At UC, Tomlin would always joke around 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 how 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 in 1998 to 61st in 1999. The Bearcats upset then-No. 9 Wisconsin 17-12 in Cincinnati and gave Ohio State a great run at the Horseshoe in Columbus, leading 17-3 before succumbing 34-20.
The Bearcats then beat archrival Miami 52-42 in Oxford.
Back then, 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 personal bet this year on the UC-Miami game. Tomlin won again.
In Tomlin’s second and final year at UC, 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, to start a four-game winning streak.
The Bearcats came out of nowhere to win the conference, finished 7-5, and played 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 [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 repuation 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 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 – like they happened yesterday.
“Mike broke out his EDD’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,” Blue remembers.
“Contagious discipline,” is the original 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 Steelers 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.
“I’m a joking and sarcastic person, and so is he. There’ve been times in practice where he’ll say, ‘Jeff, do you want to kick with the wind today?’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ and he’ll say, ‘No, no, we’re not gonna do that!’ I’ll go from way up here to way down here. It’s his way of keeping me loose, but it also keeps me involved, on my toes. With him, you gotta be ready for anything.”
Like the time during Tomlin’s now infamous Stalag 17 training camp that had the Steelers players longing for the departed Cowher. During one of those sessions, Tomlin announced to the team 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.”
It is remarkable how little Tomlin has changed since his UC days. His Steelers players and coaches say the same thing about him as did their counterparts in Clifton.
“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.