Steel Pulse

Unknown when he took over, Mike Tomlin proved a perfect fit in Pittsburgh—and now the Steelers are one win from a record sixth Super Bowl title
January 26, 2009

IN 1969 and 1992the Pittsburgh Steelers hired head coaches not just for their superior teachingability and their unflinching honesty, but also because the Rooney familybelieved they could be once-in-a-generation leaders. The Rooneys got it rightboth times. ¬∂ Over 38 years in Pittsburgh, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher combinedto win 370 games and five Super Bowls. When Cowher stepped down after the 2006season, it seemed likely that offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt oroffensive-line coach Russ Grimm would be promoted. A relatively unknownAfrican-American defensive coordinator, Mike Tomlin of the Minnesota Vikings,was brought in for an interview, in part to satisfy the NFL's Rooney Rule,which mandates that teams include at least one minority candidate in theirsearch for a new head coach. In two sessions Tomlin blew away owner Dan Rooneyand team president Art Rooney II with the force of his personality and his feelfor how to bring out the best in players. He could be special, the Rooneysthought. Whisenhunt—who'd already taken the Arizona Cardinals' top job, fearinghe might get shut out in Pittsburgh—and Grimm were stunned that the Rooneyshired a no-name outsider. Grimm followed Whisenhunt to Phoenix as his assistanthead coach.

A few days afterTomlin was hired, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took his new boss to lunch andtold him a lot of the players were unhappy that two well-liked assistants hadbeen passed over for a 34-year-old they'd never heard of. The two men spokefrankly. "You're going to have to earn the guys' respect and trust,"Roethlisberger said.

Fast-forward 24months, to the AFC Championship Game on Sunday night at Heinz Field, with 1:00left in the first half and the Steelers leading the Baltimore Ravens 13--7.Pittsburgh rookie wideout Limas Sweed, uncovered deep down the left side,dropped a sure touchdown pass, then fell to the ground and lay there. Replaysshowed the only injury was to his pride. But when Sweed was slow to rise, theSteelers had to take their last timeout—one they'd wish they had when the clockran out before they could attempt a short field goal. After Sweed finallywalked off, to 65,350 boos, he was met at the sideline by a livid Tomlin. For10 seconds the coach blew up, and the wideout took it.

"I wasn't madbecause he dropped the ball," Tomlin said later. "That kind of mistakecan happen to anyone. I was pissed that he'd lay on the ground, fake an injuryand cost us our last timeout. My point was, Be a man! Grow up!"

Three plays laterSweed was back in the game and delivering a ferocious block on cornerback CoreyIvy, enabling tight end Heath Miller to gain an extra yard or two. "CoachTomlin's got an interesting way of explaining stuff," Sweed said. "He'sgot a little magic in him."

With a rugged23--14 win over the Ravens, the Steelers have a chance to be the first team towin six Super Bowls. Their opponent: upstart Arizona, and the two men Tomlintrumped for his job. On Sunday night that angle didn't interest the Pittsburghcoach.

"This is theSteelers' story," he said, "not my story."

But much of it isTomlin's story. Pittsburgh is 24--11 in his two years, and his fingerprints areall over the team. The players parrot what he says in weekly Wednesdaymeetings. Veterans like his hands-on practice style. He calls out slackers. Hewon't let injuries be used as excuses. Last week, as the Steelers prepared toface Baltimore for the third time this season, talk of bounties and mutualhatred mixed with the typical conference title game hype. So when he addressedhis players on Wednesday, Tomlin told them, "Block out the noise. Morehumble, more grounded, more selfless makes us all more opportunistic." Heput a "14--4" sign in the meeting room (the Steelers' record with a winover the Ravens) and said, "That's our only focus." Later that daylinebacker LaMarr Woodley ducked his head into Tomlin's office and said,"Humble, grounded, selfless!"

