NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- OK, so 23 miles from home isn't such a great escape.
After stowing recruiting letters from almost every Ivy League school into his autobiographical photo album, after receiving commissions to West Point and Annapolis, Mike Tomlin decided to take up the Division I-AA offer of the football-rich, three-century-old college up Interstate 64 in Williamsburg: The College of William & Mary.
"He didn't have a whole lot of stats" with the mediocre, run-oriented Denbigh High Patriots, recalled recruiter Matt Kelchner, now the coach at Newport News' Christopher Newport University. But Kelchner and William & Mary coaches liked his athletic ability (Tomlin also was a triple jumper), his transcript, his family and the fact that every one in Denbigh's hallways liked Mike. The Georgian-style school, in turn, provided him with the right academic-athletic mix. Between his coiffure and his car, he made a statement.
"That high-top, Gumby fade he had going on," Terry Hammons of Upper St. Clair described, in between laughs, of the "House Party 2" 'do worn by his friend, frat brother and fellow receiver.
Tomlin tooled around in a 1979 Toyota Celica with as much red primer on it as red paint, delivering pizzas for the two local shops that eventually employed every William & Mary football player. He got a job as well at campus hot spot Paul's Deli, where he worked the door checking IDs in exchange for his favorite heated sandwiches of roast beef, turkey and bacon. "And that SOB could eat three of them," fondly remembered owner Peter Tsipas, whose wall of fame currently displays two separate photographs of Tomlin -- as a 1994 senior co-captain and last summer as former Tribe teammate Darren Sharper's boss and Minnesota defensive coordinator.
Back in the day, there also was his affinity for a certain afternoon television soap opera. Hammons said, "He'd get to meetings barely on time, and ultimately resorted to taping 'All My Children.' "
Tomlin, Hammons and Montour's Corey Ludwig closely watched football game tapes, too. They studied depth charts. After playing against a jawing Samford team coached by Terry Bowden, now an ABC commentator, the Tribe receivers picked up a new tactic: They yakked.
They administered constant verbal attacks on a certain young star cornerback, Tomlin calling out the kid in one-on-one drills: "Shah-puhhh, Shah-puhhh, I'm next. Get to the head of the line." Or he and Hammons bemoaned to their contending cornerbacks how they could never find those guys' names on the opponent's depth chart -- a cutting remark that a former Harvard player recently related bothers him still. After his third touchdown reception in a game against Maine, Tomlin asked the secondary, "Don't you guys watch tape? I run this route all the time." Little digs.
"We were goofy," Hammons said. They were football savvy, too.
They often were asked by coach Jimmye Laycock about what they saw in the defenses, what plays in their pro-style offense might work, and they were often spot on. "They understood the game. Studied the game. Made suggestions," said Zbig Kepa, their receivers coach.
Pro football remained the dream. Tomlin put himself on track. He amassed 101 receptions and 2,046 yards and 20 touchdowns and a school-record career average of 20.2 yards per catch.
"He turned himself into quite the physical specimen there," Hammons said.
He became a 6-2, 205-pound receiver with a 40-inch vertical leap , a 4.4-second-plus time in the 40-yard dash and, eventually, workout interest from Cleveland, San Francisco and teams in the CFL where his birth father once played. Before Tomlin graduated in May 1995, a semester ahead of his mother who in his freshman year started at Christopher Newport part-time, he realized playing in the pros wasn't in his long-term future. William & Mary assistant Dan Quinn, now the New York Jets' defensive line coach, took a job with Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., and recommended that Tomlin follow.
Feb. 17, 1995
Dear Coach Stewart,
Through our mutual acquaintance, coach Dan Quinn, I have learned of a possible opening in your staff. ... I am extremely eager to pursue a career in coaching. ... Very truly yours, Michael P. Tomlin.
Bill Stewart, previously an assistant at William & Mary and currently assistant head coach to West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez, was impressed by Tomlin's springtime tryout as a graduate assistant. The profession fit.
"Some guys ask me about coaching, I would say, 'Why? With this degree you'll be making six figures in a few years,' " said Kepa, the William & Mary receivers coach. "I knew it would be the ticket for him. Just how he was as a player. How he was as a person."
His mother almost wanted to punch something, and it wasn't a ticket.
