Move over Will Smith: Stylish Mike Tomlin's Super star on the rise
By OHM YOUNGMISUK
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Monday, January 26th 2009, 12:21 AM
PITTSBURGH - Mike Tomlin walked into his press conference on Thursday sporting a black sweatshirt and black sweatpants. For a guy who wears Versace shades and a cool, puffy black winter coat and gets weekly haircuts for his press conferences that he sometimes shows up for in a dress shirt, this was total dress-down mode. Think Bill Belichick, but hip.
"(Tomlin's) always had a little swag about him," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward says with a laugh.
In a sport where head coaches dress as if they are making a midnight run to Wendy's and have the personality of a day-old hamburger, Tomlin brings a coolness to the sidelines that even GQ has noticed.
"Mike Tomlin looks good in a suit, not like a teenager making his first court appearance (see Bill Belichick)," the magazine wrote last year.
"It is who I am," Tomlin says when asked about his sense of style. "I am sure Bill's sense of style is who he is, (I'm) talking about Belichick ... We're just different."
Style and personality-wise, Tomlin is the anti-Belichick, a former Kappa Alpha Psi black fraternity member who used to entertain college crowds during fraternity step show competitions with his "Kappa Kane." He still likes to crank-call his best friends at work and quote movies like "Rambo: First Blood" and "Rocky II."
But football-wise, Tomlin, 36, will look downright Belichickian on Sunday if he can lead the Steelers to a victory over the Cardinals and win the Super Bowl in just his second season. Tomlin, the youngest head coach to reach a Super Bowl, is also aiming to follow his mentor Tony Dungy and become the second African-American to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy.
"Things are changing," Steelers safety Ryan Clark says. "It would be an awesome thing: (Barack) Obama in office, the first NFL champion he meets is coached by a black coach and on top of that, the Rooneys' campaign (for other owners to hire black head coaches). The black coach meeting the first black President ... it just shows it is possible."
Gettin' jiggy wit it
The Steelers' coach has enjoyed an Obama-like ascension. It was only two years ago that Tomlin was Minnesota's defensive coordinator, a post he held for only one season. Before that, he spent five seasons as defensive backs coach for Tampa Bay after bouncing around in assistant positions at Virginia Military Institute, Memphis, Arkansas State and Cincinnati over five years.
He's come a long way from the days when he used to cruise around William and Mary's campus in a red 1979 Toyota Celica with a high box-fade haircut that looked straight out of "House Party." In the early '90s, the 6-2 wide receiver was much thinner and looked more like actor/rapper Will Smith than actor Omar Epps, who many say he resembles now.
"He didn't have the exact Gumby (look), but he had a two-inch box on his head," says Terry Hammons, one of Tomlin's best friends and former William and Mary teammate and fraternity brother. "Back then he was a lean guy and he had that box haircut like Will Smith and they sort of had similar personalities. Mike was very outgoing and very charismatic. He was the chocolate Will Smith."
And like The Fresh Prince, Tomlin could talk and dance with the best of them. On the field, Tomlin never stopped jawing at defensive backs. He and Hammons - both starting wide receivers - would spend hours researching the backgrounds of opposing cornerbacks for trash-talking fodder they could use during games.
Tomlin, who had a 40-inch vertical leap and finished with 101 receptions for 2,046 yards and a school-record 20 touchdowns, was the type of receiver who loved to crack defenders with crushing blocks and stand on top of them afterward like his current star receiver, Ward.
He didn't even spare his own teammates. Tomlin used to love talking trash to Darren Sharper - the Vikings' safety who played with Tomlin at William and Mary and was later coached by Tomlin in Minnesota - during individual one-on-one drills.
Tomlin did whatever he could to get a mental edge on opponents. An NFL Films junkie, Tomlin once watched a video of the greatest running backs in which Jim Brown told how he used to psych out opponents by doing bizarre things during his pregame routine knowing his opponents were watching. With that in mind, Tomlin spent hours in the locker room putting on his uniform to make sure his arms looked ripped before going through a pregame ritual where he and Hammons would prance up the field in front of the defensive backs before doing push-ups and other odd things.
Even off the field, Tomlin used to love showing off his arms on campus.
