Cook: Tomlin turns negatives into positives in first test

STEELERS MINICAMP

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The career of one of baseball's great managers was made on a spring-training day in 1991 when Jim Leyland jumped in the face of Pirates superstar Barry Bonds in Bradenton, Fla. Bonds, the National League's Most Valuable Player the year before, had been sulking through a workout, acting like a spoiled brat because he wasn't happy with his contract. Leyland, though seething, let him go for a while -- he doesn't like putting his laundry out in public -- but he finally erupted on Bonds in front of the television cameras when he saw Bonds show up coach Bill Virdon.

"If you don't want to be here, get the hell out of here," Leyland screamed.

No one ever looked at Leyland -- or Bonds, for that matter -- the same way again.

They looked at Leyland in a much better light, the respect for him clear and estimable because of the way he stood up to a star player.

I'm thinking maybe, just maybe, the past weekend at Steelers minicamp will prove to be the same sort of career-defining moment for new coach Mike Tomlin.

No, there was no juicy public confrontation between Tomlin and pouting All-Pro guard Alan Faneca at the team's South Side headquarters. There merely was a brief, quiet chat during lunch Saturday after Faneca had followed up his angry tirade Friday against Steelers management and its negotiating tactics with him by missing a mandatory practice Saturday morning.

There's also no guarantee Faneca will respond the same way Bonds did. Bonds had an another MVP-caliber season in '91 and led the Pirates to a division championship. Faneca's bitterness might carry into training camp and the season, although it's hard to imagine it affecting his play because he has been such a terrific team guy and still must feel an obligation to give his best for his teammates if no longer for the Rooneys.

But that doesn't mean Tomlin didn't do a fabulous job handling a very difficult situation.

This couldn't have been the way Tomlin wanted to start his head coaching career. It's tough enough that he's a young coach replacing Bill Cowher, a legend of sorts around here. Now he had to face this kind of distraction at his first mandatory team function?

It didn't seem fair.

Then again, who said life is fair?

One of the reasons the Steelers released linebacker Joey Porter after last season was that management felt he might be a disruptive locker-room force heading into the final year of his contract. But the team couldn't release Faneca or trade him for less than equal value; he, arguably, is the Steelers' best player and is in the prime of his career. Management knew he was unhappy with his contract status but couldn't have imagined him going off like he did Friday. He said, among other things, that he wanted to be traded and didn't care to what team and that he couldn't see himself being a team captain for a franchise that clearly didn't want him. He didn't back off from his earlier comments that he wasn't happy the Steelers picked Tomlin to replace Cowher instead of one of Cowher's former assistants, Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt.

Welcome to Pittsburgh, coach!

Tomlin never flinched.

He never lost his poise, not once.

Much like Leyland, but in a very different way, he left no doubt that he was the man in charge and that this ugly little episode wasn't going to change that.

Man, he was impressive.

"It's part of the territory in today's NFL," Tomlin said, shrugging.

The man is 35 -- only 5 years older than Faneca -- but he showed, at least in this instance, that he's wise beyond his years. He made it a point to treat the great Faneca with the proper respect. "Everything I've heard about him is he's a professional. ... It's an emotional deal for him -- and rightfully so. It's his livelihood." But, at the same time, he made it clear the Steelers were going to move forward, preferably with Faneca, but without him if necessary. "This is a lesson for us as a football team. Adversity is part of it. Distractions are part of it. ... The standard of expectation is not going to change regardless of what's going on."

Cowher couldn't have handled it better.

Tomlin still has much to prove as a coach. He must prove he can build a team, draft the right players, sign the right free agents. He must prove he can motivate his guys and get the best out of them all season long. He must prove he and his staff can do the X's and O's better than the coaches on the other sideline.

Tomlin still must win his first game, for heaven's sake.

But as far as standing tall in the tough times and not wilting under the pressure?

That won't be a problem for this guy.

He has already proven that.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talks with guards Alan Faneca, left, and Kendall Simmons Sunday in warm-ups for the last day of minicamp.
Click photo for larger image.

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Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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