PITTSBURGH - When Mike Tomlin was hired two years ago as Steelers head coach, Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior had the type of prior acquaintance that's rare for a player and his new boss.
"I actually played against the guy," Farrior said.
Farrior, now 34 and in his 12th NFL season, was a star defender at the University of Virginia. Tomlin, now 36, caught 101 passes as a wide receiver at William and Mary.
"I told him a long time ago that if I had known he was going to be the coach, I would have really been going after him," Farrior joked yesterday as the Steelers put the final touches on their practice week in anticipation of tomorrow's AFC championship game against the Ravens at Heinz Field.
Tomlin, much like the Ravens' John Harbaugh, is one the NFL's young coaching lions. However, Tomlin's star rose even faster than Harbaugh's, and he's 10 years younger than the Ravens' rookie coach.
In another departure from Harbaugh's situation, Tomlin inherited a winning program that already had its star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in place. The Steelers went 10-6 in Tomlin's first season before losing in the wild-card round to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Still, Tomlin was following in the large and imposing footsteps of the only two coaches who had led the Steelers in nearly four decades, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, both Super Bowl winners.
"The tradition is awesome," Tomlin said this week. "You can't put a price tag on it. It's inspiring not only to me, but I think everybody that's a part of our football team and in this organization. ... Those that have come before us set the standards for us. We understand that when we come in the building."
Tomlin's quick ascension to leading one of the most storied teams in American sports took him through the University of Cincinnati as an assistant coach in 1999 and 2000, where, coincidentally, Harbaugh had been an assistant several years earlier. Both worked for then-Bearcats head coach Rick Minter.
"Whenever someone meets John Harbaugh for the first time, they like him," said Minter, now defensive coordinator at Marshall University. "He's good-looking, pleasant, well spoken, but he listens more than he talks and takes things in before responding. He's transformed [the Ravens], and he's transformed that locker room."
Minter's recollection of Tomlin when he first met the young assistant was vivid.
"He lights up the room, beaming smile, extroverted person without being brash," Minter said. "He was great with young players."
While Minter's description of Tomlin comports with others who know the Steelers coach well, Tomlin's public persona is quite different - polite and straightforward but no-nonsense.
That might be because Tomlin believes he needs to harness his emotions, even his tendency to be outgoing.
"Personally, I am a pretty cerebral guy when it comes to work," Tomlin said. "When I am emotional, it is emotional by choice. I don't want to miss anything. I try to be what my team needs me to be at that particular moment. I have learned that from the great coaches that I have been fortunate to be around."
One of those was recently retired Tony Dungy, for whom Tomlin was a defensive assistant in Tampa Bay. Tomlin said he noted how Dungy stayed outwardly placid even at the most hectic times.
Farrior and veteran wide receiver Hines Ward said Tomlin, perhaps because of his age, relates well to this generation of players. And, Ward said, the second-year head coach adjusts quickly when it's for the good of the team
"Last year, he had to come in and really set the laws down," Ward said. "A lot of guys were in Coach Cowher ways. He was very strict on his rules."
This season, Tomlin knows which players he needs to push and who he needs to nurse through the season, Ward said.
"Veteran guys, we don't practice on Wednesday," the wide receiver said. "We've been in this league long enough, and we know we're not going to win ballgames on Wednesday. He wants guys to be as fresh as possible on Sunday. ... He's done a lot for me personally because I feel a lot fresher on Sundays and able to go out to do it week in and week out."
A similarity between Tomlin and Harbaugh is that when each became a head coach, he retained a highly successful defensive coordinator. In the Ravens' case, Harbaugh held on to Rex Ryan, and in Pittsburgh, Tomlin kept Dick LeBeau.
Minter called it a "defining moment" because Tomlin had come from the very successful "Tampa 2" defense and was allowing LeBeau to run his own highly stylized version of a 3-4. The decision has paid off - the Steelers had the No. 1 defense in the NFL in the regular season, the only one ranked ahead of the Ravens' formidable unit.
Tomlin shrugged off what some might call a particularly wise decision for a young leader.
"I came into a situation where it wasn't broken," he said. "Dick LeBeau's reputation and resume speaks for itself. It would have been foolish for me to fix something that wasn't broken. It would have been ego-driven. My ego doesn't drive me; seeking victory does."
RAVENS (13-5) @ STEELERS (13-4)
AFC title game
Tomorrow, 6:30 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM
Line: Steelers by 6