Practice onWednesday was ragged, and when Tomlin called everyone together at the end ofthe session, several players expected to be blasted for such a poor effort insuch an important week. But Tomlin told them, in essence, Don't press. Don'ttry too hard. We have lousy practices here and there during the year, so don'tworry about this one. The game's not until Sunday. We'll be fine.

"Perfect," said defensive captain James Farrior. "We all breathed asigh of relief. He brought us back from thinking we'd really messed up and letus know we're men, we're professionals and we'd be O.K."

The night beforethe game Tomlin's message was simple: The most physical team will win. He evenhung a sign at the team hotel with those words. Then the Steelers went out andproved their coach right in one of the most bone-crushing games in playoffhistory. There was Carey Davis's wicked opening-kickoff layout of Ravensspecial-teamer Daren Stone (who headed to Pittsburgh's bench before beingredirected), Sweed's block and safety Ryan Clark's vicious fourth-quarter hitthat floored Baltimore back Willis McGahee. The NFL doesn't like to glorifythat kind of football, but the hits were seismic, one more jarring than thenext.

It helped thatRoethlisberger (255 yards and no picks) outplayed Baltimore rookie Joe Flacco(141 and three), guiding the Steelers to a 16--14 lead that always felt like itshould have been bigger. Then with 4:39 left and the Ravens trying to mount ago-ahead drive, free safety Troy Polamalu read the quarterback's eyes ("Itried to look him off, but it didn't work," Flacco said) and made abrilliant interception. Looking more like the running back he was in highschool, Polamalu weaved through traffic on a 40-yard return for the clinchingscore. "Everyone calls [the Ravens'] Ed Reed the best safety, and [theColts'] Bob Sanders was the [defensive] player of the year last year," saidClark. "But Troy's so cerebral. No question, he's the best. He knows what'sgoing to happen before it happens."

That's the wayRoethlisberger is getting. He's confident whether inside the pocket or out ofit. His second-quarter TD pass came when he broke to his left, stutter-steppedback right and floated the ball to wideout Santonio Holmes, who darted throughthe defense for the final 49 yards. Quite a change from the Super Bowl threeyears ago. When Pittsburgh beat Seattle, the magnitude of the moment and theSeahawks' multiple defensive fronts confounded Roethlisberger as he struggledto a 9-of-21, two-interception day. Afterward he sat at his locker, head down,miserable about his performance. "It was pretty bad for a couple weeksafter that," Roethlisberger recalled Sunday night. "I kept thinking Ilet the team down. I almost lost the game. Now, I feel like a differentquarterback. Different man. Different team."

Different coach.It's remarkable that Tomlin is already 15th among NFL coaches in tenure andthat his former assistant when he was the secondary coach in Tampa Bay,32-year-old Raheem Morris, was hired last Friday to coach the Bucs. The daybefore the championship game, Tomlin was asked if Morris was ready to lead anNFL team.

"None of usis ready," he said. "I wasn't. What you need to know, you have toexperience. I'm the type who never anticipates transition being easy. In fact,I anticipate it being miserable. But with that misery can come great gain ifyou embrace the change."

Maybe Sweedlearned just that lesson from his coach on Sunday. "He's going to be one ofthose guys who stays here for 40 years," backup quarterback Byron Leftwichsays of Tomlin. "He's perfect for this job."

Tomlin hasalready shown he's the right man for the Steelers, a coach in the mold of Nolland Cowher. But that matters little to him. Right now he's only concerned withone more game, one more win.

The night before the Ravens game Tomlin (right) had asimple message: THE MOST PHYSICAL TEAM WILL WIN.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoOVER THE TOP Polamalu, the leader of a defense that held the Ravens to 198 total yards, stuffed Flacco on a key fourth down. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERHIT PARADE Clark delivered the most vicious blow in a game full of them, leveling McGahee in the fourth quarter. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY PHOTOBOB ROSATOON THE FLY The improvisations of Roethlisberger and Holmes (10) led to a 65-yard touchdown.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)