Mike Tomlin's long list of things to do at the NFL meetings at Dana Point, Calif., last week included a phone call to Pittsburgh.
He wanted to talk to Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon after the Panthers made the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. He did not want to congratulate him, however, because "the job's not done.''
Tomlin has become a Pitt fan, basketball and football. He has become a Penguins fan. He has been known to show up at WPIAL high school basketball games. Who knows, he might even have joined that list of long-suffering Pirates fans.
Living in Pittsburgh just a little more than two years, Tomlin has embraced all the city and Western Pennsylvania has to offer, not merely because it looks good as coach of the Steelers but because he enjoys it all. Kennywood Park, Seven Springs, the Strip District, you name it, Tomlin has explored the area's top attractions. He's the first Steelers coach to move his family into a city neighborhood, Shadyside, in half a century.
And he recognizes the honor of earning the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year Award and the history that goes with it.
"Yeah, man, that's Western Pa. I consider myself a Western Pa. guy at this point, man, so it's an honor. When you think about some of the people who have been honored in that way, it's humbling, and I look forward to the evening."
The evening takes place Thursday, and Tomlin joins a select crew that includes his two predecessors, Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll. It's appropriate since both of those former Steelers coaches have other things in common with Tomlin, including Super Bowl rings.
Tomlin not only joined Noll and Cowher among the Super Bowl winning coaches, he became the youngest coach in the 43-year history of the Super Bowl to win it. He won at 36, and now he's 37 and his future looks bright.
He entered a situation with the Steelers that was the envy of some coaches, while others might have seen all the landmines. Indeed, the Steelers had good talent when he took over in 2007 and the team had won the Super Bowl two years earlier.
But it was not a happy team. The Steelers cut popular linebacker and captain Joey Porter, and another captain, Alan Faneca, was disgruntled by his contract situation. Add the fact that the Steelers were coming off a disappointing 8-8 season as Super Bowl champions, and that many were upset that neither Russ Grimm nor Ken Whisenhunt got the coaching job, and there were potential problems everywhere.
Then, Tomlin, a coach no one knew, laid down the law and a tough training camp schedule.
"He kind of took the respect the first year," linebacker James Harrison said. "Everything was his way. There was no negotiating of anything. We were in full pads hitting and banging until week 15 or 16."
He got the players' attention and, eventually, they responded. The Steelers rebounded to win the AFC North Division title in Tomlin's rookie season of 2007 at 10-6, but lost their first playoff game.
A year later, he adjusted some of his style and schedule.
"This year, he came in and he started to take care of us," Harrison said of the 2008 season. "He got us out of pads early in the season and that helps your body out down the road. I think him changing from the things he did last year, I guess he may have learned a little bit from there until now."
That's the thing about being 36 or 37 and running your own show. You can be open to learning new things along the way.
"I will make adjustments to what has happened to me and us on a year-to-year basis every year," Tomlin said the other day. "I'm in the process of going through that in terms of delivering a message to our football team for '09. From that standpoint, it'll be different but it'll be the same in that will be ongoing every year."
Tomlin has laughed as he continues to be asked if he thought he could coach a team to a Super Bowl victory so soon, and if so why.
"You know, I think that belief in one's self is a big part of it. I believed in myself and my vision in terms of what I wanted to do as a head coach. And, of course, I had no visual evidence but such is life.
"I had a great deal of trust in the Rooneys that they knew what they were doing from a selection standpoint, and my comfort lied in the fact they had a great deal of belief in me."
Now it's become vogue to hire head coaches in their early 30s in the NFL. Some say Tomlin's quick success helped pave the way for those others; Tomlin is not among those saying it.
"I'm not going to think that what I do has any effect over what's going on around this game or in this league. I'm not going to be so presumptuous. I think those owners went through a process they felt was necessary in their situations and circumstance and made the correct decisions from their perspective."
Despite his youth and relative inexperience, Mike Tomlin held up well under the bright lights and big stage of Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla.
Mike Tomlin, Shavonte Zellous and Dick LeBeau take their places this week among a Who's Who of Pittsburgh sports in the past 70 years. Pictured are some of the previous honorees. The pantheon includes, clockwise from the upper left corner: Billy Conn, Ralph Kiner, Terry Bradshaw, Mario Lemieux, Suzie McConnell-Serio, Willie Stargell, Joe Greene, Arnold Palmer, Roberto Clemente, Tony Dorsett, Sidney Crosby, John Michelosen, Dave Parker, Agnus Berenato, Stan Musial, Bill Cowher, Johnny Majors, Lauryn Williams, Ben Howland, ElRoy Face, Dan Marino, Swin Cash, Dick Groat, Joe Paterno, Danny Murtaugh and Chuck Noll. Conn was the first Dapper Dan sportsman of the year recipient in 1939.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published March 29, 2009 4:00 AM