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Third Man In

May 21, 2007
May 21, 2007

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May 21, 2007

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Third Man In

He's just the third Steelers coach in the past 38 years. And he's only 35. But as Pittsburgh's players have already learned, Mike Tomlin is a no-nonsense motivator in the mold of his two predecessors

One night lastweek a family new to Pittsburgh--husband and wife, three kids ages six years to11 months--walked into the neighborhood bistro La Tavola Italiana atop MountWashington for dinner. The husband had been there before. He moved around theplace in a comfortable, self-assured way and recognized the Sicilian cook andowner, Carmela Giaramita, right away. "Mom!" he said affectionately,then bear-hugged her. She wasn't really his mother but had been soaccommodating and friendly in his previous visits that he felt a kinship.

This is an article from the May 21, 2007 issue

"Such a niceman!" Giaramita purred. "And what a beautiful family!"

New Steelers coachMike Tomlin, 35, was seated at a corner table with his wife, Kiya, sons Dinoand Mason and baby daughter Harlyn. Tomlin had his usual, Pasta alla Ben, afusilli-and-sausage dish named after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whointroduced him to the place in January.

"It's startingto feel like home here," said Tomlin, who in 12 seasons as a college andpro assistant had lived in six cities. "It's an awesome feeling to finallybe in a place you can call home. For so many years, we've felt like migrantworkers."

"When we moveinto a house," said Kiya, "the first thing I think of is not howbeautiful it is. I think resale value."

"Baby,"Tomlin, smiling, said to his wife, "I've got a feeling we'll be hereawhile. This is where we'll raise the kids."

As the Steelers'third coach since the Nixon Administration--the archrival Browns, by contrast,have had 13 since Chuck Noll took the Steelers' reins in 1969--Tomlin has everyreason to feel as if he hit the coaching lottery in succeeding Bill Cowher.Having just finished his first season as a defensive coordinator, with theMinnesota Vikings, he was a long shot to get the job over two longtime Cowheroffensive assistants, line coach Russ Grimm and coordinator Ken Whisenhunt(box, page 59), and two other candidates--just as he had beaten long odds when,as a precocious 28-year-old in 2001, he beat out 10 older men to become thesecondary coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Steelers chairmanDan Rooney hired Tomlin for the same reason that Tony Dungy, then the Tampa Baycoach, hired him six years ago. They looked past his age--something a fewcollege programs couldn't get beyond--and saw another Noll, a teacher. "Hecan make anyone understand what he's teaching," Dungy says. "That's theessence of what a coach needs to do at any level."

Well, there are alot of teachers in the coaching ranks, but how many of them get to pilot one ofthe NFL's flagship franchises just 15 months after it has won the Super Bowl?The first black coach in the Steelers' 74-year history, Tomlin wasn't hiredbecause of the Rooney Rule (the NFL stipulation that requires teams tointerview minorities for coaching vacancies). Tomlin got the job because ofthese traits: He welcomes change and does not shy from confrontation; he getsplayers to perform at a higher level than they had been before he coached them;and he has great determination to win, which can be described as about midwaybetween Noll's quiet hatred of losing and Cowher's spitting fury in the face ofdefeat. "I am a sick competitor," Tomlin says.

And not a badtactician, either. In his lone season as a coordinator, he took the same basiccast in Minnesota that finished 19th in the NFL against the run in 2005 andrebuilt it into a stone wall. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only one teamallowed fewer than the 985 rushing yards the Vikings gave up last year. Hischallenge in Pittsburgh: take a veteran team that appears to have seen its bestdays (8--8 in 2006) and get it back into Super Bowl contention. He'll have todo it without Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, who left for the Miami Dolphinsas a free agent, and perhaps without Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, who walked outof Tomlin's first full-squad minicamp last weekend angry over his contract. Thenew coach has to figure a way to get Roethlisberger back in a groove, merge his4--3 defensive scheme with veteran coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3--4 ideas andconvince the players who had long been schooled by Cowher's staff that he knowswhat he's talking about.

The funny thingis, Cowher was 34 when he replaced Noll in 1992, and he faced many of the samewho's-this-guy? questions from his players. "Mike will be another BillCowher, just with a darker skin tone," says strong safety Darren Sharper,who played for Tomlin at Minnesota and was his teammate for two seasons atWilliam & Mary.

