guys will tell you what you want to hear; Mike tells you what he thinks," offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said.

"It's not necessarily about honesty," Tomlin said. "I expect everyone to be honest. It's about being direct. I think players appreciate that and are brutally consistent in that regard — what's positive and what's negative. Because that's how I view the game. I want them to think critically about what they do and how they are doing it and be honest with themselves more than anything."

Only time will tell if this will work. Cowher's image was characterized by a menacing scowl and a chin that seemed to thrust out several inches depending on the level of his rage. Tomlin seems too cool, too relaxed, dressed in all black with dark glasses on a hot summer day to ever explode the way Cowher did regularly.

But one should never forget Cowher too was young, just 34 when the Steelers hired him in 1992. Four years later, he became the youngest coach to take a team to the Super Bowl.

If anything, Tomlin has come to a place where the owner will be patient. He will have every chance to win here — and to prove that a coach willing to sign autographs in the pouring rain can truly succeed in the cold world of the NFL.

? 2007 The Washington Post Company
URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20220998/