Tomlin won't play it safe

Fearless approach has Steelers coach one win from elite company

February 05, 2011|By David Haugh

FORT WORTH, Texas — Facing third-and-6 at the Jets' 40 with 2 minutes left in the AFC championship game they led 24-19, the Steelers made a call that reminded us why Mike Tomlin was the one making it.

Instead of running the clock down to put the game in the hands of the NFL's fiercest defense, the Steelers dared to fail. Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, scrambled to buy time and completed a nifty 14-yard pass to unproven rookie Antonio Brown.

"We weren't going to play not to lose," Tomlin said.

Taking that same approach to his life brings Tomlin within one Super Bowl victory of becoming perhaps the most significant coach in sports. Would that be exaggerating the reach of the most successful African-American coach of America's most popular game?

Consider no African-American coach has won two Super Bowls. Only eight coaches in NFL history have won two. Tomlin is 38. If he wins his second Super Bowl before turning 40 with a Steelers team built to last, suddenly Tomlin is closer to catching Chuck Noll's record of four Super Bowl wins and becoming the Tiger Woods of the coaching profession.

Few have mentioned this week the racial progress Tomlin's quick success represents because the focus rightly has been on the masterful job he did to get the Steelers here in a season full of adversity. That doesn't make it any less meaningful.

The Rooney Rule requiring NFL teams to interview a minority candidate for head coaching and general manager vacancies needs tweaking. Maybe the league can rename it the Tomlin Rule. The coach from the City of Bridges has made it possible for aspiring African-American assistants to consider going places they only could imagine before.

"What Tomlin has done goes pretty deep, even if he doesn't win Sunday," said Tobias J. Moskowitz, a University of Chicago economist who co-authored "Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played." "A lot of the young minority assistant coaches 10 years ago might have said, 'You know, there's really very little hope of me getting an opportunity to be a head coach. I'm not even going to pursue this.' Now they're saying, 'I have a real shot.'"

With Tony Dungy as his inspiration, that was the mindset Tomlin took into his interview with the Steelers in 2007 as a 34-year-old assistant seeking to replace Bill Cowher.

When Tomlin walked into the room, he had no intention of losing out to one of the bigger names. He fearlessly expected to win — the way his Steelers play — and got the job based on an interview that made him comfortably uncomfortable.

"I love the feeling of uneasiness of addressing a challenge or new opportunities," Tomlin said last week. "No question, this opportunity was challenging."

It challenged everybody. Hines Ward recalled how Tomlin instituted dress codes and included more contact than an MMA fight during his first training camp.

"He was very militant," Ward said. "Some veteran guys challenged his authority, and they're no longer here. The guys that he kept, we bought into his belief and his system."

As experience helped Tomlin adapt, he listened to the voice in his head. Occasionally it sounded like Dungy, who plucked a 28-year-old Tomlin from the University of Cincinnati and added him to the Buccaneers staff.

"I am very conscious of Coach Dungy's influence in terms of how I do my job," Tomlin said. "He tries to lead through service, and I do the same. I learned that from him in providing the men what they need to be great."

Some days that means getting tough, as Tomlin was with Rashard Mendenhall early in 2009. Unhappy with Mendenhall's practice habits, Tomlin punished his best runner with a zero-carry game. Since that point, Mendenhall has been one of the AFC's toughest running backs.

Some days that means having fun, such as when Tomlin called off the Steelers' final practice before leaving for Texas so they could go to Dave and Buster's.

"He knows that you're human," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "Some coaches, if you mess up, they'll get up in your face … but he doesn't do it.''

Whatever Tomlin is doing has worked well enough to make two Super Bowls in four seasons.

"It's probably about two short of my vision," he said. "But I'm not into the reflection mode. I'm just trying to do it."

Beat the Packers, and one day soon Tomlin can reflect that no African-American NFL head coach ever did it better.

dhaugh@tribune.com

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