Tomlin terrific on his own
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DALLAS -- First, they said Mike Tomlin got the Steelers coaching job because of the Rooney Rule.
Then, they said Tomlin won Super Bowl XLIII in his second season because he had Bill Cowher's players.
What are they going to say about Tomlin now that he's on the verge of becoming the youngest and fastest coach to win two Super Bowls?
How about the truth?
That Tomlin is a pretty terrific coach.
If the Steelers beat the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Tomlin will become the 13th coach with at least two championships in the Super Bowl era. Remarkably, it will be his second title in his first four seasons. Only Oakland's Tom Flores came close to matching that feat, winning in his second and fifth seasons. But there's so much more to Tomlin's story. He is 38. Miami's Don Shula and the Steelers' Chuck Noll were the youngest coaches to win a second Super Bowl. They were 44.
I'm thinking the coach whose name is on the Super Bowl trophy -- Vince Lombardi -- would be proud if it's handed to Tomlin again as the confetti is falling in Cowboys Stadium. Maybe not happy because he did coach the Packers, after all, to three NFL and two Super Bowl championships. But proud, nonetheless, of Tomlin's amazing accomplishment.
"We're lucky. We've got a great head coach," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said last week.
Not everyone will give Tomlin his due, of course. Some won't like him merely because of the color of his skin. You might have heard there still are racists in the world. It's sad, but true.
But Tomlin climbed out of the Rooney Rule shadow long ago. Named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the rule requires NFL teams to interview a minority candidate when they have a head coaching opening. That helped Tomlin get in the Steelers' door after Cowher resigned as their coach after the 2006 season. No one will argue that. His hiring might even have led to a celebration at NFL headquarters. But the rule had nothing to do with him blowing away the Rooneys with his knowledge of football, his passion for the game and his incredible way with people.
Please, don't underestimate Tomlin's way with people.
"He does a great job of talking to the veterans," Keisel said. "He listens to us. A lot of the guys here were champions. They know how to work and when to work. To me, that's what makes a champion. Coach Tomlin allows the older guys to show the younger guys what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler."
It wasn't easy for Tomlin or the players to get to that point. Many of the veterans didn't want him as coach, preferring one of Cowher's top assistants, Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm. That first year is when Tomlin proved to me he could be great. Despite the unrest, which included All-Pro guard Alan Faneca being in a funk all season because of his contract, Tomlin kept the team together and led it to the playoffs. Along the way, he made it his team.
"Oh, yeah, it's his team," Keisel said.
That's why those who tried to diminish Tomlin's role in the Steelers' Super Bowl XLIII victory against the Arizona Cardinals after the 2008 season were dead wrong. Sure, he inherited some great players from Cowher, but he didn't inherit a Super Bowl team. The Steelers went 8-8 in Cowher's final season. They won Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks a year earlier.
It's a tribute to Tomlin that you don't hear much talk about Cowher these days. That's another shadow he has escaped. He did a phenomenal job guiding the Steelers to Super Bowl XLV. You know the adversity and distractions that the team had to overcome. The Ben Roethlisberger mess in Milledgeville, Ga., and his four-game NFL suspension. The giveaway trade of wide receiver Santonio Holmes. The injury losses of offensive tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks, defensive end Aaron Smith and punter Daniel Sepulveda. The controversy of helmet-to-helmet hits surrounding linebacker James Harrison. The midseason change in kickers from Jeff Reed to Shaun Suisham.
"The standard is the standard."
If Tomlin said it once this season, he said it hundreds of times. But he didn't just preach it. He demanded that his players live it.
"He's just a special person," Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "He should be coach of the year, in my opinion."
If it happens for Tomlin, cool. If it doesn't, that's fine, too. He doesn't seem too concerned with the accolades. He shrugs them off the way he once did the barbs about Cowher and the Rooney Rule. He knows who he is and he's comfortable with that. That inner peace is worth so much more than any coach of the year award.
I learned something instructive about Tomlin after the AFC championship Jan. 23 against the New York Jets, something that says a great deal about not just his strength as a coach, but his faith in his players and assistant coaches.
The Steelers led the Jets, 24-19, at the two-minute warning and were looking at third-and-6 from the Jets' 40. The Jets had no timeouts left. The conservative play call is a run. That's the safe call. That's the call that no one can criticize. Run the ball, let the clock tick down and punt. Trust the defense to secure the win even though it had been on the field for most of the fourth quarter and given up two long drives.
Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians discussed running plays during their sideline huddle. They also talked about a couple of pass plays they thought might work. Who better to have the ball than the great Roethlisberger?
"What do you think, Mike?" Arians asked Tomlin, who had wandered over to the group.
"Call your game, B.A.," Tomlin said, firmly, walking away.
Arians and Roethlisberger settled on a roll-out pass play that gave Roethlisberger the options of throwing the ball, running for the first down or -- at worst -- taking a sack to keep the clock moving. You know the rest. Roethlisberger completed a 14-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Antonio Brown. Three Roethlisberger kneel-downs from the victory formation later, the Steelers were making plans for Super Bowl XLV.
"We weren't going to play not to lose," Tomlin said.
I love that story.
That's a man who is comfortable in his skin.
That's a great coach.
First Published January 31, 2011 12:00 am