Tomlin deflects controversy with easy manner
He's no Bill Cowher. And to some, that's a good thing. But to others, all that matters is whether first-year coach Mike Tomlin can win, writes Joe Starkey.
PITTSBURGH -- Every morning, Mike Tomlin takes a stroll through the Pittsburgh Steelers' glorious history.
It's unavoidable, actually. The hallway leading to Tomlin's office is lined with eye-popping reminders of the fact that he didn't get just any coaching job. He struck gold.
Or at least sterling silver. The five Vince Lombardi Trophies encased behind glass speak to that. On the opposite wall are blown-up team photos of the Steelers' five championship clubs, including the one coached by Tomlin's predecessor, Bill Cowher.
"Some days I stop and look at those Lombardis and dream a little bit," said Tomlin, who turned 35 on March 15 and is just the third Steelers coach in 38 years. "But there's not much time for that. There's too much to do."
Is there ever. Tomlin unexpectedly faced the first major test of his tenure Friday when Hurricane Faneca swept through Steelers headquarters on the South Side of the city.
Alan Faneca, a team captain and six-time Pro Bowl guard, made the normally mundane minicamp manic when he declared, "This will be my last year as a Pittsburgh Steeler."
All of Pittsburgh waited to see how the new coach would react to such an explosive and potentially divisive situation. People wondered whether the former William and Mary wide receiver would drop the ball.
Would he make a canned statement and refuse questions on the matter?
Would he rip Faneca and draw a line in the sand?
Would he slough it off as no big deal?
None of the above, as it turned out.
Tomlin complimented Faneca for working hard in practice and said he respected the player's predicament.
"It's an emotional deal for him, and rightfully so," Tomlin said. "It's his livelihood."
At the same time, Tomlin didn't try to sugarcoat Faneca's comment about relinquishing the captaincy.
"It's worrisome, but everything I've heard about him is that he's a professional, a guy who loves to play football," Tomlin said. "Usually, you worry very little about those guys. Now, whether or not you get leadership from them is another thing. You gotta be careful sometimes what you ask for from a leadership standpoint. What's required is that he plays and plays up to his ability."
Tomlin sounded more like a 20-year veteran of the professional football business, rather than a six-year vet, as he compared Faneca's dispute to Warren Sapp's messy contract battle in Tampa Bay after the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII. Tomlin was Tampa's defensive backs coach at the time.
"Not to make light of the situation, but it's all a rerun," he said. "If you stay in the league long enough, when you're involved with teams that have great players and experience team success, this comes with it. ... It's the nature of today's NFL."
Long-time Steelers observers marveled at Tomlin's deft handling of the matter. They were even more impressed a day later, after Faneca skipped the early workout, apparently because someone in the organization insulted him that morning. Tomlin spoke with Faneca at lunchtime and the guard returned for the afternoon session. The two were seen joking on the field.
A day later, Tomlin reflected on the storm, which could whip up again at any time.
"We use phrases like, 'Expect the unexpected,' and, 'You gotta be light on your feet' -- all those things in the sports, and they're true," he said. "There is no manual for this job. There's no how-to for coaching football. There hasn't been and never will be. The bottom line is you learn from your experiences and you trust your gut."
It's not going to get easier. Just 15 months removed from their Super Bowl XL triumph, the Steelers are in the midst of major transition.
Some of the veterans are kicking and screaming their way into the Tomlin era. Many wanted one of their own -- former Cowher assistants Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt -- to get the job. Losing locker-room leader Joey Porter was a major blow, as well. The Steelers released him with a year left on his contract.
Veterans such as wide receiver Hines Ward and Faneca complained about the move, contributing to a general sense of unease.
"A lot of people are leery," Ward said. "A lot of people can't adjust to change automatically. It's weird all over, not seeing [Cowher], not having Joey here. It's a different environment. It's just uncertainty. You can't really predict anything. At the same time, you're excited. All eyes are on us, trying to see us with coach Tomlin, how are we going to do?
"That's the buzz around town, everywhere you go -- what's the new coach like?"
More specifically, what's he like compared to Cowher?
