The journey to meet Mike Tomlin
Seven perspectives of a man who, for some, isn't known all that well
FORT WORTH, Texas -- This can't be a Mike Tomlin profile. The subject is too athletic to chase, especially with an inch of ice on the ground, and, quite frankly, isn't interested. See the PR guy with the hurried look on his face standing beside Tomlin? He's there to limit the questions, which are fruitless anyway.
The measure of a coach's success in Pittsburgh is often gauged by how well he blends in -- how little he's noticed -- and perhaps the best compliment Tomlin would accept is that nothing in the City of Bridges has changed. January coughs its last breaths of frozen air, February creeps in and the Steelers are back in the Super Bowl. It's expected. It's what drove Tomlin in his first days on the job four years ago, passing by those five Lombardi trophies on the way to meeting rooms, visualizing a batch of his own.
And that's about as far as he goes. Tomlin exits up the auditorium steps after a Wednesday news conference, in black warm-ups, a gray vest and white sneakers -- young, 38, and full of energy like the men he coaches. He does not stop for cappuccino with reporters. Mike Tomlin reveals himself in glimpses, and only when he wants to.
"He's not a self-promoter, that's for sure," said Matt Kelchner, an old friend who recruited Tomlin to play at the College of William & Mary two decades ago. "He's always said to me, 'I just want to coach football That's what my life is. I'm not interested in a lot of other malarkey.' That's just the way he is."
But it's Super Bowl week, which means there is a great demand for malarkey, in 2,000 words or more. Tomlin is going for Pittsburgh's seventh Lombardi trophy and the second of his own. In honor of that, here are seven perspectives of a man who's savvy enough to keep you guessing and smart enough to stay out of the way.
The best friend
The first stop on this journey to find Mike Tomlin's inner being is Bethlehem, Pa. Terry Hammons is there, and he has all night to talk. Another snowstorm has socked the East Coast, and Hammons is cooped up in his basement practicing his putting.
He has known Tomlin since college, when they were teammates at William & Mary and fraternity brothers and pledged Kappa Alpha Psi. He has seen the lengths Tomlin goes to for the sake of keeping secrets. At his core, Tomlin always wanted to be known as a jock. He hated when people talked about how smart he was and reportedly destroyed one of those "My kid is an honor roll student" bumper stickers that his mother proudly displayed when he was a teen.
"He's what I would refer to as a closet nerd," Hammons said. "He doesn't let on how intelligent he is. Even when we were in college, he used to read the newspaper every morning. I didn't know anybody our age who did that."
Tomlin used to tease Hammons about how Hammons always had his nose in a book and thought up a nickname for him: Poem Boy. But it was Tomlin who'd disappear during finals week, cramming until dawn. His mom wanted him to be a lawyer, friends say. That's the path he appeared to be headed when he left his home in Newport News, Va., and traveled 20 minutes to attend William & Mary.
Football seemed to capture his best qualities. He could motivate anyone, make him feel as if he could do anything. Hammons and Tomlin were wide receivers in college. Tomlin was 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds; Hammons stood 5-6.
But man, was he confident. Tomlin made him that way. They called themselves "The Bomb Squad" and thought up a little slogan. We might not be the best wide receiving corps in the nation, but we think we are.
Tomlin and Hammons used to love to watch old NFL Films back then. They wore out the Jim Brown tape. And on game days, they'd prance and do their own pregame routine, just as Brown did. They wore half-shirts just to show off their abs. The trash talk flowed.
"He helped me survive out there," Hammons said. "He'd say, 'Hey, Ham, be careful out there. It's a dangerous game, and you're a small man.'"
And that was all it took to motivate Hammons. They've stayed close all these years, even though their jobs have taken them in completely different directions. Hammons is an executive at a global industrial gas company; Tomlin is simply global.
But sometimes, you wouldn't know it. Tomlin still prank-calls Hammons at work, and it's 1994 all over again. Sometimes, he says he'll tell Hammons' assistant that his father is on the line. Or, he'll say it's Col. Sam Trautman, and Hammons knows it's just Mike being silly. Trautman is the name of a character in one of their favorite movies, "Rambo."
