10-29-2007, 12:12 AM

Boo, certainly, but also behold

PITTSBURGH - Boo him extra loud today, Bengals fans.

When Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin leads his team onto the field at Paul Brown Stadium, razz the heck out of him.

When he throws his hankie to challenge a play on the field, jump up and wave your hands at him derisively, and then boo some more.

And when he decides to go for it on fourth-and-1 - and you just know the risk-loving Tomlin is going to do that at some point - chant "Tom-lin, Tom-lin, Tom-lin!" so vociferously and so obnoxiously that the Steelers offense can't hear the signals.

You hate the Steelers.

They've got the rings.

Take your frustrations out on Tomlin, the latest incarnation of Steelers might, only the third Steelers head coach in the past 38 years. First Chuck Noll in 1969, then Bill Cowher in 1992.

And then know this:

Tomlin is not them. He likes Skyline chili, used to hang out in his buddy's basement in Deer Park, still follows the University of Cincinnati, where he coached for two years.

Tomlin, noted trash talker in his playing days, would expect you to boo. But don't expect him to hate you for it.

He used to be one of you.


Bengals cornerback Blue Adams used to play the same position for the UC Bearcats, back when Tomlin was the secondary coach there in 1999-2000.

"He was always barking about something, always getting in your head, always playing with your mind," Adams remembers. "He knew what made you tick, and he'd push that button. I was the rebellious type."

Adams recalls committing some transgression that offended Tomlin enough to call out Adams to attend the next morning's "Dawn Patrol," which for most transgressors usually involved some variation of running the steps at Nippert Stadium.

"Well, Mike knew I could run those steps all day and all night and it wouldn't bother me," Adams remembers. "So he had a little something special cooked up for me: barrel rolls."

Get down on the ground here at this goal line and roll like a barrel down to the other goal line.

And so off Adams went.

He didn't get very far before he threw up - the first time. And he only got another 10 yards before he threw up again.

"And all the while, Mike's prodding me with his foot, 'C'mon, c'mon, roll,' " Adams recalls.

It got Adams' attention.

Did he ever again draw "Dawn Patrol" duty?

"Not while Mike was there," Adams says.

And what did Adams think when Tomlin left UC for Tampa Bay and the NFL after two years in Cincinnati, with Adams still having another college season to play?

"I was mad," Adams says. "I wanted him to stay."

And what does Adams think of the 35-year-old Steelers coach now, a mere eight years after feeling Tomlin's wing-tips in his side?

"I think he's a great coach," Adams says. "I think he could retire from coaching right now, do nothing but teach clinics, and I think he'd make a great living. He's awesome."


It's the fun side of being a college coach, especially a young one. You get close with the other coaches. You hang together. The bond never weakens.

"You don't hear of the guys at Merrill Lynch getting together like that, but coaches do," says former UC linebackers coach Greg Hudson, who coached with Tomlin and defensive line coach Keith Willis at UC in 1999-2000.

"The Three Amigos," defensive coordinator Rick Smith called his three young defensive coaches. Smith knew he had it good.

"(Head coach) Rick Minter let us coach the guys up," Hudson says.

"All those kids needed was for us to coach 'em up and love 'em up," remembers Willis. "We loved it."

Back then at UC, there was no telling whom you might be coached by in your four- or five-year career. UC didn't pay its assistant coaches enough to get them to stay.

That level of coaching instability can harm the potential for consistency in a program, but without that revolving door, maybe Tomlin never would have showed up there.

"I'd rather have played for Mike Tomlin for only two years than not at all," Adams says.

However many assistants Minter had in his 10 years at UC - and there were many - he probably interviewed three or four times that. More often than not, he found the right guys.

"I think I'm a good judge of people," Minter says. "In two to five minutes, you know whether a guy has it or not."

Tomlin was a former wide receiver at William & Mary, where he set school records with 20 touchdowns and 20.2 yards per catch, and coached at Virginia Military Institute, Tennessee-Martin, Memphis and Arkansas State before coming to UC.

Not too long after Minter had hired Tomlin as secondary coach, defensive coordinator Smith said to Minter: "This guy's not going to be here long."

Tomlin was destined. And everybody knew it.

"I'm not very good at projecting where people are going to wind up three or five or 10 years from now," says Willis.

"(But) I knew from the first day I met him that Mike was going to be a coordinator and then a head coach. I didn't know where or when, college or pro. But I knew. Not only did he know the X's and O's, he had incredible focus. He knew what he wanted in life.

"I remember him saying more than once, 'I don't want to be around people who don't want me to do well.' I'm the same way. People like that scare me. But Mike was the first one I'd heard articulate it that way. He's positive, energetic, and he doesn't want anybody slowing him down."

Tomlin says he treasured his time in Cincinnati.

"It was an awesome time to be at UC," Tomlin recalls. "Just like every step along the way, I learned a lot from the people I worked with. I had a great time there."


10-29-2007, 12:12 AM


Willis remembers the lunchtime basketball games at UC.

"Let's go, Big Sweat, I'm going to kick your (butt),' " Tomlin would say to Willis, who had played 12 years at defensive tackle in the NFL, in those 2-on-2 games.

