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Steelers coach, Vikings safety share history

| Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008

They will meet and greet each other before and after tonight's preseason game at the Metrodome. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and Minnesota Vikings safety Darren Sharper are fierce rivals as well as loyal friends.

They've known each other since their youth in Virginia -- Tomlin growing up in the Tidewater area and Sharper, raised in Richmond, about 100 miles away.

It is probably safe to say that no NFL player knows what makes Tomlin tick better than Sharper, a four-time Pro Bowler who will face Tomlin's Steelers for the first time since Tomlin left the Vikings to accept his first head-coaching job.

Former college teammates separated by four years (Tomlin, 36, is older), they are eager for another opportunity to rekindle their friendship while renewing their rivalry.

"I'm proud of him, just the same way he's proud of me and my career," said Sharper, who leads all active NFL players with 53 career interceptions.

"Darren is a pro," said Tomlin, who was Sharper's teammate for two seasons at William & Mary. "He's one of the best in the world at what he does."

Those two seasons in college helped shaped their relationship as well as established a bond that has flourished through the years.

It all started with Tomlin, a veteran wide receiver, calling out Sharper, a young, defensive back, during practice.

"When we were at school, you could always see how (Tomlin) knew how to push a certain button on a player,'' said Sharper, a 12-year veteran who will start at strong safety tonight. "Whether it was challenging me in practice -- he would be running off at the mouth, saying I couldn't cover him. That was his way of motivating me to continue to work."

Tomlin chuckled at the recollection.

"My motivational tactics were a little different when we were younger," Tomlin said. "I used to get after him a little bit, but it was all in the spirit of competition."

Sharper said Tomlin was born to be a head coach. In 1995, William & Mary faced rival VMI, which featured a new receivers coach fresh out of college: Tomlin.

It was just like old times, Sharper said.

"He was coaching the receivers," Sharper said. "He came trotting on the field, and he was just like the same old Mike like he was running out to do one-on-one drills against me, saying, 'We're gonna own you guys today!'

"VMI probably played one of the better games they played all year. That's probably because of the way Mike had those guys thinking that they could beat us."

Said Tomlin of VMI's 27-7 loss to William & Mary: "It was the sickest feeling I have ever had as a football coach. I was a young guy. I gave all I had to give to William & Mary. I was the captain of that team the year before. It was a sick feeling to see that team come out of the locker room and me not be a part of it."

Tomlin and Sharper were reunited in 2006 with the Vikings when Tomlin became defensive coordinator.

Minnesota finished No. 1 against the run and eighth in total defense while not allowing a 100-yard rusher the entire season.

Sharper tied for the team lead with four interceptions and ranked fourth with 93 tackles, his highest total since 2001.

"It was an adjustment early on, because I was so used to thinking about him as a college teammate," Sharper said. "He made the transition easy -- his knowledge of the game, how he talked to the players and how he was able to motivate them. He commanded respect, just how he carried himself."

Tomlin said coaching his former college teammate was business as usual.

"I've always viewed myself as a mentor to Darren, even when we were playing together," Tomlin said. "It was a pleasure to coach that guy. I've learned to separate business from personal life. It probably was a little awkward for him because, you know, that's my friend. But, for me, when we're at the job, I viewed him as Sharper, the safety of the Vikings."

Even in tonight's preseason game, Sharper anticipates the Steelers will display some of the traits that resulted in a playoff berth in Tomlin's first season.

"I definitely expect for his team to have a better year than last year," Sharper said. "They went to the playoffs and played well. He did a great job in his first year as head coach, but he expects for them to do more. That's how Mike is. I expect, even though it's a preseason game, he'll have his guys ready to come out and play well. Mike's going to be himself no matter if it's his first year, 10th year or 30th year."

Additional Information:

Strong relationship

Here is what Vikings safety Darren Sharper did in 2006, when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was his defensive coordinator:

  • Started 16 games for the first time since 2001.
  • Tied for team lead with four interceptions.
  • Ranked fourth on the team with 93 tackles, his highest total since 2001.
  • Helped Vikings finish eighth in total defense and No. 1 against the run.
  • Posted first sack since 2003.

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