Mike Tomlin: A man of his words

First of two parts

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NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- This is the book on the new Steelers head coach.

It is an unpretentious, red-covered photo album. He picked the photographs and wrote the red-ink captions, including the description in his second album proclaiming: Greatest Runner on Earth.

"This boy ... he's sick. I'd never even read this book," his amused mother, Julia Copeland, was saying a month ago from her kitchen table.

This is a book about football and how it has molded my character, reads the hand-printed opening page.

Michael Pettaway Tomlin

The albums ended with his playing days, but new chapters in his football career continue to be written. He keeps logs of every coaching practice and game through his collegiate and National Football League sojourn. He's always read, from summer afternoons at the Boys and Girls Club to the National Honor Society in high school to his five years at the College of William and Mary to today.

"He is extremely well read," said Pro Bowl safety and Stanford graduate John Lynch, "and not just about football."

In a realm of sideline screamers and an alphabet consisting mostly of X's and O's, Mike Tomlin is a man of, for and about words.

Speaking them. Reading them. Jotting them down.

Carrying them out.

"He keeps old Franklin planners," explained his big brother, Ed Tomlin. "He's just meticulous like that. Details. He's a very creative guy and writes down everything. Probably has a photographic mind, too."

"Mike, he exhibited an aptitude . . . early on," added close friend and college teammate Terry Hammons, an Upper St. Clair native. But, he added, "he doesn't talk about how intelligent he is."

Talk? For the longest time, he didn't want it whispered, written or otherwise communicated publicly. His mother got one of those "Proud Parent of an Honor Student" bumper stickers from Denbigh High, and he ripped it right off her car.

"He didn't want anybody to know he was smart or making good grades. He wanted to be a Regular Old Joe Football Player like the rest of the kids, so they wouldn't call him a nerd," Mrs. Copeland recalled. "And he kept it well hidden ... until his junior year, he made straight A's, and they put it in the Newport News paper. So he was out of the closet then."

In his junior and senior years at Denbigh High, quietly tucked among the Geography Olympiad, Boys State and the Honor Society, he participated in a scholarly competition called Odyssey of the Mind. He and a half-dozen fellow students finished second in the state championship one year, yet he strived to maintain the strictest privacy about it -- swearing his teacher and partners to secrecy -- which isn't easy in a school of 2,000 or so.

Still, most of his football teammates didn't know. One of his favorite teachers, who taught him technical drawing, had no idea about this Odyssey of the Mind business for more than 17 years. Milton Cary paused last month and admitted, "He kept it a secret from me, too."

Bill Cowher's replacement tomorrow steps into the harsh sunlight of Steelers expectation, his coaching acumen front and center. He is a man taking over a team that won a Super Bowl 17 months earlier. He is a man arising from college-coaching backwaters and just one season as an NFL coordinator to become only the third Steelers head coach in nearly four decades.

He is the man who tomorrow afternoon, on Chuck Noll Field at St. Vincent College, opens his inaugural Steelers training camp and 2007 season with a rigorous conditioning test whose particulars he hoped to keep "something of a surprise."

There are words and images, unspoken and unseen previously around Pittsburgh, that reveal the man and provide a window on his makeup, his character, and his fast track to this high profile job at the age of 34.

Stories about how he came from a single-parent household where they played cards for recreation because they couldn't find the money for much else.

About the birth father he never knew and the stepfather, Leslie Copeland, whose coaching and nurturing developed into his stepson's involvement in All-Pro Dads.

About the growth in every direction from a 5-foot-3, 109-pound wisp of a high-school freshman.

About the trash-talking, passionate, intuitive receiver upon whom his college coaches relied.

About the keen football mind nudged into coaching against the wishes of his skeptical mother -- by her recounting, "I just went ballistic."

About his second thoughts, after his first college-coaching season, that maybe he should forget football and go to law school.

About the energetic young assistant welcomed into the successful NFL family of mentors and head coaches -- Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith and Herm Edwards.

These tales of Mike Tomlin all reach the same sort of ending: He's a man of his word.

"He already told me he was winning the Super Bowl," said Mrs. Copeland, and what son would fib to his mother? " 'I will be hoisting that trophy, and I won't be patient about doing it, either.'

"Those were his words."

After years of small doubts, she has learned to believe.

"Because everything you've said so far," she told him after he was hired as the Steelers coach in January, "you've done it."

'Napolean complex'

He was always small. Always fiery. Always loud.

"Audacious," concluded big brother Ed, who is three and a half years older and four grades ahead of Mike. Steelers fans should note, too, that Ed was a 1989 University of Maryland captain along with Super Bowl XXX scapegoat Neil O'Donnell. Yet still, as a high-school freshman, little brother Mike weighed a scant 103 pounds.

"My mother was concerned for his safety in athletics," Ed said. "But he was tough as all get-out. He had a Napoleon complex as a little child. He just grew to be 6 foot 2."

When Mike was 10 months old, his parents separated. His father, Ed Tomlin Sr., was a 10th-round draft pick in 1969 of the Baltimore Colts, from nearby Hampton Institute, and played fullback for one season with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. When he telephoned a little later in the boys' lives, Mike would answer and yell for all to hear, "Eddie, your daddy's on the phone." His mother would remind him Ed Sr. was his daddy, too.

For a time, the three of them lived with her parents, Edward and Catherine Pettaway, though Mike tired of taking part in his grandmother's prayer meetings and shucking his grandfather's butterbeans by the bucket. They moved nearby into a one-story home in the Beechurst section of the working-class Denbigh community.