"Don't even start," Willis would respond. "Been there, done that."

Hudson always chose Tomlin as his teammate in those rough games because he knew Tomlin was never intimidated.

He felt the same way with Tomlin on the football sideline.

"There wasn't anybody in that athletic department who could beat us in basketball," Hudson says.

Back in those days, Hudson, a high school All-American at Moeller who played his college ball at Notre Dame, had three young children (4, 3 and 1). Tomlin and his wife, Kiya, a former gymnast at William & Mary, had just had a baby, their first of three.

Tomlin, Willis and Hudson - "The Three Amigos" - would hang out in Hudson's basement in Deer Park with their families and play games and laugh it up.

"Before long, the babies would just start flying around," Hudson recalls.

"I was afraid my wife was going to get pregnant just sitting there," Willis remembers. "And I didn't want that. We already had two kids in high school."

Tomlin's eyes light up when he hears such reminiscences.

"I enjoyed my time in Cincinnati," he says. "My wife and I, we loved living in the city. There's nothing like going to get a five-way at Skyline. We have some great memories and good friends there. It will be good to be back in the city."

Tomlin is known as "a players' coach," but he's also a coaches' coach. He stays in touch. If you call somebody who's coached with Tomlin anywhere along the way, it's guaranteed they've heard from him in the last month.

At UC, Tomlin would joke with Hudson's brother-in-law, Dave, who loved football so much that he would hang out on the sideline making sure Hudson's telephone cords didn't get tangled, just to be close to the action.

"There are three things Mike always asks me right off the bat when he calls," Hudson says. "He asks, 'How's your dad, how's your family and how's Cord-Guy Dave?' "

What else does Tomlin say to Willis?

"He says, 'Big Sweat, let's go,' " Willis says.

And what does Willis respond?

"I say, 'Don't even start.' "


"You see that designation in my title, defensive coordinator?" Rick Smith would ask his three young defensive coaches at UC. "Well, that's what I do - I coordinate. You guys coach. So go do it."

Tomlin, Willis and Hudson were young, smart and good.

"I had something special," recalls Smith, now a defensive coach at East Carolina. "Rick (Minter) let me coordinate, and I let my guys coach."

In his first year at UC, the pass defense went from 111th in the country to 61st. The Bearcats upset No. 9 Wisconsin 17-12 in Cincinnati and gave Ohio State a great run in Columbus, leading 17-3 before succumbing 34-20.

The Bearcats then beat archrival Miami 52-42 in Oxford.

Future Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wasn't yet at Miami.

"I kid him about that," Roethlisberger says. "We have a good time with it."

He and Tomlin made a bet this year on the UC-Miami game. Tomlin won again.

In Tomlin's second and final year, the Bearcats were fourth in the country in takeaways, shocked Syracuse on a last-second field goal, took Wisconsin to overtime in Madison and again blasted Miami 45-15.

The 7-5 Bearcats came out of nowhere to finish second in the conference and play in the Motor City Bowl.

"Back then, it was one of those places in college football where it was similar to the pro game, in that Conference USA was a bunch of upstart programs," Tomlin said. "You stepped in stadiums, and anybody was capable of winning. If nothing else, it shaped my mindset in terms of dealing with what this league (the NFL) was about - the awesome parity.

"There were no heavy favorites in Conference USA. The Louisvilles, the Memphises, the Southern Misses, all of those teams were capable of beating one another, as were we. It made for exciting football, and I loved it."

Tomlin and his two amigos developed a fearsome reputation among UC players.

"Much as I loved our defense," recalled former quarterback Deontey Kenner, "I remembered thinking, 'I'm glad I'm not on defense.' Their coaches worked them to death. On the other hand, I was probably a little envious."

Adams remembers like they happened yesterday the dreaded "E.D.D.'s" - Tomlin's "Every Day Drills," which required players to repeat over and over the footwork and moves they would need to execute in the game.

"Mike broke out his E.D.D.'s in that first day of practice at UC, and within 15 minutes we were totally drained, no good for the whole rest of practice," Adams recalls.

"Contagious discipline," is the phrase UC defensive back Tinker Keck uses to describe Tomlin.

"You could see that Coach Tomlin had that discipline in his life, and you wanted it," Keck said. "We loved him."


When kicker Jeff Reed hit three field goals against San Francisco in a victory at Heinz Field several weeks ago, Tomlin singled out Reed after the game in a way few NFL coaches would. Tomlin's praise was deep and personal.

"Some coaches are out to give kickers a hard time," Reed says. "Mike has gone out of his way to make me feel as much a part of this team as anybody."

During Tomlin's now infamous Stalag 17 training camp - that had Steelers players longing for the departed Cowher - Tomlin announced that if Reed, who was then new to the team, could kick a 42-yard field goal, practice would end on the spot, 30 minutes early.

"If I missed it, it was gonna be worse than missing one in a game - my teammates would have killed me," Reed says. "I made it, and everybody loved that. It was his way of getting me oriented to the team more quickly. That's the way he thinks things through. Everything he does is with a purpose."

Tomlin's Steelers players and coaches say the same things about him as did their UC counterparts.

