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Steelers coach Mike Tomlin eager to turn things around

| Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mike Tomlin is teaching his team that a little media scrutiny can't hurt.

His predecessor, Bill Cowher, gladly would have subtracted any of the newspapers regularly covering the Steelers. But the new coach is adding a paper -- his own.

Tomlin's publication, The News, will recirculate shortly after the Steelers open training camp Monday at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. Its unofficial motto is "all the news that Mike Tomlin sees fit to print," and proof of that came during spring practices.

At team meetings, players watched The News on an overhead projector. It highlighted good plays, and pointed out errors, physical and mental. Any lack of effort that caught the publisher's eye made The News.

"You don't want to end up in the headlines," veteran wide receiver Hines Ward said. "It's just the facts. He's not calling anyone out, really.

"If you loaf on a play, you end up in The News. If you fumble a ball, you're going to end up in The News. If you throw a pick, you end up in The News. He calls it like he sees it."

This much we know about Tomlin, 35, a father of three: He has a smile that could help light Heinz Field, and enough charm to get out of an IRS audit. He was molded as a competitor -- and ultimately a coach -- by the touchdown pass he dropped in college, instead of the 20 passes he did catch. And, he'll dive into a crossword puzzle when he gets the chance.

His love of solving puzzles is fitting, since the Steelers were a complex one in 2006.

A year after winning Super Bowl XL, the Steelers slipped to 8-8, even though they returned largely the same cast that produced a stirring postseason run and snagged the fifth Super Bowl ring the organization had sought since the Reagan administration.

This season will go a long way toward determining whether the Steelers are a championship team or a middling one, and the spotlight on Tomlin will be as searing as the sun that bakes him and his players starting this week.

He is steering a team that is steeped in tradition, one that's a civic treasure as much as a professional sports franchise.

And he is a first-time head coach following popular, successful coaches.

Chuck Noll is the only coach to win four Super Bowl titles. Cowher would merit serious Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration, based on his 15 seasons with the Steelers that included two Super Bowl appearances and six AFC Championship games.

In a family -- which the Steelers essentially are -- that would be like a third child following siblings who were straight-A students and three-star athletes.

"If you don't like pressure, you're in the wrong business," Tomlin said. "I thrive on it. That's how you know you're alive."

He responds to pressure by staying in motion. At a recent news media briefing, Tomlin looked so eager to start preseason practice that, if he could, he probably would have run all the way to Latrobe if someone had told him a whistle, his players and an open field were waiting for him.

He often explains his devotion to work by saying, "Football is my hobby."

When first contacted by the Steelers about an interview, he was a long shot to become the team's third head coach since 1969. But just as he did when he first interviewed for a National Football League coaching job -- secondary coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001 -- Tomlin wowed his Pittsburgh employer with his grasp of the game and his communication skills.

Tony Dungy, who gave Tomlin his NFL coaching break, and Steelers President Art Rooney II rave about Tomlin's ability to interact with people.

"I didn't know him at all," said Dungy, who hired Tomlin when he was coach of the Buccaneers. "I had just gotten some recommendations and watched some of his players play, guys that had come to the draft and looked like they were very well prepared. And when I met him, it was eye-opening."

Tomlin certainly caught the Rooneys' attention.

The Steelers hired him a little more than a month after the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes minority hiring in the NFL, submitted Tomlin's name, along with a few others, to an NFL committee headed by Steelers' Chairman Dan Rooney.

Fans leery about the choice should remember that the last two times the Rooneys hired young assistants with defensive backgrounds to become the team's head coach, they struck gold -- Noll, and then Cowher.

Tomlin's poise and polish no doubt were qualities that convinced the Rooneys he could step into the shadows cast by Noll and Cowher -- and find his way out of them.

"I think the things that are impressive about Mike are his enthusiasm, his comfort level with situations that, obviously, as a first-time head coach he's not confronted before," said Art Rooney.

Tomlin showed that in the way he handled Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca during a team mini-camp in May. Tomlin, at least publicly, stayed above the fray after Faneca lashed out at management when the Steelers wouldn't release him or offer what he considered a fair contract extension.

Tomlin also earned high marks for the way he connected with players during practices in April, May and June.

"He likes to have fun with the guys," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I think the guys are more receptive to that. They feel more comfortable being able to communicate with that type of coaching."

Noll was a detached coach. Cowher was the opposite; players responded to his fiery temperament, but few probably would have said that he liked to have fun with them.

Players might feel differently about Tomlin after he puts them through a rigorous training camp. And any veteran who established a comfort level with Cowher no longer has that.

"Everyone, if they do something, they're looking over their shoulder to make sure everything is OK," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "Then there's The News."

Meant as a teaching tool, The News spares no one. Ward, for example, made The News for spiking the ball during a spring practice because doing that -- except after a touchdown -- brings a 5-yard penalty, starting this season.

"Just a creative way of presenting it to the guys, that can catch their attention and break the monotony of team meetings," Tomlin said of The News.

At first blush, it would appear to be a risky thing for a young coach, one who isn't much older than his players, to undertake: tsk-tsking them in front of their teammates.

Who's to say someone cited by Tomlin for a lack of effort didn't go hard on every play except for one, while another player dogged it for several plays but didn't get a mention?

But maybe that's the point of The News: Go all out, all the time, because you never know when the publisher will be watching.

Time will tell whether players remain receptive to such gimmicks -- and to what Tomlin puts them through over the next month.

Additional Information:

Mike Tomlin

Age: 35

Born: Hampton, Va.

Family: Wife, Kiya; sons, Dino and Mason; daughter, Harlyn Quinn

College: William & Mary

Playing career: Started for three seasons at wide receiver at William & Mary, and held school records in career touchdown receptions (20) and career yards per catch (20.2) after using up his eligibility in 1994. He went into coaching after graduating from William & Mary.

Notable college teammate: Minnesota Vikings safety Darren Sharper, a three-time Pro Bowler.

Coaching experience: Spent seven seasons as an assistant coach at four colleges before breaking into the NFL. Served as secondary coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2001-05 and defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings in 2006.

On his first training camp with the Steelers: 'I feel alive. I love this feeling. I love football, and I would coach it year-round if I could. I am ready to go.'

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