Mother and big brother have indelible memories of Mike standing on a chair, wearing his pajamas, exulting at another victory in a card game of spades.

"I couldn't afford to take them out to the movies and things that they wanted to do, so I taught them games," Mrs. Copeland said. "He was so short that he had to stand up in the chair to slap the cards down. He'd beat both of us most of the time. Michael has to win no matter what he's doing. He'd have to rub it in, put his arms up, 'I'm the champ, I'm the champ.' Eddie would get so mad, he'd say, 'Mom, why'd you have to teach him how to play?' "

When Mike was 6, his mother married Leslie Copeland, whom Ed calls "the only father we know."

A former semipro baseball player around Hampton Roads, he began coaching his stepsons in a new game. Mike's team won the district championship that first baseball season.

"We got lucky," said Mr. Copeland, a sorter and 37-year employee of the U.S. Postal Service in Norfolk. Added Mrs. Copeland, "To tell you the truth, I used to feel sorry for Michael: He'd have to come home after the games with the coach. He'd have to listen to everything that was done wrong and not to repeat that anymore."

Ed continued: "He taught mentality."

They were lessons Mike lugged onto a different field.

Running for his life

Against Mrs. Copeland's wishes, Uncle Howard Pettaway stole away Ed one day to sign him up for youth football. Mike naturally had to follow once he turned 8.

Had to record it in an album, too.

It became just another way to differentiate himself from his big brother, to keep a record -- something that later became a daily habit.

69 pounds, No. 74, defensive lineman.

"Look at his size," Mr. Copeland said, pointing and smiling at a photo on the wall of their home in Suffolk, in a newer subdivision where they moved about a decade ago. "He stayed small for . . . a long time."

The mother watched football games only to make sure her baby survived. "I wasn't interested. He wasn't hurt? OK, that's good," she said. Whenever coaches marveled at his speed, she remarked how he was running for his life.

Meantime, the boy continued to take notes.

72 carries, 777 yards, two interceptions, 78 pounds.

1982, City champ, Best Runner on Earth.

The Newport News Daily Press mentioned his name in its sports story about that Pee Wee title game. He was all of 10, all of 84 pounds -- as he detailed.

"He was a demanding kid, too," his big brother said. "My mother would come home from work and he'd be waiting for her in the driveway with all his football equipment on, ready for practice. Here she's battled traffic, worked all day, left work, and the first thing Mike says to her is, 'Hey, we're late.' "

With her toiling on a 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift, the boys were left to their grandparents or, for a spell, with the Peninsula Boys and Girls Club in downtown Newport News. One summer, the club had contests for kids to earn a currency known as Bargain Bucks, which could be used to purchase goodies. Big brother Ed sweated out games on the basketball court for Bucks; little brother Mike sat in the library reading books to earn his.

"And," added Ed, "he'd say, 'There's air-conditioning in that library, too.' He was definitely a practical and pretty cerebral kid."

The science of football

He built cities from Legos and Lincoln Logs, causing his mother and brother to consider him a future architect.

He rattled off the Notre Dame tight end's statistics and big catches from the previous season when he had a chance encounter with Mark Bavaro one day on a college break.

He begged his mother to give him the same trigonometry exams that she made to tutor his 11th-grade brother, and the seventh-grader finished them before Ed.

It wasn't until Denbigh High, though, that he began to understand the science of how a football when coupled with his intellect became a lever for his future.

"Always focused on what he needed to do," said Mr. Cary, the technical-drawing teacher.

"I always saw he could work well with people," added Gail Gunter, his geometry and trigonometry teacher and his counselor on that Odyssey of the Mind academic team, which completed mechanical projects in specified times. "But I never dreamed he would do as well as he's done."

While Mike and best buddy Bill Johnson openly aspired to play professional football, they wanted foremost to escape the hometown dominated by the shipyards and the military.

"That was the goal: Not coming back to Newport News, do something bigger than that," said Johnson, who lives two blocks from Ed Tomlin in Bowie, Md. Mr. Johnson is a pharmaceutical sales manager whose region takes in Pittsburgh, where he introduces his sales reps -- including the Ravens fan from Baltimore -- to his childhood chum the Steelers head coach.

"We wanted to be two guys who made it out, got college scholarships, became successful. There's nothing wrong with Newport News, 'cause that's where our families are. ... We just wanted to see more of what life had to offer. We created that destiny for ourselves."

Before retiring three years ago, Mrs. Copeland worked 32 years in the shipyards that dominate the city's 20 miles of James River coastline. With 18,200 employees building nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy, with Northrop Grumman representing the state's largest private-sector and single-location employer, she was just another statistic in the military-industrial complex: One of every 10 Newport News residents toil in those shipyards.

"It's like a mill town," said Ed, who with his lawyer wife operates a real-estate investment, title and law firm in suburban Washington, D.C. "My mother retired from there. My uncle worked there 40 years. My other uncle retired from there. My mother was like, 'You guys are going to college, 'cause I don't want you in the shipyard.' A lot of our friends who weren't fortunate to excel athletically or academically went to the shipyard, or to jail. . ., or worse. That is a strange similarity between the two cities, Newport News and Pittsburgh."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Mike Tomlin
Click photo for larger image.

More Coverage:

Day 2: A coach with the gift

Slideshow: Mike Tomlin's journey to Pittsburgh

No-nonsense Tomlin looks forward to camp

Mike Tomlin during his college days at William and Mary in Virginia. He was co-captain of the team.
Click photo for larger image.The new coach's mother, Julia, and stepfather, Leslie Copeland.
Click photo for larger image.

Tomorrow: Rising through the coaching ranks. Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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