Ron Cook: Tomlin must learn to cope with fans' great expectations

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Mike Tomlin called it a blessing the other day.

His big break in the NFL.

Not just any head-coaching job, even if there are just 32 in the best professional sports league in America.

The Steelers' job.

"I know this is not my plan," Tomlin said. "This is God's plan, so I find comfort in that."

Of course it's a blessing.

Tomlin is working for the best owners in football, maybe the best in all of sports. Jerry Jones micromanages his coaches in Dallas, yet, curiously, can't find the nerve to deal with T.O. Al Davis is omnipresent and overbearing at Oakland Raiders headquarters; the team's record suffers because of it. But the Rooneys don't meddle. They are patient and supportive. They always have their coach's back, even in the worst of times. It's no accident Bill Cowher lasted 15 years with the Steelers and was highly successful, just as it was no coincidence Chuck Noll had a 23-year run here with four Super Bowls.

Tomlin has inherited a pretty good team. He didn't get his first head coaching job the way most guys do, stepping into a hopeless situation after a 2-14 or 4-12 season. Cowher left plenty behind, resigning in his prime at 49 after what was believed to be a salary dispute. The Steelers won the Super Bowl last season and still insist they -- not the Indianapolis Colts -- would be getting ready for Super Bowl XLI if not for those 37 turnovers this season.

Tomlin has a franchise quarterback. He could be starting his career with Andrew Walter, you know? Good luck to Lane Kiffin in Oakland with that.

Every new coach should be as fortunate as Tomlin to have so much so soon.

There is another side to the Steelers' job, though. There are the Steelers fans.

No offense.

We tend to be tough on our coaches and quarterbacks. Ask Cowher, who had to endure vicious Internet gossip when the Steelers failed to make the playoffs in the '98, '99 and '00 seasons. Ask Kordell. Ask Ben Roethlisberger if he throws 23 interceptions again.

Our expectations tend to be high, often bordering on the absurd. That will be especially true with the team next season. Everyone will like the personable Tomlin until he loses his first game. Heaven forbid, the Steelers start 1-3. If that happens, Cowher will be considered a lot smarter than he was while he was here.

Tomlin has a tough act to follow, much as Cowher did following Noll. It sounds as if he's going to take the same approach.

Said Cowher of his first season in '92: "I was coming to a team that knew how to work, knew how to prepare, knew how to win. I thought it was a good thing. ... It's important when you step into that chair you have to do it your way. You have to be yourself."

Said Tomlin this week: "It's obvious that what's been done here has been special. I want to be a part of that legacy, history ... At the same time, I have to be myself."

It's easy to think Cowher's background growing up in Crafton was a factor in his success. He understood the Pittsburgh mentality, the "scrutiny," as he often called it, that goes with the job.

Tomlin has to learn it on the fly.

It's unlike anything he experienced in his previous NFL stops in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Tampa-St. Petersburg.

How was it put to him the other day?

Are you prepared to be the lead story on the 5 o'clock news if you're in a fender bender at Giant Eagle?

"You know that comes with the territory. That's OK," Tomlin said, having a hard time holding back a grin.

It was the right response.

So was Tomlin's answer to a question about the heavy expectations that have followed the Steelers since their Super teams of the '70s:

"We all feel a little pressure in this business, but that is part of the reason that we do what we do. We embrace that."

And to an inquiry about city-wide trepidation about his age (34) and relative inexperience (five seasons as a defensive backs coach, one season as a defensive coordinator) in the NFL:

"I can't worry about the concerns that other people might have. I've been hired to do a job here, and I intend to do it at a very high level."

Sounds as if Tomlin's head is in the right place.

It's the rest of us who might need an attitude adjustment.

We need to give the guy a chance.


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