"He told me he wanted to be a coach, and I just went ballistic," Julia Copeland began, raising her voice a dozen years later all over again. " 'We sent you to William & Mary, and you want to coach? What are you talking about?' He said, 'Well, I got a plan. I got to start somewhere, and I'm going to start at VMI.' I was really upset. I didn't want him to coach; I wanted him to go out and get a real job. 'How much does that pay you?' 'Just a stipend.' 'What is a stipend?' "
It's a fancy word for $12,000 -- "I don't think I even paid him that much," joked Stewart -- and too much work. This at a military school with no women students and a single-men's dorm, where he resided.
"He was like a 30-year-old then," Stewart said. "He coached like he played: He coached with a passion. ... He wanted them to be tenacious, physical. The kid was born to coach. Born to teach."
In 1996, shortly after she graduated, William & Mary gymnast Kiya Winston and Mike were married. "How are you going to support a wife on a stipend?" his mother asked. No matter, for VMI was but a stepping-stone.
Moving on and up
Tomlin made four football moves in four years.
"Every time he'd go to the coaches' convention," his mother said, "he'd come back with a different job."
From VMI he went to Memphis, directed by Rip Scherer, who coached against him in college at James Madison and who is cousin to Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert.
"After my first year at Memphis, I ran into him at the coaches convention," Scherer said. "He was going to get out of coaching at that time. He was going to go to law school. I said, 'Mike, if you [stay in coaching], you could be the type of guy who's in the NFL by 30.' And he made it by 29."
From Memphis Tomlin went to Division I-AA Tennessee-Martin for, well, only a few minutes, following ex-Memphis assistant Jim Marshall there. He quickly landed at I-A Arkansas State.
From Arkansas State he went to Cincinnati, where he transformed the previous 111th-ranked pass defense to 61st in 1999, then to fourth in total takeaways in 2000. This was where his mother, after years of freely dispensing advice, finally noticed that "apparently, he might have a clue at what he's doing."
"About Michael's so-called plan for coaching in the NFL," Copeland continued. "When he was at Arkansas State, he told me, 'Mom, I got a plan. By the time I'm 35, I'm going to be an NFL head coach.' ... And I kind of laughed.
"Guess what? He was 34. You know he's going to remind me of that the rest of my life."
Finally, the NFL
The first time his cell phone rang, Tomlin dialed his big brother, Ed: You playing with my phone?
In a voice mail message, somebody identifying himself as Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin had said he wanted to talk to the 28-year-old Tomlin about a pro job, replacing new Jets head coach Herm Edwards no less. Thought Mike: Yeah, right.
Then head coach Tony Dungy called.
Someone in Tampa Bay's scouting department first suggested the young Cincinnati guy. Age wasn't an issue to Dungy, whom Chuck Noll made the Steelers' secondary coach by age 27, the defensive coordinator by 29.
"He was very well prepared, but, more than anything, you could feel the energy. I talked to Dan Rooney [shortly before the Steelers hired Tomlin], and he felt same thing. He was, to me, just like Lovie Smith," said Dungy, referring to the Chicago Bears head coach against whom Dungy's Colts won the Super Bowl last February. "A great communicator. Very self-confident without coming across as cocky. We knew he'd be able to communicate with our veteran guys."
Tomlin was the winner of a hunt that included 10 to 40 candidates, depending upon the source. At his first Tampa Bay minicamp, he was asked by perennial Pro Bowler John Lynch to sit down and discuss ways for the older safety to improve his game. Glad you asked, Tomlin responded, I've had this waiting for you.
"He had a tape of 63 plays from the year before and detailed notes on each one," Lynch said. "The technique I used, the technique I could've used, my thoughts -- he had paragraphs on each play."
Lynch and Dungy and new head coach John Gruden saw the closet full of notebooks, the quotebook containing verses both biblical and philosophical but not wholly football. Gruden divvied up parts of each season to his assistants, allowing them to preach and pretend to be temporary head coaches. Amid that Super Bowl XXXVII season in 2002, Tomlin strode to the front of a team meeting to hip-hop music and won over the next NFL champs.
"Mike kind of strutted up there," Lynch said, "and within 10 seconds he had that whole room's attention, which, you know, is a tough audience. He set forth our philosophy for that quarter of the season. I looked at [cornerback] Ronde Barber and [quarterback] Brad Johnson, and they both said, 'This guy's got it.' You knew he was destined for what he's doing now. I just don't think anybody knew it would come that soon."
Three seasons later, the itinerant young coach -- with six different jobs in his first seven seasons -- was named the defensive coordinator at Minnesota. His Vikings' defense, using eight of the same starters from the unit that wallowed among the NFL's bottom one-third in 2005, then lost first-round draftee linebacker Chad Greenway to a knee injury in the preseason opener. So he taught. He preached. He instilled fundamentals, a system, an energy. He had dread film sessions showing Loafs (plays taken off) and News (other assorted indiscretions), "and guys would have their heads down," said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Pat Williams. "But he held everybody accountable for their job.
