Despite fulfilling promise to mother, Steelers' Tomlin not yet satisfied
As Steelers coaches gathered at Seven Springs Mountain Resort to celebrate their Super Bowl win in February 2009, the mood was festive.
There was a sense of relief and accomplishment. Two years after being hired, Mike Tomlin, at 36, was the youngest head coach to win the Super Bowl, fulfilling a promise he made to his mother, Julia Copeland, that he wouldn't wait long to lift the Lombardi Trophy.
“He said right away, ‘It's Super Bowl or bust,' and he believed in what he was preaching,” said Terry Hammons, an Upper St. Clair native and one of Tomlin's closest friends.
The arrow, as Tomlin loves to say, was pointing up.
After going 60-28 in Tomlin's first five seasons, the arrow suddenly shifted directions. The Steelers are coming off successive 8-8 records as they open their eighth training camp under Tomlin on Friday at St. Vincent College near Latrobe.
Think the pressure isn't on Tomlin? The Steelers haven't had three consecutive non-winning seasons since 1969-71, Chuck Noll's first three seasons.
It's made him mad, center Maurkice Pouncey said of the .500 seasons. “It has (angered) all of us.”
Offseason practices were highlighted by plenty of scrimmaging and three fights.
“They filled some holes, and Mike believes he's got a team that can play the way he wants to play,” said Hammons, Tomlin's former college teammate. “They've got balance. … They can start to beat teams up again. They can go back to playing old-school Steelers football (and) impose their will on you.
“Mike's pumped up, excited.”
While the Steelers won six of their final eight games last season and were a missed Kansas City field goal away from the playoffs, Tomlin hasn't forgotten that 0-4 start, the franchise's first in 45 years.
Tomlin's response to losing — do something about it and in a hurry — has been the same since he was a 69-pound defensive lineman at age 8 in Newport News, Va.
Ultra-competitive, he kept playing even though he had grown to only 103 pounds as a ninth-grader. He didn't get many offers out of Denbigh High despite adding 70 pounds there, so he landed at nearby William & Mary.
In between delivering pizzas in a beat-up car to earn spending money, Tomlin made 101 catches for 2,046 yards, 20 touchdowns and a school-record 20.2 yards per catch. He was scouted by the Cleveland Browns but not signed.
His mother wanted him to attend law school, but Dan Quinn, a former William & Mary assistant, helped get Tomlin a full-time assistant coaching job at Virginia Military Institute on the staff of the late Bill Stewart. Stewart later coached West Virginia.
“There was no doubt that you knew this guy was really on the rise,” said Quinn, now the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks. “Mike was the captain of the team, and you knew he had ‘it.' I saw how he led the team and how people gravitated to him.”
Jobs gravitated to Tomlin, too, at Arkansas State, Memphis and Cincinnati before he landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001 at age 29. He won a Super Bowl in his second season there, which soon would become a pattern.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘This guy is going to be a head coach,' ” said Heath Farwell, a Vikings linebacker when Tomlin was hired as the Minnesota defensive coordinator in 2006. “When he got that interview in Pittsburgh (in 2007), I said right away, ‘He's the guy.' ”
In 2012, the Steelers signed Tomlin to a three-year extension that runs through 2016, paying him about $6 million per year. Although NFL coaches' contract figures are not as accessible as players', Tomlin's salary reportedly ranks in the top 10 among head coaches.
What's funny, Hammons said, is that Tomlin, a sociology major, never talked in college about being a coach.
“We were grinding through school, playing ball, having a good time,” said Hammons, who turned out to be the lawyer Tomlin's mom wanted him to be. “We weren't thinking 20, 30 years down the road. It never crossed my mind. We didn't talk about any coaching of any sort.”
Tomlin's coaching style hasn't changed through the years. He is as likely to engage a rookie free agent in a conversation as he is star safety Troy Polamalu. He takes the pulse of his locker room daily rather than entrusting his assistants to do so.
“He's a very hungry coach. He never settles,” said Lawrence Timmons, an inside linebacker who was Tomlin's first draft pick in 2007. “Just like Tony Dungy. He's a straight-up dude, a straight-up guy.”
Tomlin differs from Dungy, one of his mentors, in that he isn't as media friendly. He sat down in the offseason to be interviewed for this story. But during the season, he holds only one pregame news conference each week. Every other NFL head coach — even the dour Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots — has at least three and often four.
When he does speak before the media, Tomlin is measured in his comments.
“He and Pete Carroll (the media-friendly Seahawks coach) are polar opposites,” Hammons said. “I get a kick out of it when I watch (Tomlin's) news conferences because he's different than I know him. Gosh, he's so serious. But he knows how the media works, how they're hanging on every word and how they can make more out of it (than there is).”
Away from the cameras, Hammons said, Tomlin is more engaging and less guarded, with an unmistakable sense of humor.
If a friend receives a phone message in the name of Sam Trautman, a fictitious colonel in the Rambo movies, he'll know it was Tomlin calling.
“He loves to bust your chops,” Hammons said.
As much as Tomlin dislikes the 24/7/365 media attention, he unwillingly got plenty of it last season.
During what was a moment of bravado by a one-time player or pure carelessness, Tomlin inched onto the playing field and slightly interfered with Jacoby Jones on a kickoff return in Baltimore.
It's still debated whether Tomlin — who was fined $100,000 by the NFL — acted intentionally.
However, Solomon Wilcots, an analyst for the NFL Network and CBS, said, “That thing didn't even scratch the paint. … He commands respect around the league. He's a leader from a league perspective (being on the competition committee). He's one of the custodians of this league.”
At 42, Tomlin remains young by NFL coaching standards and seemingly has another 20 years of coaching ahead. Outside of Pittsburgh, the Steelers are viewed as NFL nirvana because they have had only three head coaches in 45 years.
“I don't assume that,” Tomlin said of the supposed job security.
Still, Hammons is certain Tomlin wants to coach the Steelers for the long term.
“I wouldn't want to say anything to (influence) his next contract talks with the Rooneys,” Hammons said. “But he's a happy guy in Pittsburgh. He would love for his sons and daughter to go through school in Pittsburgh. He's talked about that. He's a Pittsburgh guy. He's all in with Western Pennsylvania.”
Off the field, much of Tomlin's spare time is dedicated to watching his children play sports.
“His kids are so immersed in sports,” Hammons said. “He'll call and say, ‘Hey, man, I'm in Lebo!' He loves that stuff, being in all those towns I told him about when we were in college.”
This is the longest Tomlin has lived anywhere since Newport News. He, wife Kiya, a former college gymnast and a successful fashion designer, sons Michael Dean (14 this year), Mason (12) and daughter Harlyn Quinn (8) long ago fell in love with Pittsburgh, having purchased a 9,200-square-foot home in Shadyside for $1.8 million in 2007, according to Allegheny County records.
“We've been blessed to work in a place that we can call home, that has embraced us, and we embrace it,” Tomlin said. “It's cool. (The kids) are Pitt Panther guys in terms of basketball. They're Penguin guys in regards to hockey, and (during baseball season) Andrew McCutchen is their favorite athlete.”
Tomlin won't talk about how long he wants to coach but laughs when asked about having three ex-head coaches (Dick LeBeau, Mike Munchak and Todd Haley) on his staff.
“Hopefully (when the season ends), I'm not one of them,” he said.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at arobinson_Trib.