The first difference, of course, is skin color. Tomlin became the first black head coach in Steelers history and the 10th in NFL history when he was hired on Jan. 22, after serving one season as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator (Cowher and his predecessor, Chuck Noll, also were defensive coordinators in their 30s when the Steelers came calling).
Another obvious difference is Tomlin's easygoing demeanor. He is a people person. Staffers noticed immediately that he would say hello and perhaps even make small talk, whereas Cowher often would walk stone-faced through the hallways.
Also, Tomlin is the first whistle-wearing Steelers coach since Bill Austin in 1968. Neither Noll nor Cowher wore a whistle around his neck during practice.
Tomlin isn't afraid to blow the proverbial whistle first thing in the morning, either. Players have learned that it's rarely good to be featured in Tomlin's version of the morning news.
Before practice, the coach prints out "headlines" regarding the previous day's workout and puts them on an overhead projector for everyone to see.
"If you're not up to his standards, you're going to be on the news," said backup nose tackle Chris Hoke. "That's what he does, he puts it up there and says, 'The News,' and everyone holds their breath like, 'Here it comes.' You're hoping you're not going to be up there."
Ward found himself in the headlines one morning for spiking the ball after a catch. A new NFL rule prohibits spikes except after touchdowns.
"You don't want to end up in the headlines," Ward said, laughing. "He's not calling anyone out, really. It's just the facts. If you loaf on a play, you end up in the news. If you fumble a ball, you end up in the news. If you throw a pick, you end up in the news. He calls it like he sees it."
Tomlin said he's been delivering "The News" for much of his career as a coach.
"Some of it is lighthearted and some is not," he said. "It's just things that need to be said and a big part of us moving forward, getting the kind of football team we want. Sometimes it's pats on the back. Sometimes it's corrections. It's probably more corrections right now."
Strategically, the Steelers are expected to spread the field more under new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who was promoted from receivers coach. Defensively, Tomlin has a long history with the 4-3 and the Tampa 2 cover scheme, but the Steelers have been playing a 3-4 since 1983. Their personnel would not appear to be suited for a 4-3.
No problem, Tomlin says. The Steelers will play mostly 3-4 but will mix their fronts. And he already is concocting creative schemes with veteran coordinator Dick LeBeau, who is twice his age.
LeBeau sees in Tomlin a man who wears authority well, despite the fact that 20 of his players and most of his coaches have been in the NFL longer than he has.
"I don't think he asks a lot of questions of anybody," LeBeau said. "I think Mike knows where he wants to go. He gathers information, but he has a good idea of what he wants to do."
One player clearly pleased with the coaching change is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who recently revealed that he and Cowher were not the best of buds.
Not that this was a big surprise.
"I wouldn't say we had a bad relationship; I'd just say we weren't on a friendly term," Roethlisberger told Pittsburgh's ESPN Radio 1250-AM. "It wasn't something where I really wanted to go into his office and just sit down and [talk] with him, you know? You gotta have a guy in your corner. I think coach Cowher was there most of the time. And, there were times when certain guys were hurt or something, he would kinda roll his eyes and say that they weren't really hurt. You know, I went through that a couple of times."
There's no telling how Roethlisberger and Tomlin will fare through the fires of the regular season, but Big Ben, like many who meet Tomlin, has come away with a positive first impression.
"Coach Tomlin likes to have fun with the guys," Roethlisberger said. "I think the guys are more receptive to that. They feel more comfortable being able to communicate with that type of coaching."
It'll be cold comfort, however, if the Steelers don't win big. The only comparison that really matters is winning percentage -- and Cowher's was .619.
Then again, the Steelers were only .500 last season. Star safety Troy Polamalu sees change as a positive.
"I think it's good that everything is really shaken up and everybody has to re-establish themselves," Polamalu said. "I had to deal with it in college [at Southern Cal]. We were all very wary of coach [Pete] Carroll and what was going to come about. Obviously, everything turned out pretty well for him. Hopefully, it'll be the same for coach Tomlin."
Cowher wound up having a street named after him in suburban Pittsburgh. It is called Cowher Way.
Steeler Nation is hoping Tomlin's way works just as well.
Joe Starkey is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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