Bill Cowher talked to Mike Tomlin just once since he succeeded him.
"Do it your way," Tomlin said, recalling the only guidance given him by his predecessor as Steelers coach. "I'm sure he received the same advice from Chuck Noll.''
Today, in Cleveland, where Noll was born and where he played in the NFL, and where Cowher landed his first coaching job, Mike Tomlin makes his debut as the third Steelers coach in 39 years.
He will start building his reputation as a coach for real today, but he has already earned his status in the locker room. There, what began as skepticism among veteran players has developed into a clear-cut relationship: He's the boss, and they do what they're told.
"There's no doubt," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "Everyone knows he's the boss, and everyone's ready to be led by him."
Tomlin established his authority immediately and has consistently applied it, the players say. It may have been Noll's team for 23 years, then Cowher's for 15, but for the past seven months, it has belonged to Mike Tomlin and he's done it his way.
It's not autocratic, not repressive, not draconian. Tomlin has grasped control of the baton and wielded it in a way that's commanded respect from his players and all those around him.
"In the first couple days here, he set the tone and let you know who's running the show,'' defensive end Aaron Smith said. "He's a stern, honest, down-to-earth guy. He's not above coming and talking to you about something off the wall. But then when it's time to work, it's time to work. He's a fair guy, too, I think."
They still can have their fun, even with the head coach, but there's also a separation Tomlin has established in their workday. Once they take the field, it's all work and no play. Practice, under Tomlin, is no day at the beach. There's even a sign to remind them all as they leave their comfy, carpeted, climate-controlled locker room: "Take the Field.''
"It means when you go out those doors, that's it, we're all business,'' Smith said. "You see the sign every day when we walk out the door ..."
There's a reason for it that the players understand.
"He's like the rest of us," Smith said. "We all want to win, we want to improve on what we did last year. I think we're on the right track."
The right track, the only track for a football coach is victory. There are as many different approaches to coaching as there are coaching jobs, but there's just one bottom line: Win and you're in, lose and you go the way of Bill Austin. He was the fourth Steelers coach in the past 42 years, and he was shown the door after his three teams went a combined 11-28-3.
But Austin's is not the legacy Tomlin wants to follow or continue. Noll's teams won 209 games, including four Super Bowls. Cowher's teams won 161 games, including one Super Bowl. Now that's the right track.
"I've made a conscious effort not to worry about it or compare what we're trying to do to the past,'' Tomlin said. "We can't duplicate it and we're not even going to try. I've just got a vision of what we need to do to move forward and the guys have done a nice job accepting that, to move forward."
And Tomlin is the guy driving the bus.
"You respect him,'' said Hines Ward, one of four team captains who will wear the hockey-like 'C' on their jerseys for the first time in franchise history today. "He's a straight-shooter, it is what it is, what's on tape is on tape. He's not going to take excuses. He'll mention it, but he won't call you out; it's more constructive criticism: 'Let's make sure this doesn't happen again,' and you move on, you grow.
"We're men. He treats everyone like a man. he's not going to belittle anybody, but he's going to call it like he sees it.''
The players from Super Bowl MVP Ward on down had to prove themselves to a new coach. Some, like Ward, did. Others, like Max Starks, lost their starting jobs.
"He wasn't going on past history, what you did, but what you do on tape,'' Ward said. "That's how the makeup of this team is, 53 men who did what coach Tomlin wanted them to do on tape."
Today, they unveil for real this latest version of the Steelers coach and his team. His philosophy, the way he treats players, the way he talks to the public, how he holds himself along the sideline all will be documented from here on out. But only one thing will matter: His record.
"Most people get a coaching opportunity because there is lack of success or a long-term period of lack of success," Tomlin said this week. "This is a unique opportunity and unique circumstance. I'm grateful to have it."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published September 9, 2007 4:00 AM