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Tomlin proof NFL's Rooney Rule is working as intended

| Monday, Jan. 22, 2007

Mike Tomlin is proof the NFL's Rooney Rule is working out exactly like it was intended.

Tomlin was a not-widely-known Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant coach less than two years ago and was a college assistant as late as 2000. On Monday, the Steelers are expected to introduce Tomlin as only their third coach in 38 years and the first black head coach in their 74-year history.

Tomlin accepted the job Sunday and was negotiating a four-year contract that is expected to pay him about $2.5 million per year, a source close to the Steelers' search told The Associated Press. The deal should be completed Monday.

The source requested anonymity because the Steelers were withholding all information about Bill Cowher's replacement until they can hold a news conference.

Not long ago, before Steelers owner Dan Rooney successfully lobbied in 2002 for a rule that requires all NFL teams to interview minority candidates for coaching jobs, the 34-year-old Tomlin might not have been targeted by the Steelers.

But after a successful first season as Minnesota's defensive coordinator, Tomlin's name was one of about a dozen on a list of qualified minority candidates given Rooney at a mid-December meeting in New York. Rooney is the chairman of the NFL Committee on Workplace Diversity.

The very intent of the Rooney Rule was to give coaches such as Tomlin a forum to display their credentials. And Tomlin was chosen largely because of the motivation, enthusiasm and organizational skills he showed in two strong interviews with Rooney, team president Art Rooney II and director of football operations Kevin Colbert.

"It's humbling," Tomlin said last week of being in the running for one of the most high-profile jobs in pro sports. "These are great football people. I've got a great deal of respect for what they do and what they've done. It's just a very humbling experience to be involved in but, at the same time, professional football is what I do and I'm a competitor like everyone else."

Tomlin's hiring completed a 2 1/2-week search in which he was initially viewed as an unlikely choice behind perceived front-runners Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, but Whisenhunt later accepted the Arizona Cardinals' job.

Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, the other finalist with Grimm and Tomlin, did not get a second interview because the Steelers would have had to wait until Feb. 5 to meet with him again. Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey, recommended by Cowher, also didn't get a second interview.

Tomlin will be the fourth consecutive Steelers coach who was a defensive assistant coach in his 30s with another team before being hired by them. Bill Austin was 37 when he was chosen in 1966, as was Chuck Noll in 1969. Cowher was 34 in 1992.

What could be tricky is assimilating Tomlin's preference for the 4-3 defense into a Steelers system that has been built around the 3-4 since 1983. The Steelers have fitted their roster with players suited for the 3-4, such as All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and Pro Bowl nose guard Casey Hampton.

Not that Tomlin is expected to change. He also likes the so-called Tampa 2 cover scheme, which had its roots in Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s — yes, a defense that played a 4-3.

"I think regardless of who they hire to be the head coach, they expect him to lead," Tomlin said last week. "Part of leading is being prepared to do things you feel strongly about. I'm no different from anyone else in that regard."

Tomlin's hiring will likely bring a shakeup in the Steelers' coaching staff less than a year after they won the Super Bowl. Grimm won't return after being passed over, and 69-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his renowned zone blitzes probably will be gone, too.

One Steelers assistant already knows Tomlin: linebackers coach Keith Butler coached with him at Memphis and Arkansas State.

Tomlin, from Hampton, Va., was a wide receiver at William & Mary, where he caught 20 touchdown passes during his career. He later coached at VMI, Memphis, Tennessee-Martin, Arkansas State and Cincinnati before being hired as a Tampa Bay assistant by Tony Dungy.

Coincidentally, Tomlin was hired on the same day the Bears' Lovie Smith and the Colts' Dungy became the first two black head coaches to reach the Super Bowl.

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