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Coaching friends Tomlin, Morris square off as opponents

How close are Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris•

This close: They planned their coaching futures together as members of Tampa Bay's coaching staff from 2002-05, when Tomlin was defensive backs coach and Morris was his assistant. They plan vacations together with their families. They go to bat for each other.

Asked about Tomlin's decision to play quarterback Byron Leftwich in the final preseason game during which Leftwich suffered a knee injury that knocked him out of the first two regular-season contests, Morris told reporters, "I'm not going to answer that. You want me to second-guess my guy• I'm not going to second-guess my guy."

Tomlin and Morris finally have the opportunity to do what they always talked about during their four years together in Tampa Bay. Tomlin's 2-0 Steelers visit Morris' 2-0 Buccaneers at 1 p.m. today at Raymond James Stadium.

"We've been dreaming about this day for a long time," said Morris, in his second season as Tampa Bay's coach. "It's something we always talked about, competing against each other in different cities. We didn't know where we were going to be, but we knew it would happen someday."

The two coaches are as different as they are close. Morris is more open when discussing his team, the significance of today's matchup, and his relationship with Tomlin, who chooses his words guardedly — even when discussing one of his best friends.

"Raheem is a great friend of mine. This is a step in our journey. I'm not going to make it anything more than what it is," Tomlin said. "It's a big game because it's our next one. Particularly because it's a road game versus a team that's undefeated. I'll let Raheem tell the side stories."

Morris has plenty of them.

"He's the guy I talk to every week. We talk about however the game went. We can talk about friendship, family, whatever. We vacation together," said Morris, whose vacations with Tomlin have taken them to the Dominican Republic, St. Maarten and Anguilla. "In the summer, we're trying to figure out where we're going after the season ends. When the playoffs are over, we're trying to figure out where we're going."

"We really don't talk about current business," Tomlin said. "We usually talk about our personal lives, kids and so forth, or tell old stories about times that we spent together in Tampa. Very rarely do our conversations ever wander into the area of personal business in terms of what we're doing right now."

Tomlin said Morris probably has an edge entering the matchup between the unbeaten teams in terms of knowing what the other coach is thinking.

"In regards to our professional relationship, when we worked together, he asked me my opinion a bunch and I didn't ask him his a lot," Tomlin said. "He's probably got the advantage this week in terms of knowing what I think and what I'm capable of. Our information kind of flowed one way when we worked together."

At 34, Tomlin was a surprise hire for the Steelers. In his second season, Tomlin became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl when the Steelers defeated Arizona in Tampa.

Morris, who had been named Tampa Bay's coach a few weeks earlier, was in the stadium watching.

"Are you kidding me• I got to see one of my better friends in life win a Super Bowl in Tampa, and I'm able to sit in my box and watch him as I just became head coach of the Buccaneers," Morris said.

Tomlin, now 38 and in his fourth season as Steelers coach, has always been a mentor to Morris, 34, who became Tampa Bay's coach only a month after being named defensive coordinator.

"It's funny: It's like I've known him my whole life," said Morris, who met Tomlin when he joined Tampa Bay's staff in 2002. "We developed a bond. We've been as tight as you can be with another guy since those days. Even in those days he had lofty goals. He knew that he wanted to be on (this) stage and he always talked about it.

"We established a working relationship first. It immediately translated over to a friendship and now it's a brotherhood. His family is my family. My family is his family. I'm not certain some of his family won't end up in my (stadium) box (today) if I don't put the clamps on it."

Tomlin's quick success with the Steelers ensured that teams would continue following the trend of hiring young coaches. Before Tomlin's hire, Jon Gruden had been the last coach under 35 to be hired when he took over the Oakland Raiders in 1998.

Shortly before the Steelers defeated Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII, Denver hired Josh McDaniels at 33 and Tampa Bay hired Morris at 32 a week later.

"I've got to give Mike T a lot of credit," Morris said. "He gave me direction from the beginning. I was trying to learn as much as I could. And then he started to brag on me to his friends, brag on me to the people he knew, then I started to move up. A couple of years ago when he first became head coach, I bragged to him about being the best secondary coach in the league. He said all the best secondary coaches in the league are head coaches. That was the goal I had — to become a head coach."

Tomlin said Morris displayed special coaching qualities at a young age.

"It starts with he's a very intelligent guy," Tomlin said. "He saw the game as a 22-man picture, and not a lot of young coaches are capable of that. That showed itself pretty quickly."

Today, Tomlin and Morris will show each other what they've learned as their teams attempt to improve to 3-0.

"It's a great story,'' Morris said. "It's me going against my guy. It's me going against the guy who taught me a lot."

"I'll always cherish those times," Tomlin said, "but it has nothing to do with what's going to transpire this weekend or what needs to transpire this weekend."

Additional Information:

On the defensive

From 2002-05, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris were assistant coaches with the Buccaneers. Tomlin was the defensive backs coach, and Morris was an assistant defensive backs coach. Here is how Tampa Bay's pass defense ranked in those years:

2002 : First in NFL

2003 : Third

2004 : First

2005 : Sixth

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