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Steelers' Tomlin has nothing to prove now - except he can win
PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin understands his job.
The owners at his favorite restaurants frequently remind him. So do the grocery store clerks, the airline representatives who put him on planes, the strangers he meets.
He isn't just a football coach, he's the coach of the Steelers. In Pittsburgh, where the fan base might be the most passionate and knowledgeable in the NFL, this isn't a job comparable to that of mayor or county executive, it's more visible. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato only wish they got the TV exposure Tomlin does.
Tomlin learned that the opening day of training camp when, disdaining the shorts and straw hat that predecessor Bill Cowher wore, he put on a long black-sleeved shirt and long black pants on an 80-degree plus day. Kept them on most of camp, too.
Within hours, many in Pittsburgh were talking about this new man in black, how he was showing his players that the temperature, humidity and steamy conditions didn't bother him, so how could they possibly bother them? Right there, he won over many of these fans.
"I can't believe how much was made of it," Tomlin said.
So when Tomlin - the third Steelers coach in 38 years - leads him team against Cleveland in the season opener, he understands the job parameters, the expectations for him. He can't lose - especially not this game, or very much this season or throughout his career in the most stable head coaching job in sports. No, you're supposed to win with the Steelers, no excuses.
Get this: Cowher got to two Super Bowls in 15 seasons, won one of them, and missed the playoffs only five times. Yet some considered him not-quite successful because he hadn't win multiple Super Bowls like the record four won by his predecessor, Chuck Noll.
Welcome to Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin. By the way, can you get us Super Bowl tickets?
"I do," Tomlin said when asked if he thought the Steelers - a season removed from winning the Super Bowl under Cowher, have the players to get back this season. "I feel like this is a good team. I realize I am blessed. Most people get a coaching opportunity because there is a lack of success. This is a unique opportunity and unique circumstances. I'm grateful to have it."
Tomlin got the job because he can think, plan, react and talk. He turned down scholarships from Ivy League schools to play wide receiver at William & Mary, then made a fast rise through the coaching field, even while doing so at non-Top 25 schools such as VMI, Arkansas State and Cincinnati. After five years as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant, he spent only one season as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator before the Pittsburgh job opened.
Tomlin applied for other jobs with Tampa Bay and didn't get them. He didn't miss out on this one, even though the Rooney family that owns the team didn't know him and the Steelers seemingly had two built-in replacements in offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and assistant head coach Russ Grimm, both of whom are now with Arizona.
Tomlin impressed owner Dan Rooney and team president Art Rooney II with his first interview. His second was even better and convinced both Rooneys he was the man for the job - even though, at age 35, he can't remember any Steelers coach other than Noll or Cowher.
He's already proven he wants to be a Pittsburgher, buying a house in the city. Noll and Cowher lived in the suburbs.
"Hey, the last two guys, one of them had really just turned 37 (Chuck Noll) and Bill Cowher had just turned 34," Dan Rooney said. "We think he's terrific."
Their opinion didn't change during a training camp in which Tomlin was clearly in charge. Many coaches would tiptoe lightly while making change after replacing a coach as successful as Cowher, but Tomlin didn't.
He scheduled more two-a-day practices, extra special teams workouts and usually made the team practice twice a day in full pads.
"I'm not much for tradition," he said.
Told by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Hines Ward early on that he needed to win over players who were accustomed to Cowher's way, Tomlin responded: No, they need to win me over.
"Coach Tomlin is coach Tomlin," Ward said. "It's not his job to come in and do the same things coach Cowher did. He wouldn't be coach Tomlin if he did that. During the (spring practices), it was kind of weird, uncertain. You didn't know what to expect. But he's our coach now."
Tomlin also knows the job is his for years and years - that's the Steelers' way - as long as he does one thing.
Win, and consistently.
Dick Hoak, the most tenured assistant in team history (1972-2006) is convinced the Steelers have a winner, even though this is the first time in 35 years he is not on the coaching staff.
"He must be pretty good," Hoak said. "They (the Rooneys) hired him as a coach and they usually don't make a lot of mistakes."
His players are convinced they haven't made one with Tomlin.
"He's got something to prove," Ward said. "He's out here for a purpose. There have been only two coaches here in the last some-odd years, so there's a lot of pressure on him. ... But he wants to go out and prove to everybody he can be a great coach."