On the Steelers: Tomlin faces friend Morris in return to his NFL roots
Mike Tomlin in 2001 upon being named defensive backs coach in Tampa
Raheem Morris has a lot of Mike Tomlin in him, a fact that makes both men proud.
Share with others:
In all likelihood, no player on the field at Raymond James Stadium today will be happier to see Mike Tomlin than Ronde Barber. And he plays on the other team.
Barber is a cornerback for the surprising Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0), who are already one victory away from matching their total of 2009. At age 35, he is in his 14th National Football League season, the oldest player on one of the youngest teams in the league.
But he also is the only player on the Tampa Bay roster who was with the Buccaneers when Tomlin was their secondary coach. That he is still playing, and leading the team with two interceptions, is testament to the impact Tomlin had on his career.
"When I think back, Mike came in and changed my career," said Barber, a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback with 11 defensive touchdowns. "I give him all the credit. I was kind of a nondescript guy until he walked into the building and he changed my attitude completely. I had my first Pro Bowl year and led the league in interceptions with Mike [in 2001]. The guy I've been for the last 10 years is mainly because of what he instilled in me."
Then, he added, "I hate to play against him."
He likely is not alone.
Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris was in charge of defensive quality control before becoming a defensive assistant and assistant secondary coach for four years when Tomlin was the secondary coach. Alike in many ways, they forged a friendship that lasts to this day, a bond so strong that Morris easily credits the fourth-year Steelers coach for inspiring him -- and encouraging him -- to become the youngest head coach in the NFL.
"I was just trying to provide him the same guidance that was provided to me," Tomlin said. "I haven't had many opportunities to give back to the business. I've always been the recipient of knowledge and encouragement from older, veteran coaches. He's one of the few guys, young guys that I worked with, that I took a personal responsibility for their growth and development."
For the first time since he was hired to replace Bill Cowher in 2007, Tomlin returns to play the team that gave him his NFL coaching start, the team that ignited the meteoric rise that reached its zenith when he became the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl.
Adding to the subplot: he will be coaching against Morris, who is not just his best friend in the business, but a person who exhibits the same level of intelligence, infectious enthusiasm and brutal honesty that have characterized Tomlin's three-plus seasons with the Steelers.
Unlike Barber, Morris can't wait for the reunion.
"We always used to talk about competing against each other and we always talked about being defensive coordinators," Morris said. "We have the opportunity to go out there and compete on a top stage, and there's nothing better than that. We've always talked about it, we've always dreamed about it, and now it is reality."
It is not in Tomlin's makeup to acknowledge that the 1 p.m. game today in Tampa, Fla., is any more special than another. To him, the game is merely another chance for the Steelers (2-0) to remain unbeaten, despite their uncertain quarterback situation, and start 3-0 for the first time since his rookie season.
But Steelers backup safety Will Allen, one of only three players on the field who has played for both coaches, thinks the game will be extra special for Tomlin.
"I think it is," said Allen, who played two seasons with the Buccaneers when Tomlin was his secondary coach and was signed by the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in March. "He hasn't been there for a long time. It's going to be fun."
Allen has known Tomlin since he was a senior at Ohio State and Tomlin came to his pro-day workout and told him the Buccaneers wanted to draft him. After Tampa Bay drafted him in the fourth round in 2004, Allen never doubted anything Tomlin told him after that.
Now that he is reunited with Tomlin, Allen said his career is "revived" again.
"He's impacted a lot of people in his life, and I think that's part of his mission as a coach as well -- to impact players, to impact the team, to impact the community, to impact others around him with the platform that he has.
"I think it's natural for him. I don't think he tries. I think it's in his heart. He goes to a guy and looks him in the eye. He's very honest, very candid, and guys are receptive to that. Nobody wants to be around a coach who isn't honest or jerks you around."
Said Barber, one of only two cornerbacks in league history to have at least 25 sacks and 30 interceptions in his career: "It's his approach to coaching and getting his message across. I've been around a lot of coaches for a lot of years and I've never had a guy who puts it as directly and as succinctly and with as much gentle force as Mike. Guys relate to him because of his methods."
