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Re: As a coach, Tomlin has the gift
Finally, the NFL
The first time his cell phone rang, Tomlin dialed his big brother, Ed: You playing with my phone?
In a voice mail message, somebody identifying himself as Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin had said he wanted to talk to the 28-year-old Tomlin about a pro job, replacing new Jets head coach Herm Edwards no less. Thought Mike: Yeah, right.
Then head coach Tony Dungy called.
Someone in Tampa Bay's scouting department first suggested the young Cincinnati guy. Age wasn't an issue to Dungy, whom Chuck Noll made the Steelers' secondary coach by age 27, the defensive coordinator by 29.
"He was very well prepared, but, more than anything, you could feel the energy. I talked to Dan Rooney [shortly before the Steelers hired Tomlin], and he felt same thing. He was, to me, just like Lovie Smith," said Dungy, referring to the Chicago Bears head coach against whom Dungy's Colts won the Super Bowl last February. "A great communicator. Very self-confident without coming across as ****y. We knew he'd be able to communicate with our veteran guys."
Tomlin was the winner of a hunt that included 10 to 40 candidates, depending upon the source. At his first Tampa Bay minicamp, he was asked by perennial Pro Bowler John Lynch to sit down and discuss ways for the older safety to improve his game. Glad you asked, Tomlin responded, I've had this waiting for you.
"He had a tape of 63 plays from the year before and detailed notes on each one," Lynch said. "The technique I used, the technique I could've used, my thoughts -- he had paragraphs on each play."
Lynch and Dungy and new head coach John Gruden saw the closet full of notebooks, the quotebook containing verses both biblical and philosophical but not wholly football. Gruden divvied up parts of each season to his assistants, allowing them to preach and pretend to be temporary head coaches. Amid that Super Bowl XXXVII season in 2002, Tomlin strode to the front of a team meeting to hip-hop music and won over the next NFL champs.
"Mike kind of strutted up there," Lynch said, "and within 10 seconds he had that whole room's attention, which, you know, is a tough audience. He set forth our philosophy for that quarter of the season. I looked at [cornerback] Ronde Barber and [quarterback] Brad Johnson, and they both said, 'This guy's got it.' You knew he was destined for what he's doing now. I just don't think anybody knew it would come that soon."
Three seasons later, the itinerant young coach -- with six different jobs in his first seven seasons -- was named the defensive coordinator at Minnesota. His Vikings' defense, using eight of the same starters from the unit that wallowed among the NFL's bottom one-third in 2005, then lost first-round draftee linebacker Chad Greenway to a knee injury in the preseason opener. So he taught. He preached. He instilled fundamentals, a system, an energy. He had dread film sessions showing Loafs (plays taken off) and News (other assorted indiscretions), "and guys would have their heads down," said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Pat Williams. "But he held everybody accountable for their job.
"He was smooth and serious. That's why all the guys loved him. He would always tell you the truth about how you were playing, about what was going on."
The No. 21-ranked defense of a year earlier rose to No. 8 statistically. Moreover, only one other team in the 37 years since the AFL-NFL merger yielded fewer yards rushing than Minnesota's 985 last year, and that was the mega-hyped 2000 Ravens' defense.
Ex-Vikings star Chuck Foreman sat next to Tomlin's longtime buddy Billy Johnson at the Nov. 19 Minnesota game at Miami. "That guy's not going to be here long," Foreman mused. "He's got the gift."
The head-coaching candidate heard negatives from his mother, heard more doubts.
"When he was interviewing for the Steelers' job, I was trying to prepare him because I really didn't think he was going to get it -- you don't go from being a coordinator in one year to head coach. You know, and he's young. I said, 'Michael, look ... learn all you can going through the process so the next time you get called, you'll be ready.' "
His response: Arizona, Atlanta, Miami and Pittsburgh are open. If I can put my foot in a door, I'm getting one of those jobs.
His mother shrugged. "He got one."
He dazzled the Rooneys with his energy, intellect, communication skills, record keeping. In fact, he had a written plan for his first season. Every coaching day. Detailed.
On Jan. 22, the same day the sign in front of Denbigh High crowed about alumnus Antoine Bethea reaching the Super Bowl with Dungy's Colts, it touted a young man who last made that board 18 years earlier when he was named to the National Honor Society: Mike Tomlin, new Steelers coach.
"I should get part of his salary," added the Browns' Scherer, who rescued him from VMI and a potential career change. "Because if it wasn't for me, he might be a struggling lawyer somewhere."
The new boss
Minnesota's Pat Williams offers this advice to his old coordinator's new team:
"If you don't want to hear the truth, ask to be traded."
The new Steelers head coach a week ago described the 15 two-a-days of training camp as fodder for the players "to whine about. It is going to be extremely tough. I am not apologizing for that. I'm going to put that challenge out there to them because, in a lot of ways, it represents the journey that we are going to face this year." And thereafter.
In Organized Training Activities, receiver Hines Ward was elected to approach the new boss about the vexing sessions, and Tomlin then took them bowling and instituted the helmet-less practice of Hat Day.
"That's something the Steelers are going to see: He's fun, but the atmosphere is going to be business-like, too," Dungy said.
Since supplanting Cowher, the 16th Steelers head coach has: released one of their most popular players (a client asked one of Tomlin's delivery-service relatives in Columbia, S.C., "What's wrong with your cousin, cutting Joey Porter?"); fined another popular player, Alan Faneca, for skipping a mandatory practice over stymied contract negotiations; received a lecture from third-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger about capturing the team's trust. Some honeymoon. Yet, a half a lifetime later, he doesn't care what football players think about him anymore. He merely wants to command their ears, eyes, minds, respect, determination, diligence.
"He can be an ass," big brother Ed said with a chortle. "He's going to have his way."
Such as when he pledges privately to soon raise a sixth Lombardi Trophy for the Steelers?
"After he wins the Super Bowl," Ed said matter-of-factly about his little brother, the new local celebrity, "it'll be crazy. We'll have to do some space travel, leave the earth, to get some privacy."
"You know," their mother concluded, "I've learned my lesson. When he says he's going to do something, I believe it now."
"We're not going to turn our backs on him," Ward said. "We're going to treat him like our brother. We're going to accept him back and be very supportive of him and help him get through this. In this locker room, he's still our quarterback."