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Tomlin: The man and coach he has become
Tomlin: The man and coach he has become
By Scott Brown
Sunday, July 27, 2008
The offensive line appeared to be suspect even before it lost perennial Pro Bowler Alan Faneca to free agency. Depth is a major concern for a defense that went from very good to middling in 2007 following the late-season loss of Aaron Smith.
"We've got," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "a bunch of questions to be answered."
The Steelers embark on what essentially is a fact-finding mission today, when the players report to training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
No one is on the hook more than their second-year coach if answers aren't found to pressing questions such as, will Ben Roethlisberger get ample protection this season, and what happens if Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason or Ryan McBean is thrust into a starting role because of an injury?
Such is the reality for an NFL head coach. Tomlin is particularly attuned to how heightened expectations are in Pittsburgh since he walks past a display that boasts five Lombardi Trophies when he is at the Steelers' South Side practice facility.
Tomlin won 10 games and a division title in his inaugural season. Yet fans may have grumbled more about the fact that the Steelers lost four of their final five games, culminating with a 31-29 setback to Jacksonville in the playoffs.
Fans will demand more from Tomlin in his second season.
"When you lose, you're always subject to judgment," Tomlin said. "I don't shy away from that. I embrace that."
There is a reason why Tomlin is unfazed - and it stems from his understanding of pressure.
One woman's struggle
Julia Copeland raised two sons as a single parent for almost 10 years, and she did so with tough love and creativity. An example of the latter: When meat became too expensive for Copeland to buy, she simply told her young sons that the family had become vegetarians.
"That's my mom's beautiful spin on a tough situation," Tomlin said. "She's the ultimate coach to me. I've watched my mother deal with pressure, trying to feed two boys. I get to do what I love to do for a living. I'm blessed."
Such perspective may be traced to Tomlin's upbringing in the Tidewater area of Virginia.
Shortly after he was born in March 1972, his mother went to work in a Newport News shipyard, and she also took a part-time job at night. Copeland and her husband separated when Tomlin was less than a year old and later divorced. After she moved out of her parents' home and before she married her current husband, Leslie, Copeland supported her sons for roughly five years by herself.
Money was tight, and Copeland, 62 and now retired, took the part-time job to buy Christmas presents for her sons: Mike and his older brother, Ed.
Copeland taught her sons various cards games, which they played endlessly. They also watched movies together during the weekends when Copeland couldn't afford to take them out.
Then there is the dietary ruse she and her sons laugh about to this day.
"She said we were going to be vegetarians because it was healthy - all the meat wasn't real good for you," said Ed Tomlin, a former University of Maryland football captain who is director of football development for Under Armour. "So we were going to school bragging about the fact that we were healthier than everybody else because we were vegetarians and we ate right."
Added Copeland: "I didn't realize they weren't eating the meat at school, either," Copeland said. "I didn't find out until later that they were turning down meat, even at school."
Not telling her sons about her financial situation isn't the only way Copeland tried to protect them.
If she didn't like the friends Ed had started hanging out with, she moved the family. And she made education her sons' top priority, once pulling Ed off his youth football team because she was unhappy with his grades. She didn't let him rejoin the team, despite pleas from his coaches, until he agreed to tackle extra schoolwork as well.
Copeland did more than just talk about the importance of education. In between working two jobs and driving her sons to and from football, basketball and baseball practices, she found time to start taking classes at a local community college.
Slowly but surely, she worked toward a degree in finance. By the time Mike Tomlin was a star wideout at William and Mary, she had engaged him in a contest over who would graduate from college first.
Tomlin graduated in 1995. And his mother?
"He beat me, but I did get my degree the following semester," said Copeland, a graduate of Christopher Newport University.
The example set by his mother can be seen in Tomlin, from his work ethic to his rejection of excuses, something he did last season when injuries dealt several crippling blows to the Steelers.
The way in which he might most be like his mother: Tomlin doesn't dwell on problems and instead focuses on finding solutions.
"He doesn't blink," Ed Tomlin said. "He's never flustered. That's just my brother."
"He just has that type of wiring," said Bill Johnson, who has been one of Mike Tomlin's closest friends since they met in grade school.
Room to grow
Tomlin's first season as a head coach qualified as a success, though he would be the first to point out that it ended with a thud.
Through it all, his players express faith in Tomlin.
"He's already a good coach," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said. "I think he's going to be a fantastic coach, just his demeanor, his personality, the way he approaches it. He's a natural leader. He gets up there and talks."
Case in point was a commencement speech at St. Vincent in May. Administrators asked Tomlin if they could read his speech before he spoke. But he told them there was nothing to read.
Tomlin's speech on trust, preparation and dreams drew a rousing ovation from the graduates, some of whom twirled Terrible Towels.
That his speeches are not scripted or rehearsed may lend a sort of sincerity to them that resonates with those he is addressing, be it recent college graduates or his players.
"People relate to his heart," Ed Tomlin said. "That's what he speaks from, and that's usually something that you can't transcribe, memorize or go over. I think it has everything to do with how effective he has become as a coach."
The Steelers learned quickly that Tomlin is direct. In his first meeting with the players, he acknowledged the elephant in the room when he told them he knew there had been disappointment and anger over the decision to hire him instead of then-assistant coach Russ Grimm. But, he said to the players, no matter how they had gotten to this point, they had to move forward together.
The Steelers improved their record and won a division title, yet Tomlin couldn't escape criticism over the team's finish. The pressure will be ratcheted up this season since it's safe to say that any grace period he had with fans has passed.
As much as he is second-guessed or criticized, no one holds Tomlin more accountable or to a higher standard than himself. That probably explains something Tomlin used to do in college.
Parents of the players always held a group dinner after home games, but if William and Mary didn't win, Tomlin retreated to the solitude of his dorm room and stewed over the loss.
Sometimes he wouldn't arrive until a couple of hours after the dinner had started, and by then it was time to say goodbye to his mother and stepfather.
Losing isn't any easier now for Tomlin, which is why the pressure he feels - totally different from the kind his mother once knew - is generated from within.
"We're always going to have issues until we win the ultimate prize. I've got no problem with that," Tomlin said. "I don't care what's written, I don't care what's said, what kind of spin is put on our story. The reality is I'm going to do what it takes for us to win."
Just like his mother did.