"I like to remind him that he used to wear sleeveless hoodies," says Hammons, a London-based corporate attorney who is from Pittsburgh and used to make Tomlin watch the Steelers. "They were like flannel, but sleeveless and he liked having his arms out. (But) he brought out a confidence and swagger in me. I'm 5-7, not your prototypical build for a Division I college receiver, or a kicker for that matter. But he was a guy that made me believe that it didn't matter. You couldn't be around Mike and be scared or intimidated. He always had that swagger."
Off the field, Tomlin was a showman who strutted his stuff when it came to his fraternity step-show competitions. Kappas are known for their dance routines with their canes and Tomlin and his frat brothers used to put on shows at other schools in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
"I have actually seen him go through the movements," says Tampa Bay's new head coach Raheem Morris, who was on the Buccaneers' staff with Tomlin. "He moves with grace."
Right after he graduated, Tomlin became a coach - against his mother's wishes. At one point, Tomlin thought about giving up football and entering law school, but he stuck with it, promising his mother that he would become an NFL head coach by the time he turned 35.
While a defensive backs coach at Cincinnati, Tomlin got his big break when Dungy called to see if he would be interested in replacing then-new Jets coach Herm Edwards in Tampa in 2001.
When Jon Gruden replaced Dungy, Gruden divided the season up by four quarters, allowing assistants to run certain practices as if they were the head coach. When it was Tomlin's turn - in Gruden's "second quarter" - he captivated the Buccaneers' locker room by entering with other defensive assistants, all clad in black, to the pulsating bass from Mystikal's song, "The Man Right Chea."
"Jon called Mike, myself and (assistant) Jon Barry ‘The Second-Quarter Gangsters,'" says Morris, the former Hofstra grad assistant who credits Tomlin with paving the way for him to become the sixth current black head coach and youngest in the NFL at 32. "Mike delivered his message after the music was off. His ability to communicate and relate to today's player is unbelievable. He got on stage and got the attention of everybody in the room, young and old coaches, young and old players. He had something about him. It was special. All his guys become him."
Tomlin became Minnesota's defensive coordinator in 2006 before interviewing in Miami and Pittsburgh. Initially, Tomlin was thought to be a token minority interview in Pittsburgh under the Rooney Rule, which was championed by Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and the Rooney family.
But much like Tomlin did in that Tampa locker room and at various step shows years ago, he dazzled the Steelers and won the job at the age of 34 over Steelers assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. Whisenhunt left to coach Arizona and hired Grimm as his line coach, and now faces Tomlin in the Super Bowl.
Initially, a no-nonsense Tomlin agitated some veterans, who were one season removed from a Super Bowl win and accustomed to Bill Cowher's ways. Tomlin cut the popular Joey Porter and had to deal with an unhappy Alan Faneca and his contract dispute. But he eventually won over the Steelers with a 10-6 record and division title. This season, Tomlin went 12-4, won the division again and along the way looked like one of the Steelers as he often celebrated big plays by body-bumping his players.
"He is a hard-nosed, demanding guy and a very firm believer that it is his way or no way," Ward says. "(But) he has gotten better. The first year he had to lay down all his laws because a lot of veteran guys were accustomed to coach Cowher. The second year, he has been a little lenient on some guys. You can't treat everybody on the team the same."
Because Tomlin got equal treatment thanks to the Rooneys, he's now getting the superstar treatment in Pittsburgh.
Shortly after Tomlin became the Steelers' coach, Smith was visiting Pittsburgh and asked to meet Tomlin. Tomlin probably thought it was a prank since he often calls Hammons and tells him the secretary that Col. Samuel Trautman (Rambo's former commanding officer) is on the line.
As Tomlin and Smith dined at a local restaurant, several fans kept interrupting looking to meet the new head coach and not the world-famous actor.
"(Tomlin) was telling me, ‘I can't believe these people, are they serious? I'm sitting next to Will Smith and nobody says anything to him and it wasn't like he had a baseball cap pulled over his eyes,'" Hammons says.
The guy who once looked like The Fresh Prince actually met the real one and now he's one victory away from putting on his finest designer suit and meeting President Obama in the White House.
"We used to watch the Steelers on Sundays in my apartment in college," says Hammons, sounding almost in disbelief. "It's unreal how things come full circle."