"Sometimes when I'm watching his press conferences, I have to chuckle," Hammons said. "He's very, very serious. I know he's obviously good at what he does, and he takes his job very seriously.
"But the guy, he's hilarious. If you just watched his press conferences, you wouldn't have a clue. You're just seeing one slice of a very complicated individual."
The unique thing about Pittsburgh, well, one of many unique things, is that coaching changes happen about once a generation. Chuck Noll was hired in 1969 and ran the team until '91; Bill Cowher held the reins from 1992 to 2006.
When Cowher retired, it was assumed that the Rooney family, an anchor of NFL stability, would hire in-house. There were two seasoned and well-liked assistants up for the job in Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt. They were considered front-runners. The Rooneys picked Tomlin, who was 34 with just one season as a defensive coordinator in Minnesota under his belt.
The news was a jolt to veteran players like defensive end Brett Keisel.
"Initially," Keisel said. "But Mr. Dan Rooney I was eating lunch one day, and he came down. He asked me, 'Have you met the new coach yet? You're really going to like him.' And he's right. I really do.
"He just has a great understanding of his team. He talks to us a lot. He asks the veterans what we need. He understands the makeup of this team, and I think that's what great coaches do. When it's time to push us, he pushes us. And when it's time to pull the reins back, he pulls the reins back."
The first training camp was brutal. Tomlin scheduled twice as many two-a-days as Cowher. He told reporters he wanted a unified group that was ready for battle. He was testing the players.
His first team went 10-6 and made the playoffs, then Tomlin did a little more pulling than pushing. He relates to his players. He knows them. Recently, Tomlin joined Keisel and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in growing solidarity beards for their push to the Super Bowl. Keisel's is so long that it attracts large crumbs and odd looks; Tomlin's is stylish and neat.
"Brett Keisel talked me into this," he said. "I can't wait 'til it's over."
The old man
If you want to know how Tomlin can relate to anybody, you go to Dick LeBeau. The Steelers' defensive coordinator is 73 years old but is fit and strong and looks as if he could kick your ass. He played for Woody Hayes at Ohio State, was drafted by the Cleveland Browns 13 years before Tomlin was born and played alongside guys with cool names like Dick "Night Train" Lane.
LeBeau sits at a table Wednesday, and reporters lean in to hear him softly talk about how his defense plans to attack the Green Bay Packers. They stick their microphones next to his face because he's so quiet. LeBeau is considered one of the greatest defensive gurus of all time, and he's asked how a young man and an old man make it all work.
"I'm still here," LeBeau said. "So I guess it's worked."
It's worked because Tomlin recognized what he had. Most new coaches clean house and hire their own, but Tomlin retained a good chunk of Cowher's staff. He kept LeBeau even though they have different defensive philosophies. Tomlin, a Tony Dungy disciple, ran a 4-3 defense; LeBeau runs a 3-4.
He trusted LeBeau so much that he kept his scheme.
They met in Cincinnati years ago, when Tomlin was a college assistant for the Bearcats and LeBeau was with the Bengals. In those precious moments of free time, the young man and the old man would talk about defense.
Age has never affected their chemistry, LeBeau said. And he never questioned the Rooneys' decision.
"He had a tough job following Bill Cowher, who was a great, great coach," LeBeau said. "I think the best thing Mike did was he didn't try to be Bill Cowher. He was Mike Tomlin."
The other coordinator
Bruce Arians is a little more direct.
"I knew this was a rising star," Arians said. "And some people would get real jealous about that. But when you're lucky enough to see one and work with one, you count your blessings because you get to go to Super Bowls."
Arians, another Cowher holdover, is the Steelers' offensive coordinator. The first time they met, Arians was struck by Tomlin's intelligence. He's so smart that he occasionally says things that go over Arians' head. But he never loses anyone.
"He can communicate at any level," Arians said, "whether it's with the president of the United States or some dumb-ass rookie."
Sometimes, Arians says, the most impressive action is inaction. Tomlin, like anyone in the NFL, has an ego. But he put it aside in favor of progress. He listens, Arians said. To him, to LeBeau and to veterans who are just a few years younger than he is.
"He has a message, and he's got a course," Arians said. "And he ain't getting off that course. He knows what it takes, and he's going to stay there. And very few young coaches have that."
