DALLAS -- When Mike Tomlin last reached this game, winning it two years ago in Tampa to give the Pittsburgh Steelers their league-record sixth Super Bowl ring, some said he had fortuitously ridden Bill Cowher's old team to the title. It was seen as another triumph for the Steeler Way more than a triumph for Tomlin, and Pittsburgh's second-year head coach seemed part of the celebration tableau, without exactly being front and center in the victory parade.
But there's no such confusion about who's leading the way this time around, with the Steelers returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons. This is Tomlin's team, and if there's a feel I've gotten from Super Bowl XLV so far, it's that Mike Tomlin is really feeling it this week. Fully in charge. Fully in the moment. And sometimes, for a coach who has never lacked in self-confidence or swagger, maybe even a tad full of himself.
Like on Monday afternoon, at his first news conference of Super Bowl week, at the team hotel in Fort Worth. Tomlin was asked how going to a pair of Super Bowls so soon contrasted with his expectations for the job when he was hired in January 2007.
"It's probably about two Super Bowls too short of my vision, but that's just me,'' Tomlin quipped, only half-seriously (I think). "I'm not in a reflection mode. I'm really not. I'm just trying to do it. We're trying to maximize the opportunity that we have.
"Largely the core of this unit has been together here for a number of years, so we find ourselves in this game for the second time in four years. We're excited about it. It's not going to paralyze us. We're not going to dwell on it or over-analyze it. We are simply going to prepare and ultimately play. Maybe later in life, when we're all old, maybe we'll sit around and reflect a little bit.''
It's that urgency of now that Tomlin has consistently embraced since arriving in Pittsburgh a little more than four years ago, having beaten out some popular, in-house candidates (Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm) for the chance to fill Bill Cowher's shoes. Tomlin wasted no time testing his new team, cracking the whip on the discipline front to learn as much as possible about which of his players he could count on.
"That first year he came in, he had us hitting every day,'' Steelers linebacker James Harrison said. "We were in full pads up to Week 16. That was just part of him saying, 'Hey, this is my team. This is my way.' I think he really wanted to see who would go fight. Who would be there and stick it out through the storm? He wanted to see if he really had some dogs who were willing go in there and bite and fight. He had heard that he did, but he wanted to see it for himself first-hand.''
Tomlin's hiring in Pittsburgh looks like a masterstroke now, of course, but it didn't quite resonate the same way initially in the Steelers locker room. Continuity is a prized principle of success in Pittsburgh, and the then 34-year-old Tomlin didn't represent it. He didn't know the Steeler Way from Broadway, and more than one of the team's veterans second-guessed the move.
"There was skepticism,'' said Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel, the words somehow fighting their way through that Grizzly Adams beard he's sporting this week. "He had never been a head coach, and we had candidates inside our locker room at the time that I think a lot of people thought were going to get the job. When they brought in Coach Tomlin, he was a young guy. People told me he coached with a lot of excitement, and I didn't know what to think.''
That process of transforming the Steelers from a club molded in the image of the demonstrative Cowher to the equally intense Tomlin wasn't completely finished by the time Pittsburgh won its most recent Super Bowl championship, at the end of Tomlin's second season, some Steelers say.
"It's his team now,'' Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward said. "But when he first inherited the team, a lot of those players were under Coach Cowher and did things Coach Cowher's way. Mike Tomlin was very militant when he came here. He wanted to see who was going to challenge his authority and he got rid of some of the guys who did.
"He kept the guys who followed what he wanted. He just wanted to lay down the law. 'This is my team, and I don't care how Coach Cowher did things.' A lot of the guys respected him for that. Once he got a full year or two in and got to know us, then he let up a little bit. He gave guys off time and stuff like that. I think guys love playing for him. He's just a pro's coach and he stands up for everybody.''
Tomlin's grip on the Steelers only tightened this season, as he and his successfully navigated through the Ben Roethlisberger controversy and resulting four-game suspension, injuries to key players, and the constant reshuffling that has been necessary on the team's offensive line. Tomlin knows now that he has a Steelers team that's buying what he's preaching, and stays as focused, driven and level-headed as the image he projects.
"This team is kind of different [from the 2008 Super Bowl club] because of all the adversity we had to go through,'' Ward said. "Not having Ben for the first four games, having Troy [Polamalu] miss three games, Aaron Smith out, playing musical chairs with the offensive linemen. [Tomlin's] done a phenomenal job this year. He just keeps plugging guys in, and we keep winning.''
These Steelers now fully reflect their passionate head coach and his no-excuses style, every bit as much as the Patriots mirror Bill Belichick's cool and efficient approach, and the Jets take their cue from Rex Ryan's loud and proud form of leadership. Tomlin talks much about the historic winning legacy of the Steelers, and his role and responsibility in continuing it.
"It's not broken, so I wasn't going to try and fix it,'' said Tomlin, of the professional, team-first mindset that has prevailed in Pittsburgh for four decades. "It's sound, it's time-tested and it's proven.''
We're at least on the brink of echoing those same sentiments when it comes to Tomlin and his coaching methods. If his Steelers beat Green Bay on Sunday night in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, at age 38 he'll have the distinction of being both the youngest (he was 36 in 2009) and second-youngest Super Bowl winning head coach in NFL history. At that point, by the time he enters his fifth season in Pittsburgh, he'll have won more Super Bowl rings than Cowher, the 15-year Steelers head coaching veteran he replaced. And that doesn't even count the one he won as a Bucs assistant under Jon Gruden in 2002.
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As self-assured as ever, Tomlin this week hasn't been afraid to talk about having even more Super Bowl success at so young an age. Asked if he lets himself look at the ring he won two years ago, Tomlin said he's too busy looking ahead to look back.
"I don't look at it too often,'' he said. "I'm always concerned about my next one. I have three kids and two rings, so I need another one.''
Tomlin isn't riding shotgun of this Steelers Super Bowl team. He's the driving force this time around, and his players know the Steeler Way and the Tomlin Way have merged and become one.
"He's been with this team four years now, and we've all been together for four years now,'' Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "He knows everyone on this team very well. He had a chance to go out and draft a few of his guys, so now he can call it his team.''