Tomlin earns respect
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, third from left, poses with his players for the team photo at the end of media day Tuesday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
Mike Tomlin congratulates Nate Washington after a 11-10 victory against the Chargers Nov. 16 at Heinz Field.
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Nobody is really sure which player was the first to be "posted" by the new coach -- Larry Foote or Hines Ward. Not that it really mattered. What mattered was that one of the two veterans stepped afoul of the guidelines set forth by Mike Tomlin and found their names posted in the locker room on something called "The News."
In Foote's case, he had reported to minicamp a couple pounds heavier than the previous season. • "It could be good news or it could be bad news, but, normally, it's bad news," Foote said. "If you see 'The News' on that board the whole locker room goes, 'Oh-oh, someone's in trouble.' "
That's how it started with Mike Tomlin. That's how he began to change the climate with the Steelers, how he started to get the attention of his players, how he started to convince them there will be a standard to which they will be held.
"You do something outside the realm of his authority, he'd post it out there," Ward said. "He wouldn't do anything about it. But he was putting you out there. He would let your teammates judge you."
Little by little, Tomlin held them accountable. Foote. Ward. All of them. Didn't matter if they were a Pro Bowl veteran or a rookie free agent. He treated them all the same, demanded the same.
And, little by little, he broke them down, too. Changed the way they practiced. Changed what they could wear to practice. Took what they had done under Bill Cowher -- a way that was immensely successful -- and changed that, too, never mind that the Steelers were just two years removed from a Super Bowl championship when Tomlin arrived.
"Coming in behind a legendary coach in Bill Cowher, how he handled himself, has been tremendous," said defensive end Nick Eason. "It wasn't an easy task."
But Tomlin did it. He didn't change the defense, even though the concepts under which he learned -- a 4-3 alignment, Cover 2 in the secondary, little blitzing -- were philosophically different from the scheme and style employed by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He didn't try to change the offense that was being implemented by Bruce Arians, who spent the previous three seasons as wide receivers coach in an offense run by Ken Whisenhunt, Tomlin's coaching counterpart on the field Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII.
Rather, he was more interested in changing the way the players believe. And what they believe.
More specifically, he wanted to get them to believe in him. Get them to believe in what he does.
"There really wasn't resentment, but it was a little uncertainty," said Ward, an 11-year veteran with the most continuous years of service on the roster. "We just came off two years since we won a Super Bowl and he came down on us -- you had to wear long shells to practice, you had to wear full gear, guys couldn't go out there with Georgia shirts or their alumni schools underneath their uniforms. He wanted it to be team-issued stuff.
"It could have been like, 'Man, why is this guy doing all this stuff? We just won a Super Bowl. Who's to say you can come in and change it?' But there was none of that. It was like, 'OK, this is what you want? Whatever. We'll test it and see how far we can go.' "
Two years later, they have discovered how far they can go.
All the way to a Super Bowl matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, a chance to become the first franchise to win six Super Bowl titles, an opportunity to become the only franchise other than the Dallas Cowboys to have three different coaches win a Super Bowl trophy.
That's the word Art Rooney II, the Steelers president, used to describe Tomlin the first time he met him. It was the defining word then.
And it's the applicable word now.
There is little about Tomlin that is not impressive. That was apparent immediately to Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin the first time he met Tomlin in 2001. Tomlin, an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, was interviewing to become the Buccaneers' secondary coach.
"You could feel the room come alive," Kiffin said.
Indeed, Tomlin is no ordinary NFL coach. He reads and quotes Robert Frost, uses expressions such as "thoughtfully non-rhythmic," "standard of expectation" and "iron sharpens iron" and is never unprepared for any question. His weekly Tuesday news conference, a feeder system for YouTube, could become a training film for orators and debaters, right down to the expressionless faces he often uses to accompany his delivery.
"The sharpness, his quickness on his feet, there is no panic in him," said former Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli, an assistant coach with Tomlin at Tampa Bay. "When you're confident in yourself and your abilities, you can go a long way."
Not a surprise for a person who attended college at William & Mary, a school that produces presidents and, as Tomlin once noted, "No dummies."
"You never can stump the guy," said inside linebacker James Farrior, who is just three years younger than Tomlin and even played against him in college when Farrior was at the University of Virginia. "He's got an answer for everything, no matter what it is."
"It's hard to question him because he is so intelligent," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "He doesn't do anything just to do it. He always has a reason or a thought process. I think sometimes you'll get intimidated because he's not going to be a politician. He's not going to be rude or abrasive, but he's not going to be a guy who will do what everyone else thinks we should do."
That was apparent this season.
Nose tackle Casey Hampton and running back Willie Parker share more than just a couple Pro Bowl appearances between them. They each incurred Tomlin's wrath this season, each for what their coach perceived to be selfish reasons.
Hampton, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, received the harshest penalty: Banishment to the physically unable to perform list for reporting 40 pounds overweight to training camp. Parker's crime -- saying the offense had drifted away from "Steelers football" because they weren't running enough -- did not incur the same type of punishment as Hampton, although the public rebuke he received from his coach was as biting as it was memorable.
"Every morning I come to work, I walk past five Lombardis, not five rushing titles," Tomlin said in response to Parker's gripe.