"He brings an energy, and he brings it continually all day long," marvels the Steelers' Alan Faneca.

Faneca, like Blue Adams eight years ago, had to be won over.

"Mike is always upbeat," the All-Pro guard says. "It's one of the best things he does. We love that about him."

Enquirer staff writer Mark Curnutte contributed to this story.

10-29-2007, 01:17 AM
Good read from the enquirer. Nice to see somebody in that city is not in denial.....

Model franchise forged with few sparks
Pittsburgh reflected in workmanlike approach

The gentleman was bent by the years. His white hair was scattered atop his head; he wore a cardigan sweater. An unlit cigar clung to his lips. He was emptying ashtrays in the lobby of Three Rivers Stadium.

The rookies sat in the lobby, awaiting an audience with the coach, Chuck Noll. They could see the four Super Bowl trophies. They were familiar with the names of the famous: Bradshaw, Lambert, Greene, Harris, Blount and so on. It was 1980, a year after the last of the Pittsburgh Steelers' four Super wins of the '70s.

One of the rookies was Tunch Ilkin, a guard who was born in Turkey and grew up in Chicago hating the Steelers' success. The other was Nate Johnson.

"Hi, fellas," the old guy in the cardigan said. He had a big, expressive, map-of-Ireland mug. "How ya doin' today?"

To which the rookie Nate Johnson replied, "Who are you, the janitor?"

"Heh, heh," the old guy said. "I do a little bit of everything around here." Then Art Rooney dumped the contents of a small ashtray into a large ashtray and put the whole mess of ashes in a sack.

Has there been a better franchise in the history of pro sports than the Pittsburgh Steelers, bought for $2,500 in 1933 by Art Rooney? More precisely: Has any franchise been able to live its philosophy and its attitude - its Way, if you will - any longer or more successfully?

The New England Patriots provide the flavor of the day. We praise their coach, even as he's caught cheating. We adore their dimpled QB with the outrageous passer rating and the gorgeous girlfriend. We admire the way the Pats find players who fit what they do, year after year, players like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss, who willingly ditch their difficult personalities to play for a winner. We want to be the Patriots when we grow up.

Compared to the Steelers, New England rides on training wheels.

You hate the Steelers, of course. You will boo them today. You'll clash with their proud and obnoxious fans. By 4 o'clock, a few of you will have been arrested. But you'll still envy their team. Everyone does, or at least has reason to.

Some NFL teams have approached Pittsburgh's success: Dallas, Oakland, Green Bay, the 49ers, an occasional flash from Denver, Washington and the Bills. None has sustained it. The Steelers' closest rival, in terms of winning consistently with its own, unique approach, is the New York Yankees. No one would confuse Art Rooney with George Steinbrenner.

The Steelers are no mystery. Since they started winning in the early '70s, they run and they stop the run. They hit you in your mouth. "Year in and year out, they're ready to fight," says Willie Anderson.

It seems to work. Since 1971, they've had exactly seven losing seasons.

Take it a step further: What other organization in pro sports more purely inhabits the character of the city it represents? "No flash," says Ilkin, now a Steelers radio guy, formerly 13 years on the offensive line in Pittsburgh. "Hard work, tough, simple, no nonsense. It's a reflection of the community."

Pittsburgh isn't what it was. The steel mills are mostly gone. When I was a kid visiting relatives up there, we'd sometimes drive after dark to a bluff above the mills lining one of the three rivers, I forget which, and watch them pour steel. Sparks danced high into the night. It was like the Fourth of July, without the Sousa music.

That's done now, but the character of the town remains. "The heritage of all these different cultures and their work ethic" is how Ilkin puts it. Ilkin was a fan favorite in the 'Burgh, partly because he has a wonderful, tough, ethnic-sounding name. How could you not like a lineman named Tunch?

"It's a working-class city. The Steelers pride themselves on being a working-class team," said Ilkin, and while you can dispute that now, given the millions tossed like salad at a vegetarian party, the attitude authored in the '70s still exists. Dan Rooney, Art's son, lives in the house where he grew up, a few blocks from Heinz Field. Often, he walks to the games.

The Steelers have strayed from themselves a few times, with mixed results. They got to the '95 Super Bowl with a big assist from Neil O'Donnell's arm, and in 2002, they rode the comet that was QB Tommy Maddox from an 0-2 start to the playoffs.

The following year, the Steelers again emphasized the pass. Bill Cowher replaced Jerome Bettis with quicker Amos Zereoue. Pittsburgh went 6-10. In '04, the running game returned and the Steelers averaged 34 minutes a game in possession time.

Even now, the Steelers neglect their identity at their peril. Rookie coach Mike Tomlin took heat all week after a 31-28 loss at Denver in which the Steelers threw 21 passes in the first half, against the league's worst run defense. Chances are favorable that won't happen today.

"I remember hearing John Facenda's voice," Tunch Ilkin said of the man who provided the narration for NFL Films for many years. "There are 27 teams in the National Football League. And there are the Pittsburgh Steelers." There are 32 teams now, but the sentiment stands. The old guy in the cardigan would be proud.