Harris: Tomlin's biggest win was in the Steelers' locker room
The Steelers are on the cusp of another appearance in an AFC title game, but the truth is, coach Mike Tomlin is winning with Bill Cowher's players.
Twelve starters who will play against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC divisional playoff game at 4:30 p.m. today at Heinz Field also played under Cowher, whose 15-year tenure ended following the 2006 season.
Another truth: Tomlin should be named NFL Coach of the Year but probably won't for the reason mentioned above.
Tomlin is 43-21 in his first four seasons, with one Super Bowl championship, three playoff appearances and two division titles.
Cowher also was 43-21 in his first four seasons, with one Super Bowl appearance, four trips to the playoffs and three division titles.
Tomlin, 38, is darned if he does, darned if he doesn't.
He was praised as a no-nonsense motivator who got everything out of his players when the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII two years ago.
A year later, he was vilified when the Steelers missed the playoffs.
All Tomlin does is win. But you get the impression that he'll also win big when the majority of his starters have been acquired under his watch.
Of the starters who didn't play for Cowher, five — center Maurkice Pouncey, running back Rashard Mendenhall, linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, and defensive end Ziggy Hood — were first- or second-round draft picks under Tomlin. Leading receiver Mike Wallace was a third-round pick.
"Mike Tomlin, for what he's done this year — winning games when we didn't have Ben (Roethlisberger), when we had guys go down and still find a way — it's shocking when his name's not (mentioned) for coach of the year,'' said receiver Hines Ward, a third-round pick in 1998 under Cowher.
Tomlin's career resembles that of former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert, who constantly tried living down comparisons with Bill Walsh.
In his first six seasons after replacing Walsh, Seifert won two Super Bowls, including his first season as coach. He appeared in five NFC title games in his first six years.
Tomlin's biggest drawback isn't his ability to match Xs and Os — he usually defers to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
He doesn't have an all-encompassing ego that doomed another young coach, Josh McDaniels, who was fired after two seasons in Denver.
The worst thing that can be said about Tomlin's performance is, at times, it seems like he's coaching on automatic pilot.
Not that Tomlin's players question his results.
"Usually when a new coach comes in, he changes everything,'' said defensive end Aaron Smith, a fourth round pick in 1999. "One of the smartest things he did was allowing us to be what kept us being successful. From a player's standpoint, it was nice. We didn't have to learn a whole new system.''
A 4-3 defensive scheme coach in one season as defensive coordinator with Minnesota and five seasons as a Tampa Bay assistant, Tomlin didn't change the Steelers' 3-4 approach — LeBeau's specialty.
"Keeping your defensive coordinator and keeping that coaching staff intact was a big part of that success,'' said tackle Max Starks, a third-round pick in 2004 who went on injured reserve midway through this season. "We didn't have this whirlwind change where everybody got fired and then you're trying to scramble to bring in a brand-new system, brand-new guys and changing philosophies on offense and defense.''
Tomlin's greatest impact occurred early in his tenure. Things could be different had Tomlin failed to win over the veterans, some of whom remain loyal to Cowher.
Ward said the first meeting between the veteran-laden roster one year removed from winning Super Bowl XL and the youthful Tomlin, then 34, laid the groundwork for the coach's future success.
"It was a power struggle when he first got here,'' Ward said. "It wasn't coach Cowher's way anymore. It's coach Tomlin's team, and we're gonna do it his way."
Tomlin is a special coach. He has won twice as many games as he has lost while doing it his way with another coach's players and getting those players to buy what he's selling.
"If it was easier for the veterans to buy into it, it's definitely easier for the younger guys," Ward said. "That's when the transition took place."
Winning over the locker room was easily Tomlin's greatest victory.