The old school
The fire, really, started at William & Mary. Tomlin's team had winter workouts, at 6 a.m., in January, outdoors. One morning, it was so cold and miserable that the track had to be shoveled before the team could run.
"I remember everybody came traipsing in there, and they were pretty long in the face," Kelchner said. "Mike, he was all fired up. He was jumping around. I don't remember what he said, and I probably shouldn't repeat it. But he had everybody excited, and guys did their work."
Tomlin was always doing things like that. William & Mary, the alumni will tell you, is a prestigious academic institution. Just being a student there is an up-at-dawn, late-night cram-session commitment. Tomlin never seemed to be overwhelmed.
When he signed his letter of intent to go there, his mother cried. She was so proud of him. The Tidewater area is a hotbed for talent and trouble, producing Michael Vick and Allen Iverson. It swallows up the meek. By an early age, it was clear that Tomlin was going places, and people would follow him.
"Once he became a coordinator in the NFL," William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said, "I told a number of people, 'Just watch. He's going to be a head coach. And they're going to be blown away.' He's just an all-around good person, and he doesn't try to be something that he's not."
A few years ago, Tomlin went back to his alma mater to give the commencement speech. It must've been such a kick for Tomlin. Prince Charles, James Baker and Tom Brokaw have spoken at commencements in the past.
Tomlin got in front of the crowd and spoke of teamwork. Of having confidence in yourself. Earl Granger, a former classmate who works in fundraising at William & Mary, said the crowd was captivated.
"People were pumped up when he left."
The draft pick
Flash forward to last week. It was the last day of workouts in Pittsburgh, and Tomlin scheduled a walk-through practice. At the last minute, he switched gears, canceled practice and took the team to Dave & Buster's. And for a couple of hours, they played pool and shuffleboard and video games like kids.
"He knows how to get his guys geeked up and prepared for his game plan," Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. "He also knows about letting everybody have fun and be themselves. That's what I think makes him such a great coach and different from the others."
Tomlin and Timmons have a history. They came in together. With the first pick of Tomlin's first draft, he snagged Timmons in 2007. Timmons calls Tomlin Mike T. He says he'll do anything for his coach.
When Timmons arrived in Pittsburgh, Tomlin called him into his office and took 100 pounds of pressure off his shoulders. You're young, Tomlin told him, and you're coming in to a place where everything is on the highest of pedestals. Don't worry about the expectations. Don't worry about starting right away.
Timmons says Tomlin has a handful of mottoes, but there's one he uses the most. "The standard is the standard."
What does it mean?
"It's like us going into this game," Timmons said. "You're the No. 1 defense. Play like the No. 1 defense."
So it's Wednesday, and the game already has been regurgitated in several languages by thousands of publications. Another news conference starts, and the media swoop in on the usual suspects. Tyler Grisham sits at a lonely table with the injured and the scout-team fodder. Steelers die-hards know Grisham. The baby-faced receiver played in four games last year and spent 2010 on the practice squad. But he's wearing his No. 19 uniform today, in large part so people will know who he is, and he has something to say about Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin makes the rookies stand up on the first day and introduce themselves to the team. Last year, Grisham decided to crack a funny. He gave his name and vitals, and said he's worth $1,500, because that's what his signing bonus was.
Tomlin chuckled and approached Grisham, which scared the rookie at first. He put his arm around Grisham. He cracked a joke, too.
The thing about Tomlin, Grisham says, is that he creates a locker room where everyone is important, everyone is family. One day, he saw Grisham and asked how his Maggie was doing. Grisham was floored that he knew his wife's name.
The week is getting shorter, and the lines around Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward are getting longer, so maybe it's up to the polite young man at the empty table, who's available, to answer. Who is Mike Tomlin?
Grisham stopped and thought about it. When Tomlin pumps up the players, really gets going, he reminds him of Denzel Washington in some of his very best movies. He's passionate, and everybody listens. When Tomlin is excited, he can be emotional and giddy, just like them.
"I guess no reporter gets to know that side of Coach," Grisham said. "It's pretty simple. Like he tells us, too many rules will get you beat. We're here to win, we're here to be professionals. We're here to be champions."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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