William & Mary... not many NFL success stories start there.

The son of asingle mom in Newport News, Va., Tomlin loved to play football but wasn'theavily recruited as a receiver coming out of Denbigh High. He was also a goodstudent, and at William & Mary he became a three-year starter--and anobnoxious chatterbox. By the time Sharper arrived as a hot recruit in Tomlin'sjunior year, Tomlin and fellow wideout Terry Hammons were the sheriffs on theteam; they abused the kid in practice, trying to prepare him to play at a topDivision I-AA level early in his freshman year. "I'm going to run by you,young kid. You ready? You ready? Get ready!" Tomlin would say to Sharper.Then Tomlin would beat Sharper on the play as promised, toss the ball tosecondary coach Russ Huesman and say, "Better find somebody to cover me,Coach." Finally, according to Sharper, Tomlin would jiggle and preen allthe way back to the huddle. "Every day, he'd cut me right to my heart,"Sharper says. "He and Terry were the two biggest trash talkers on the team.That competition was crucial to my becoming a player."

A solid receiver(his career average of 25.5 yards per catch remains a school record) withmiddling speed, Tomlin worked out for the 1995 draft but had little hope ofmaking an NFL team. That's when a William & Mary assistant, Dan Quinn, tooka job at Virginia Military Institute and invited Tomlin to audition for thewide receivers coach's job. "I was on trial for one weekend ofpractices," says Tomlin, "and I was hooked. I had never really thoughtabout being a coach, but I loved it." He spent one year at VMI (at a salaryof $12,000), one at Memphis, two at Arkansas State (where he coached defensivebacks for the first time) and two at Cincinnati. The Bearcats ranked 111thnationally in pass defense in 1998, but in Tomlin's first season they rose to61st.

Dungy noticed. Heneeded a secondary coach on his Bucs staff in 2001 and wanted to break in acollege assistant. Tomlin was the last man he interviewed. Dungy handed him apair of shorts and a Bucs T--shirt, and told him to meet defensive coordinatorMonte Kiffin on the practice field. "I wanted to see how he coached, how hetaught, his techniques," says Dungy. "Chuck Noll did the exact samething to me before he hired me in Pittsburgh."

Tomlin showed howhe would coach defenders to reroute receivers in Tampa's Cover 2 scheme, how hewould instruct cornerbacks to turn wideouts over to safeties in zone coverage,how he would teach safeties zone-blitz technique. Then the three watched someCincinnati game tape together. "I didn't think I'd get [hired]," saysTomlin. "I figured it was just another job I'd lose out on because I was soyoung." Three days later, just before he was set to interview for anassistant's position at Notre Dame, Tampa Bay called: The job was his.

The fact thatTomlin was 28 didn't bother Dungy, who was 26 when Noll named him Steelerssecondary coach in 1982. And though Tomlin had only one year under Dungy, whowas fired by the Bucs after the 2001 season, the importance of being aneven-tempered coach and teacher made an indelible mark on him. "Coachingunder Tony was invaluable," Tomlin says. "He never rode the emotionalroller coaster. I fed off his quiet strength."

That lesson camein handy last season in Minnesota. The Vikings defense, which had ranked 21stin the league in '05, featured some players who were earning theirmillions--Sharper and tackle Kevin Williams, for example--but also had someunderachievers, such as nosetackle Pat Williams, cornerback Fred Smoot andlinebacker E.J. Henderson. The first day he worked with the players, Tomlintold them that he didn't care about how many Pro Bowls they had been to or howmuch money they made. The players who showed him that they were the best wouldbe the ones who played.

Pat Williams, whohad a reputation as being hard to coach and a big talker (and was only sevenmonths younger than the new defensive coordinator), reported to training campabout 10 pounds overweight. Tomlin banished him to a side field, orderingWilliams to run sprints during each practice until he was down to 325. It tookfive days.

At defensivemeetings each day, Tomlin put two pages on the overhead projector. One was theLoaf Chart, which totaled the number of plays on which each of his players haddogged it during the previous practice. Tomlin preached accountability. Theother sheet was called the News, which singled out players for mistakes such asjumping offside or dropping an interception or looking half-asleep. "I'mnot telling a story," Tomlin would say, "I'm reporting thenews."

