Tomlin's intangibles: 'You can feel his presence'
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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Mike Tomlin strides into the media room at Steelers headquarters to be introduced as the team's new head coach. He was accompanied by his wife, Kiya.
Moments before his former college teammate and fraternity brother was to be introduced as the 16th head coach of the Steelers, Terry Hammons was on the phone, talking about the intangible that seemingly separates Mike Tomlin from all others and describing the aura that surrounds him when he walks into a room.
"He doesn't have to say a word," Hammons said. "You can feel his presence. You'll see."
Hammons knows Tomlin, 34, as well as anyone. A graduate of Upper St. Clair High School, he was a wide receiver at William & Mary College who played three seasons with Tomlin. When he wasn't sharing the same position with him on the field, Hammons would see him at the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity house on the Williamsburg, Va., campus.
Since graduation, Hammons, a corporate attorney who lives in Philadelphia, and Tomlin have remained close friends. They talked twice last week, when Tomlin emerged as the leading candidate to replace Bill Cowher. And Hammons exulted yesterday when his friend, who has been an assistant coach in the National Football League for only six seasons, was officially named to be head coach of a franchise Tomlin referred to as "one of the most storied in all of professional sports."
It was the culmination of a search in which Tomlin wowed the Steelers -- particurlarly team chairman Dan Rooney and president Art Rooney II -- the first time he walked into their interview room.
"He's extremely intelligent and absolutely confident in everything he does," Hammons said. "And you could be sure of one thing -- he was never intimidated or anything like that. I used to talk more than Mike on the field, but I had the confidence to do that, to talk to guys who were bigger, stronger and faster than me, because of Mike. He had that swagger about him."
The decision to hire Tomlin over offensive line coach Russ Grimm might have been a surprise to those who look at Tomlin's age or his limited NFL resume.
But it is not to those who have coached with him, including Tony Dungy, the man who gave him his start in the NFL; or even Jimmye Laycock, the man who coached him in college.
"I'm really excited for Mike," Dungy said yesterday, a day after his Indianapolis Colts team advanced to the Super Bowl with a 38-34 victory against New England in the AFC Championship game. "Number one, he's going to a great organization. I told him? you're not going to find a better organization in the NFL for a young coach to go in there and be supported. He's going to get to show what he can do. He's a tremendous young coach, a great communicator. He's a guy who has a real exuberant personality who I think the players are going to enjoy playing for, and I'm excited for him."
"He's very intelligent, very enthusiastic and very organized," said Laycock, who was been head coach for 27 years at William & Mary. "He must have a good way of getting across to the players and coaches what he expects and what he wants. It's one thing to know it. It's another thing to communicate it and get them to do it."
To be sure, it comes as no shock to Tomlin's older brother, Ed, 38, who owns a boutique law firm and title company in Bowie, Md. The initial surprise for Ed Tomlin came six years ago when his brother, 29 at the time, was hired as secondary coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mike Tomlin was an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati in 2001.
"Once he got to Tampa Bay and we saw him settle in as a coach and hone his craft, it wasn't a matter of if, just when" he would be a head coach, Ed Tomlin said last night, hours after watching his brother's press conference on a television website. "He speaks from a position of truth. When you're dealing with players who, from the time they were successful in high school, were treated like they were special, they can appreciate someone who is honest with them."
The move to Tampa Bay, where he spent a year with Dungy and five overall with the Buccaneers, was the beginning of Tomlin's meteoric ascent through the NFL. He was hired last year to be defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings, and he turned the Vikings into the league's best run defense.
But it's not the numbers that stand out with Tomlin, or even his knowledge of football. It's everything that goes with it, including his character.
"When you have character, leadership, you don't have to wait for it to light," said Detroit Lions Coach Rod Marinelli, who coached with Tomlin in Tampa Bay. "The thing you'll see is his intelligence. He is an extremely bright guy who is confident and humble."
Marinelli said Tomlin, who learned from Dungy the Cover-2 defense he employed with the Vikings, is so adaptable he would have no problem using a 3-4 defense with the Steelers. To that end, Tomlin said he will retain defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau on his coaching staff.
"He's a teacher," Marinelli said. "It's not what you're doing -- it's how you're doing it."
And that is what the Steelers saw in Tomlin, a three-year peformer at William & Mary who finished his career with 101 catches, 2,053 yards and 20 touchdowns. He did not play professionally after college, opting to become an assistant coach at Virginia Military Institute in 1995, a year after graduation.
He spent one season there, another as a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis and two years as wide receivers coach at Arkansas State. When he went to Cincinnati in 1999, the former wide receiver became a defensive coach, working with the Bearcats' secondary. After three years there, he moved to the NFL, at the tender age of 29, wowing Dungy and the rest of the Bucs' defensive coaches with his presence.
In the end, after 16 days of searching for Cowher's replacement, it was really all about Tomlin walking into a room and the Steelers feeling his presence. And it happened on Jan. 10, the first time the Steelers brought him to town for an interview.
"He's an impressive young guy," Art Rooney II said, nearly two hours after he presented Tomlin as his team's coach. "You get in a room and spend two or three hours with Mike, you come away feeling like this is a special person.
"The main thing you think about is when this guy is standing up in front of your team, is he going to get his message across. That more than any one thing is what convinced us this was the guy."
First Published January 23, 2007 12:00 am