A man of letters, a leader of men

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In the beginning, soon after the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went to the new coach and told him he had to win the players' respect and trust. Tomlin's public reaction said a lot about the man.

"People keep asking the players what they think of me. It's irrelevant. Their job is to play. My job is to evaluate them." Tomlin's private reaction said even more. For someone who claimed not to care, he worked terribly hard to win that respect and trust.

With a few players, it was easy.

"He had my respect the day Mr. Rooney hired him," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "That's my leader. If he tells me to run through a wall, I might look at it for a while, but I know I've got to do it sooner or later."

With most of the rest, especially Roethlisberger, wide receiver Hines Ward and the other veterans, who were used to doing things coach Bill Cowher's way and weren't interested in changing, it was a tougher challenge.

Tomlin started the process at the spring minicamp when he met with each player. Get-to-know-each-other sessions, if you will. There's nothing unusual about that, but what happened next is rare. Tomlin followed up each meeting by contacting the players in the summer. Many received a handwritten letter, signed by "Mike," not "Coach Tomlin." There is a difference.

"Believe me, there was no secret agenda to those letters," Tomlin said. "I've just always been a guy who, if something moves me, I respond to it. And I've always believed a written letter is more meaningful than an e-mail or a phone call."

Those letters certainly meant something to the players.

"I carry mine in my Bible," Ward said.

"I filed mine," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "This wasn't some printed form letter that everyone got. It's a huge statement for a coach to take that kind of time."

"Still have mine, too," linebacker Larry Foote said.

Ward described his letter as "inspirational."

"He kind of lit a fire in me. I always love to play football, but he made me want to play football for him."

Letters to Foote and linebacker James Farrior were instructive. Each letter quoted conversations that they had in their meeting with Tomlin. Think about that for a second. We've probably all been in a meeting with an authority figure, who seems to be looking over our head as he or she talks to us, counting the minutes until it's over and looking to see who's coming in next. Apparently, Tomlin isn't that kind of boss.

"He proved to me that he listened and that he thought what I had to say was important," Foote said.

It's fair to think the players felt better about Tomlin when they reported to training camp July 23 than they did when he was hired. Many had hoped the Steelers would stay in-house for Cowher's replacement by naming Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm as coach.

"Everybody I talked to said they liked [Tomlin]," Foote said. "I can see why now."

Don't get the wrong idea, though. Tomlin is not all touchy, feely. He's a football coach, isn't he? Cowher was regarded as a players' coach, but he had his moments, too.

"Right from the start, [Tomlin] made it clear it was his way or no way," Ward said. " 'It's not coach Cowher's team anymore, it's my team. I don't care how you did it here in the past. This is the way we're going to do it now. If you don't like it, go get your own team and do it your way.' "

"The Commander in Chief," Smith called the new boss.

Tomlin didn't want to hear the players whine about the brutal heat and humidity during camp at Saint Vincent College. To reinforce that point, he wore all black clothing every day to the practices.

Tomlin didn't care if the players didn't like his two-a-day schedules. He almost seemed to take delight when he moved the afternoon practice Aug. 9 to the Steelers' indoor facility on the South Side because of heavy rain in Latrobe. Under Cowher, the team would have had an easy workout in the Saint Vincent College gymnasium. Now, the players had to board a bus, fight the traffic to get downtown, practice, get back on the bus and fight the traffic to get back to Latrobe.

"There was a lot of griping that day," Ward said. "[Tomlin] didn't care."

That goes back to what Tomlin said early on.

It's irrelevant what the players think ...

Being liked and being respected are two different things. Tomlin gives the impression he'll settle for the respect.

Tomlin certainly didn't win friends in the locker room with his News sessions, which started at minicamp, continued through training camp and, presumably, will go on throughout the season. But it's hard to think they haven't helped team accountability. Frequently, Tomlin points out the players' mistakes at practice in front of everyone during team meetings. Roethlisberger and Ward were among the early targets, which made it pretty clear that no one -- "from the quarterbacks down to the long snapper," quarterback Charlie Batch said -- was exempt from constructive criticism. Tomlin even fingered himself at camp for not being fully prepared for a meeting.

"He always says, 'I don't make the news. I just report it,' " Batch said, shrugging.

Tomlin took that accountability thing to a new level when he publicly called out Roethlisberger for his play in the exhibition game against Washington Aug. 18. "I'd like to see him perform better."

This is only a guess, but that might be the first time that Big Ben -- or any pampered quarterback with a fragile ego, for that matter -- has been publicly chastised, even so gently.

Perhaps, it was no coincidence that Roethlisberger played much better in the next exhibition game against Philadelphia and threw for 247 yards in the first half.

We'll begin to find out next Sunday, when the Steelers play their opener in Cleveland against the Browns, if Tomlin can carry that magic touch into the season. Even his players concede it's far too early to pass judgment on him.

"He hasn't been thrown into the fire yet," Foote said.

Or, as safety Troy Polamalu put it, somewhat less delicately, "I want to see how he reacts when it's late in the season and we're starting to get ready for the playoffs and everyone's butt is getting tight."

It's nice to hear Polamalu mention the playoffs, isn't it?

At least the team's starting goal hasn't changed since Cowher left.

"We're buying into what [Tomlin] is saying," Ward said. "At this point, we have to put our trust in him. Where that leads us, we'll see."

Only this much is certain:

"The coach is going to do it his way," Farrior said. "It's up to us to get on board with him."

We already know Townsend will run through a wall for Tomlin.

Beginning next Sunday, we'll find out just how committed the rest of the fellows are.


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


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