Despite their similarities in personality and style, Morris, 33, is vastly different from his friend in one important area:
It took Tomlin seven games in his rookie season to get his fifth victory. Morris did not get his fifth win until a 20-7 victory last week against the Carolina Panthers -- 18 games after he became head coach.
"I think that's one of the reasons we hit it off -- we have those types of approaches to coaching in common," Tomlin said. "There's nothing like brutal honesty. It cuts to the chase, and he's a proponent of that."
When Willie Colon made an official recruiting visit to Hofstra University, his host for the weekend trip was none other than Morris, who was the school's secondary coach.
Morris coached two seasons at Hofstra (2000-2001) before leaving to join the Buccaneers as defensive quality control coach in 2002. That was when he met Tomlin, who was Tampa Bay's secondary coach from 2001-2005.
"He was always very articulate, a very smart guy with a really good sense of humor," said Colon, the Steelers' right tackle who is on the season-ending, injured-reserve list. "But you could tell he had an extreme passion for football. It beamed out of him. He's one of the reasons I went to Hofstra."
Even then, the players gravitated toward Morris and confided in him, Colon said.
"Everyone has that guy on the coaching staff that they say, 'Hey, I need to talk to you about something.' Raheem was that guy. You could pull him aside and say, 'Man, I'm going through this,' and he would tell you, 'Listen, man, you get your act straight.' If you needed a mole, he was the mole, just because of his personality.
"That's the way Mike T is. He's able to talk to us on different levels, not just football, life stuff. That's how Raheem was when he was at Hofstra."
After spending four years on the staff of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the final two as Tomlin's assistant defensive backs coach, Morris left Tampa Bay to become the defensive coordinator at Kansas State -- one week before Tomlin left to become the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator. Morris stayed one year there before returning to the Buccaneers as secondary coach.
Two years later, he was hired as head coach after the Buccaneers surprisingly fired Jon Gruden. And his presence still was attracting players.
"That's actually why I went there when I left here," said quarterback Byron Leftwich, who signed with the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent following the '08 season. "I knew of their relationship. I knew the type of guy he was. To be honest, I'm such a fan of Mike Tomlin, and, when I knew I had to move on, I heard a lot of great things about Raheem and, when I got there, they were all true."
Leftwich lasted one season in Tampa because the Steelers made a draft-day trade to bring him back after Ben Roethlisberger violated the NFL's personal-conduct policy, which resulted in a four-game suspension. Despite starting only three games and eventually being replaced as the starter by rookie Josh Freeman, Leftwich continues to heap praise on Morris.
"I think he's going to be a hell of a coach," Leftwich said. "He's a very sharp guy. A lot of people say, well, he's only 34, but he knows a lot more ball than some of those guys in their 40s and 50s. I'm happy for him. I'm happy to see he's having that kind of success."
Unlike Tomlin, who won his first three games en route to a 10-6 wild-card season, Morris did not fare so well in his rookie season as head coach.
Tampa Bay lost its first seven games and finished 3-13, a record exceeded in futility only by the Detroit Lions (2-14) and St. Louis Rams (1-15).
It did not help that he fired his offensive coordinator, Jeff Jagodzinski, 10 days before the season opener. Or that he took control of the defense when he demoted defensive coordinator Jim Bates 10 weeks into the season -- moves that were viewed as signs of panic.
But he also had some rookie hiccups along the way. In a 26-3 loss to the New York Jets Dec. 13, Morris elected to punt from fourth-and-2 at midfield three plays after recovering a bold onside kick.
When receiver Michael Clayton was re-signed to a five-year, $24 million contract, Morris challenged anyone to question why the Buccaneers had done that.
"He has to trust his gut," Tomlin said. "There are going to be a lot of people with advice, and they might have good intentions. But it has to be him, it has to be authentic, and he's got to trust his inner ear."
For proof, all he has to do is look across the sideline today.
• PICTURED: Mike Tomlin in 2001 upon being named defensive backs coach in Tampa and Mike Tomlin today.
First Published September 26, 2010 12:00 am