"He was smooth and serious. That's why all the guys loved him. He would always tell you the truth about how you were playing, about what was going on."
The No. 21-ranked defense of a year earlier rose to No. 8 statistically. Moreover, only one other team in the 37 years since the AFL-NFL merger yielded fewer yards rushing than Minnesota's 985 last year, and that was the mega-hyped 2000 Ravens' defense.
Ex-Vikings star Chuck Foreman sat next to Tomlin's longtime buddy Billy Johnson at the Nov. 19 Minnesota game at Miami. "That guy's not going to be here long," Foreman mused. "He's got the gift."
The head-coaching candidate heard negatives from his mother, heard more doubts.
"When he was interviewing for the Steelers' job, I was trying to prepare him because I really didn't think he was going to get it -- you don't go from being a coordinator in one year to head coach. You know, and he's young. I said, 'Michael, look ... learn all you can going through the process so the next time you get called, you'll be ready.' "
His response: Arizona, Atlanta, Miami and Pittsburgh are open. If I can put my foot in a door, I'm getting one of those jobs.
His mother shrugged. "He got one."
He dazzled the Rooneys with his energy, intellect, communication skills, record keeping. In fact, he had a written plan for his first season. Every coaching day. Detailed.
On Jan. 22, the same day the sign in front of Denbigh High crowed about alumnus Antoine Bethea reaching the Super Bowl with Dungy's Colts, it touted a young man who last made that board 18 years earlier when he was named to the National Honor Society: Mike Tomlin, new Steelers coach.
"I should get part of his salary," added the Browns' Scherer, who rescued him from VMI and a potential career change. "Because if it wasn't for me, he might be a struggling lawyer somewhere."
The new boss
Minnesota's Pat Williams offers this advice to his old coordinator's new team:
"If you don't want to hear the truth, ask to be traded."
The new Steelers head coach a week ago described the 15 two-a-days of training camp as fodder for the players "to whine about. It is going to be extremely tough. I am not apologizing for that. I'm going to put that challenge out there to them because, in a lot of ways, it represents the journey that we are going to face this year." And thereafter.
In Organized Training Activities, receiver Hines Ward was elected to approach the new boss about the vexing sessions, and Tomlin then took them bowling and instituted the helmet-less practice of Hat Day.
"That's something the Steelers are going to see: He's fun, but the atmosphere is going to be business-like, too," Dungy said.
Since supplanting Cowher, the 16th Steelers head coach has: released one of their most popular players (a client asked one of Tomlin's delivery-service relatives in Columbia, S.C., "What's wrong with your cousin, cutting Joey Porter?"); fined another popular player, Alan Faneca, for skipping a mandatory practice over stymied contract negotiations; received a lecture from third-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger about capturing the team's trust. Some honeymoon. Yet, a half a lifetime later, he doesn't care what football players think about him anymore. He merely wants to command their ears, eyes, minds, respect, determination, diligence.
"He can be an ass," big brother Ed said with a chortle. "He's going to have his way."
Such as when he pledges privately to soon raise a sixth Lombardi Trophy for the Steelers?
"After he wins the Super Bowl," Ed said matter-of-factly about his little brother, the new local celebrity, "it'll be crazy. We'll have to do some space travel, leave the earth, to get some privacy."
"You know," their mother concluded, "I've learned my lesson. When he says he's going to do something, I believe it now."Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks relaxed now, but is he ready for moving day?
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The 2007 Guide: No-nonsense Tomlin looks forward to camp
Your Pictures: Click here to upload your photos from the inaugural Camp Tomlin and share them with the rest of the Steelers Nation.
Courtesy of Ed Tomlin, Post-Gazette
The College of William & Mary ID of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin (notice the 'do).
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Schedule: Players must report by 4 p.m. today. First practice open to the public is 2:55 p.m. tomorrow.
Where: Saint Vincent College, Latrobe.
First preseason game: 8 p.m., Aug. 5 vs. New Orleans in Canton, Ohio.
First home preseason game: 7:30 p.m., Aug. 11 vs. Green Bay.Courtesy of Ed Tomlin
Here's a printout from his mother's kitchen computer, where Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin composed the letter seeking his first coaching job -- at Virginia Military Institute. He got the job.
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Chuck Finder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1724.