Tomlin wooed Steelers brass


PITTSBURGH (AP) – Mike Tomlin didn’t realistically expect to become the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coach so early in his career, with so little experience as an NFL coordinator and at such a young age.

He knew it, too, although the 34-year-old Vikings defensive coordinator was excited when the Steelers called two weeks ago and offered an interview. In Tomlin’s mind, jobs like this go to Hall of Fame-caliber coaches, the kind of men he has looked up to since he became a coach 12 years ago.

“I’m somewhat of a football historian, and I’ve got a great deal of respect for those who came before me,” Tomlin said Monday after being hired for the job formerly held by Bill Cowher and, before him, Chuck Noll.

“I’m going to try my best to provide a shoulder for those who come after me to stand on,” he said.

That calm self-assurance, strong personality, and a preference for Steelers-style basics – a strong running game and a nasty defense – persuaded Pittsburgh to offer him a four-year contract worth about $2.5 million annually. Tomlin is the 16th coach in the franchise’s 74-year history and its first black head coach.

“I’m still coming to grips with what that means,” Tomlin said.

For those who wonder if he might have used a few more years as a coordinator before becoming a head coach, Tomlin said: “I can’t worry about concerns other people might have. I’ve been hired to do a job here and I intend to do it at a high level.”

Not many Steelers fans knew much about Tomlin before Cowher resigned Jan. 5 – and, in a rare bit of candor by team president Art Rooney II, the Steelers say they didn’t, either. But Tomlin quickly convinced them during a pair of three-hour interviews he was ready for the job.

During those interviews, Rooney couldn’t help but be reminded how another 34-year-old coordinator with similarly thin experience convinced the Steelers in 1992 he was ready to be an NFL head coach.

“I hate to make comparisons with Bill Cowher, but there were some similarities,” Rooney said. “It’s fair to say that when we looked at a guy who was 34, we said that this guy is down our list. He was probably a long shot when we began the discussions.”

Not for long. Steelers assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm were seen as the clear favorites when the search for only the third Steelers coach in 38 years began, but that changed when Tomlin began interviewing. Whisenhunt was hired by Arizona without waiting to see if the Steelers would choose him.

“The one thing that set him apart was his character, his personality – the more we talked with him the more comfortable we got,” Rooney said. “He’s an impressive young man. Get to spend some time with Mike, and you come away feeling like this is a special person.”

The man who gave Tomlin his first coaching job, former VMI coach Bill Stewart, was convinced of that when he persuaded the former William & Mary wide receiver to join his staff the year Tomlin graduated from college.

“He was born to coach,” said Stewart, now the quarterbacks coach and special teams coordinator at West Virginia. “He is going to be a great, great, great coach in the NFL.”

Tomlin and the Steelers wouldn’t seem to be a good fit. The Steelers have been the NFL’s strongest advocate of the 3-4 defense since Noll installed it in 1983, and they draft players to suit that scheme. Tomlin is an advocate of the 3-4 and the Tampa 2 coverage schemes, but insisted he isn’t wed to that defense.

To prove that, he will retain defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau – who at 69, is more than twice as old as Tomlin – and the LeBeau zone blitzing schemes that have been a strength of the Steelers defense since the mid 1990s.

Consistently good is what he plans to be. Unlike Cowher and Noll, who both inherited losing-record teams, Tomlin is being handed a talented, experienced team with a 24-year-old quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, and a 1,494-yard rusher in Willie Parker.

that is only one year removed from winning the Super Bowl.

“It’s our goal to contend for it every year,” Tomlin said.

He isn’t ready yet to discuss retaining any other assistants, but has the freedom to hire his own staff. He and director of football operations Kevin Colbert will share personnel responsibilities, as Cowher and Colbert did.

While Tomlin is an enthusiastic, motivational coach who has a reputation of getting the most from his players, don’t look for many Cowher-like sideline blowups.

“I don’t pay attention to how I behave,” Tomlin said. “I just try to be myself. For the most part, I lean on the side of being calm. I like to think clearly in times like that.”