"Youdefinitely did not want to be in his newscast," Smoot says. But midwaythrough last season, he was. Eight games into the second year of a six-year,$34 million free-agent contract, Smoot was not playing well: no interceptionsand just one pass breakup. Tomlin opened a midweek defensive meeting by saying,"We're going to have a change at cornerback. Cedric Griffin's going toreplace Fred Smoot, and if Fred does not come and compete for the job, Cedric'sgoing to be the corner the rest of the year."

Recalls Sharper,"The feeling in the room was, Wow! But Mike was so blunt, so honest, and hehad said at the beginning of the year that's the way it was going tobe."

"[Smoot] hadto be replaced," Tomlin says, "and if you're going to have a tough timedoing that, then don't take the job."

The boastful andsupremely confident Smoot did not take his demotion well. But he rebounded toplay better down the stretch. Now with the Washington Redskins, Smoot said lastweek, "When it happened, I was never so shocked. My heart fell to thefloor. Understand the last time I didn't start a game was in 10th grade. But itworked. Mike ruffled some feathers, and it was good for the team. Mike made theright call. It woke me up. It made me a better football player, and I think itmade me a better man."

When the Steelersinterviewed Tomlin, president Art Rooney II asked him about the Smoot story."We wanted a coach with the courage of his convictions," says Rooney."We had good, strong internal candidates for the job, and whoever came infrom the outside was going to have to jump over that bar. We thought Mikedid."

A few days afterTomlin was named coach, Roethlisberger took him to La Tavola Italiana. Thequarterback told Tomlin what he thought of the team and of his new boss'ssituation. "I was brutally honest," Roethlisberger recalls. "I toldhim a lot of guys on the team were unhappy that Russ [Grimm] or Wiz[Whisenhunt] hadn't gotten the job. I told him I thought he was behind theeight ball a little bit, and he was going to have to earn the guys' respect andtrust. It was a little tense. The food came, and it just sat there for a minutebecause we were really into the conversation."

There is anadjustment process, to be sure. The News was published at each of the first twominicamps, and some veterans have felt the sting. "Some guys don't likeit," says wideout Hines Ward, the MVP of Super Bowl XL. "I made it atour first minicamp for spiking a ball and trash-talking. Spiking's going to bea penalty this year if you do it on a play that isn't a touchdown, and hepointed out what I did in front of the team." Roethlisberger said Tomlinput him in the News last weekend for not having as good a practice on Friday ashe'd had in the first set of practices last month. For Tomlin, not much haschanged--he has already called out the Steelers' two biggest stars.

"Everywhere Igo," says Ward, "people will ask me, 'What's the coach like? We don'tknow much about him.' I tell them, 'We're still trying to figure him outtoo.'"

Noll didn't losesleep over what his players thought of him, and you get the feeling Tomlin willbe like him in that way too. "You know what's funny?" Tomlin said latelast Saturday, not sounding at all as if he thought it was funny. "Peoplekeep asking the players what they think of me. It's irrelevant. Their job is toplay. My job is to evaluate them."

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Tomlin's DETERMINATION TO WIN is midway between Noll'squiet hatred of losing and Cowher's spitting fury in the face of defeat.
"Whoever came in from the outside was going to haveto JUMP OVER THAT BAR," Rooney II says. "We thought Mike did."
PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansLINE OFSUCCESSION
Tomlin follows in the large footsteps of Noll (above, left) and Cowher, whocombined to win five Super Bowls.
PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER (NOLL)[See CaptionAbove.]PHOTOMICHAEL FABUS/WIREIMAGE.COM (COWHER)[See CaptionAbove.]PHOTOREINHOLD MATAY/WIREIMAGE.COMBUCSHOT
Seven years after starring at William & Mary (inset), Tomlin (with JohnWade) got his first NFL job--secondary coach in Tampa.
PHOTOAL OWENS/WILLIAM & MARY COLLEGE (INSET)[See Caption Above.]PHOTOAL TIELEMANSSTRAIGHTSHOOTER
Players know where they stand with Tomlin, and those who don't measure up willread all about it in the News.