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Starkey: Tomlin imposter fuels conspiracy theories

| Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin speaks to the media during his weekly news conference Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013, on the South Side

I didn't believe any of the conspiracy theories until I showed up to Mike Tomlin's news conference Tuesday and saw that Tomlin had been kidnapped and replaced with a doppelganger.

Am I the only one who noticed?

The imposter was nothing like the clipped, defiant and sometimes arrogant Tomlin we see from week to week. No, this guy was funny, open, cordial, inviting, revealing, self-deprecating and contrite. I half-expected him to finish the session by inviting us to lunch and a round of Christmas carols.

People wonder why so many fans don't seem to like the real Tomlin, despite his enormous success? Maybe part of it is the way he presents himself to the media, which by extension is the way he presents himself to fans. Maybe the real Tomlin could take a lesson from his double.

The real Tomlin is liable to finish his news conference by muttering something under his breath — something like, “You guys have too much time on your hands.” The imposter actually solicited more queries when it appeared the session had ended.

Seriously, we'd been talking about the kick return heard 'round the world for a good 20 minutes when the Tomlin doppelganger greeted a prolonged silence by saying, “Anything else, in any form or fashion? Because, again, it is my desire to be completely transparent.”

That was a dead giveaway, because no football coach aspires to transparency. The real Tomlin once said of Ben Roethlisberger's availability for an exhibition game: “We're going to make you come to the stadium to check that out.”

The imposter took full responsibility for the Thanksgiving night “blunder” in Baltimore, though he also said he would “never consider” doing such a thing intentionally. At that point, I wanted to believe that this was the real Tomlin speaking from his heart. But I wavered. I couldn't be sure. I remembered the real Tomlin's team-released statement when Bruce Arians was jettisoned. It ended like this: “I am grateful to Bruce for contributing to our success and wish him nothing but the best in his retirement.”

Thing is, Bruce didn't retire. He was working for the Indianapolis Colts about four minutes later.

The imposter sounded more like the real Tomlin when asked if he'd contacted the Ravens to offer an apology. That would seem like a normal course of action, but the imposter said he had no reason to do such a thing — that those in Baltimore's camp who know him know how much he respects the game.

Jacoby Jones clearly isn't one of them. He believes Tomlin meant to get in his way. Defensive lineman Chris Canty obviously doesn't know the real Tomlin, either, because this is what he told 105.7 The Fan in Baltimore: “Everybody understood his intention, which was to get in the way of Jacoby Jones, and if not get in the way, then trip Jacoby Jones to prevent him from scoring.”

Honestly, I don't know what to believe anymore. I've now seen the return from every conceivable angle: NBC's, KDKA's and the coaches film — “All 22,” it's called. I'm sure cell-phone videos are next. I'm sticking with my theory that the real Tomlin kind of, sort of meant to be obstructive in the white box — rightfully believing he was working within the parameters of where a lot of coaches illegally roam and where he himself had roamed before. What coach, in football or basketball, stays in the prescribed box? Jamie Dixon practically plays forward in Pitt's 2-3 zone.

As my theory goes, Tomlin got too close to the tracks, was surprised at how fast the train was coming and ... whoops! He stepped onto the field. It was an accident born of too much bravado and deserving of a stiff fine, if the NFL ever gets around to adjudicating.

The imposter made a sensible case for the accidental jab step when I asked if it was simply an instinctual move.

“I think if you're standing as straight-legged as I was, it would require some bending and moving to the right in order to go left,” he said. “And I'm not as athletic as I used to be or as those who play. I did see the ‘Soul Train' picture (an Internet creation that photoshopped a sideline-straddling Tomlin onto a dance floor). That was interesting. ... I've heard all the jokes, and I got it coming.”

I liked that part. It was humble. It was human.

Maybe the real Tomlin could take a cue.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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