Tomlin goes for Super encore
FORT WORTH, Texas — The Steelers hired a young coach named Mike Tomlin in January 2007 and immediately questions arose.
People surprised that ownership hired a 34-year-old with impressive credentials but no head coaching experience to lead the storied franchise asked, "Why?'' and not "Can he do the job?''
"Why would the Steelers take a chance on someone so young and unproven?'' they wondered aloud.
Three years and one Super Bowl title later, the questions are moot. Tomlin has emerged as a star.
Yet as the Steelers prepare to face the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, a new question has emerged: After becoming the youngest coach to win one Super Bowl, can Tomlin become the youngest coach to win two Super Bowls?
In Tomlin's case, age is irrelevant.
"I think the key is to get people like coach Tomlin who are capable of doing the job on their own and try not to do the job for them,'' Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "Coach and I talk every day, but I don't try to call the plays. I don't try to tell him who to play. If there's something he wants to bounce off me, fine. But we hired him to do the job because we had confidence he could do it — and he's done a great job.''
Tomlin is young enough to relate to his younger players and wise enough to listen to his veterans.
He's also smart enough to give his assistants — most of them older than him — the freedom to coach without interference.
Perhaps most important of all, Tomlin, who turns 39 next month, coaches with a firm hand. He knows when to take charge and when to remain in the background.
"You can't put into words what he brings to a football team: intelligence, character, leadership — all the things you want in a head coach — and an uncanny rapport with his players because he's basically their age,'' said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who is 20 years older than Tomlin.
Arians conferred with Tomlin on third-and-6 late in the AFC Championship Game against the New York Jets at the two-minute warning on what turned out to be the game's biggest play.
With the ball at the Jets' 40, the safe play was to run and punt on fourth down.
"To me, that's playing to lose,'' Arians said.
"I said, 'Coach, what do you want to do?' '' Arians said. "He said, 'Play to win.' I said, 'That means throwing it.' He said, 'Play to win.' ''
Ben Roethlisberger completed a 14-yard pass to rookie Antonio Brown and the Steelers held on to win, 24-19.
Arians' story is typical of Tomlin, people who know him best say.
"A lot of times when Ben comes to the sideline to discuss strategy, Mike walks away. That's a trustworthy coach who believes in his staff,'' said NFL Players Association director of communications Carl Francis, who attended high school with Tomlin's older brother in Hampton, Va., and has known the Steelers coach for years. "Some coaches could have said, 'Let me show I'm the boss.' Mike said, 'Why change things?' ''
"It's not broken, so I wasn't going to fix it,'' Tomlin said of keeping Dick LeBeau in charge of the defense and turning the offense over to Arians when he became coach. "It's sound, time-tested, and it's proven.''
It's a perfect coaching style for a roster featuring several veteran players appearing in their third Super Bowl in six years. But that wasn't always the case.
In Tomlin's first season, the Steelers finished 10-6 but lost to Jacksonville in a wild-card playoff game.
"He wanted to practice two-a-days, full pads, all day long. By the time we got to the playoffs against Jacksonville, we were a beat-up team,'' Hines Ward said. "They don't give you a book to show you how to be a head coach.''
The following season the Steelers finished 12-4 and defeated Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII.
Tomlin needed to mend fences with some of his veterans after last year's 9-7 campaign that didn't include a playoff berth. His players responded favorably — with some prodding from coach.
"I just love his whole motto. What coach wears Ed Hardy jeans?'' Ward said regarding Tomlin's choice of a popular clothing line not normally favored by NFL coaches. "He's hip.''
Tomlin relates to his players — and vice versa. Sitting at his podium during Tuesday's Media Day, Tomlin thoughtfully stroked his new beard when asked if he was following the lead of bearded defensive end Brett Keisel.
"He's kind of sucked me into it the last couple of weeks,'' Tomlin said. "I'll be glad when it's over so I can shave mine.''
Defensive captain James Farrior is two years younger than Tomlin. Both grew up in Virginia. Farrior played against Tomlin when they were in college, so he more than any player on the roster knows what makes his coach tick.
"He has a good grasp of how guys are feeling,'' Farrior said. "I think he has a pretty good temperature of the team at all times.''
Instead of asking why Tomlin was hired so young, the question should be why it took so long for him to be hired.
Media Events in Dallas
Reporters from around the world interview the Steelers during a Super Bowl XLV media sessions Wednesday and Thursday at Texas Christian University following Media Day Tuesday February 1, 2011 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Second time around
Here's how coaches fared in their second Super Bowl:
Hank Stram (Kansas City): Won Super Bowl IV
Tom Landry (Dallas): Won Super Bowl VI
Don Shula (Miami): Won Super Bowl VII
Joe Gibbs (Washington): Lost Super Bowl XVIII
Bill Parcells (Giants): Won Super Bowl XXI
Bill Belichick (New England): Won Super Bowl XXXVIII
Bill Cowher (Steelers): Won Super Bowl XL