Three days after the public flogging, Tomlin appointed Parker a game captain against the Baltimore Ravens -- the psychological equivalent of a father rubbing his son's hair after a lecture.
"He never sugarcoats it," Parker said. "What you see is what you get. He pretty much tells you what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong. "
Such was the case with Hampton, who, despite his stature as one of the most likable players on the team, spent nearly a month on the PUP list because Tomlin thought he was guilty of insubordination. Tomlin had warned Hampton several months earlier to report to training camp in shape. When he didn't, the second-year coach acted swiftly and harshly, never once worrying about what kind of divisive impact it could have.
"At the end of the day, he's the coach," Hampton said. "What he says is gonna go. I have no problem with it. I told him my piece and he told me his piece, and it was what it was."
What it was, though, was just another reminder of who is the boss, just in case anyone was wondering.
"Last year it was just his way," Hampton said. "He was trying to put his stamp on this team, let them know this is his team. Being a younger coach, being close to the same age [as some of the players], he had to do that, and he did it. But this year he's done a better job of listening to guys and leaning on the veterans little more."
Mewelde Moore had seen this before. He is the only member of the Steelers who has been on another team where Tomlin was a coach. Moore, a backup running back, was with the Minnesota Vikings when Tomlin was their defensive coordinator in 2006.
"He's definitely a trail-blazer," Moore said. "And he makes an impact."
Before Tomlin arrived, the Vikings ranked No. 21 in the league in total defense, No. 19 against the run. In his first season, they jumped to No. 8 in total defense, No. 1 against the run. They were the only team to not allow a 100-yard rusher that season -- sound familiar? -- and held the Detroit Lions to minus-3 yards rushing, the lowest total by an NFL team in 45 years.
Even when he departed after one season to join the Steelers, Tomlin's blueprint remains intact. The Vikings were the only team to rank ahead of the Steelers in rush defense this season and finished No. 8 in total defense.
"At that point, when he arrived, it was broken," Moore said of the Vikings' defense. "We had very little defense then and he pretty much fixed that. The guys knew that he knew what he was talking about and they bought into it."
It took a little while, though. Veteran players such as Kevin Williams, Pat Williams and Darren Sharper balked at Tomlin's strict manner and insistent demeanor. But, by the end of the season, they were the same players who were sorry to see him go to the Steelers.
"The day he stepped in, he took control," Moore said. "Guys respect that and guys respond to that."
It has not been as easy task.
A shoulder separation sustained by his $100 million quarterback in the season opener. A knee injury to his Pro Bowl running back in Week 4. Four new starters on an offensive line that has been adequate at best, disorganized and ineffective at worst. Three different punters. A secondary in which one cornerback had a broken forearm and a safety had two dislocated shoulders. And the league's toughest schedule.
And look what happened: The second-best record in the NFL. One of only two teams -- Arizona is the other -- to finish undefeated in the division. An AFC championship game victory at Heinz Field ... finally. A seventh Super Bowl appearance, second most among NFL franchises.
"I am always going to be open to change, if it produces better results," Tomlin said the other day. "Like every year I have been in this profession, I analyze the things I have done and how I potentially could have done something better to produce a better outcome.
"Thankfully, we are where we sit here today. I don't know if it is any way directly related to some of the decisions that I made, but I will always be searching for the ceiling in terms of putting our team in the best position to perform."
He might have to search higher. In two years, the ceiling has already been raised to impressive heights.
Coming in behind a legendary coach in Bill Cowher, how he handled himself has been tremendous. It wasn't an easy task."
-- Nick Eason, defensive end
Here's a quick look at five young upstart coaches that reached the championship level before the age of 40:
Upon graduating from Ohio State in 1962, Bob Knight coached high school basketball for a year before taking the head coaching job at West Point Military Academy in 1963. At the age of 24, he became the youngest head coach in major-college history. Thirteen years later, Knight would lead Indiana to college basketball's only undefeated season (32-0) and his first of three NCAA championships.
At the age of 33, Don Shula became the youngest coach in the NFL when he took the reigns of the Baltimore Colts in 1963. It wasn't long before he reached the Super Bowl, taking the Colts to the title game five years later when Joe Namath and the Jets upset Baltimore in Super Bowl III. Four years later, Shula would lead the 1972 Dolphins to the NFL's only undefeated season and a Super Bowl title.
When Bill Russell retired in 1969, he had the unparalleled achievement of two NCAA titles, Olympic gold and 11 NBA championship rings, including the final two titles as player/coach. At the age of 32, Russell took over for Red Auerbach in 1966 and led the Celtics to championships in '68 and '69. More important, Russell became the first black coach in NBA history.
At 30, Clemson's Danny Ford started his head coaching career in the 1978 Gator Bowl with a 17-15 win against coaching legend Woody Hayes in his last game at Ohio State. Three years later, Ford became the youngest coach in NCAA history to win a national championship at age 33 when he led the Tigers to the 1981 title -- Clemson's first and only championship.
After spending four successful years with the Raiders, Jon Gruden took over the Buccaneers' head coaching job in 2002 and was 39 when he led Tampa Bay to a 12-4 record -- the best in franchise history -- en route to its only Super Bowl title. He is the youngest coach in NFL history to claim the Lombardi Trophy. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, 36, could break that record Sunday.
First Published January 30, 2009 12:00 am