Mike Tomlin aims to lead the Steelers to the promised land
Pittsburgh has the talent to make a run — starting with its head coach
NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia — One of the coolest head coaches in the NFL showed up looking the part earlier this month at the Hampton Roads All-Star Football Camp, rockin’ camouflage shorts, a white T-shirt, a white baseball cap and unlaced black Air Jordans. Then, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers put in work.
After he dapped up campers, who eagerly greeted the hometown superstar, there were drills for him to oversee. Tomlin encouraged players to push harder. He corrected their technique. Later, he exhorted the group to maximize opportunities.
Tomlin spent the day leading. It’s what he does best.
“You always want people, especially young people, to look at how you handle your business and see that you’re doing things the right way,” Tomlin said while footballs whizzed past on the field at Christopher Newport University.
“And you can always use any situation as a teaching situation. Hopefully, you show them the right way one time, they’ll know what to do the next time.”
Although it seems like yesterday that Tomlin, then only 36, became the youngest coach to lead a team to a Super Bowl championship (Pittsburgh won the 2008-09 title), he has grown into one of the best in his business regardless of experience. The league’s third-longest-tenured sideline boss — only Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots and Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals have been on the job longer — Tomlin enters his 11th season in Pittsburgh with a .644 winning percentage in the regular season.
Last season, the Steelers finished a step short of reaching their third Super Bowl under Tomlin. He could get them there this season.
Pittsburgh, which is loaded on offense, may have the game’s best trio at quarterback, running back and wide receiver in Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, respectively. As the Steelers start their first week of camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, they have big goals. Tomlin plans to keep them focused on what it’ll take to achieve them.
“What you can’t do is accelerate the process,” Tomlin said. “We know we’ve got talented individuals. We’ve got talented groups. We’ve got a talented team, and I embrace that. But we’ve got to enjoy the little moments. The now. The steps. You can’t get to where you want to go without traveling the whole road.”
Tomlin rolls with some of the best.
Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl winner who holds all of the team’s career passing marks. Brown went from being a sixth-round pick (194 players were selected before him in the 2010 draft) to arguably the league’s top wideout. There’s no better big-play artist. As an all-around back, Bell (who has not signed his franchise tender and missed the start of camp) is second to none. Tomlin knows what he’s got.
There are other receivers who dominate games; Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons and Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants immediately come to mind. But if another team approached the Steelers about acquiring Brown, “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody,” Tomlin said. “I really stay away from the whole ‘this guy is better than that guy’ thing. I just don’t get into it, because I’m sure other coaches coach guys who can play and they feel strongly about their guys.
“But I wouldn’t move my guy for another guy. I’m glad he’s with me. Ditto that statement with the other two [Roethlisberger and Bell]. Just keep the rest of the quote, write in one blank line and insert either name. It’s really the same thing with my quarterback and my running back. But that’s why we’re having this conversation about us having a good team.”
The head coach is a big part of the conversation as well.
Among black head coaches, only Cincinnati’s Lewis has held his gig longer than Tomlin. This season, the NFL will have eight head coaches of color, including seven who are African-American. That’s the most the league has had to kick off any season. Eight coaches of color also led teams in the 2011 season.
League observers often point to Tomlin’s hiring in highlighting the Rooney Rule’s potential. In place since 2003 for head coaches and expanded in 2009 to include general manager jobs and equivalent front-office positions, the rule — named after Dan Rooney, the revered former Steelers chairman and onetime head of the league’s diversity committee who died in April — mandates that an NFL team must interview at least one minority candidate for these jobs.
The rule has helped the NFL increase diversity within its coaching ranks, but, “obviously, we’ve got a ways to go,” Tomlin said. “For me, I always just concern myself with being an active participant in the progress. On a lot of levels. From saying what needs to be said to conducting myself in a manner that reflects how I want this to go from a business standpoint.
“When I was a young guy in this league, man, I’d go to league functions. Guys like [former longtime assistant coach and head coach] Ray Rhodes would put their arms on me and give me a little inspiration. I smile when I think about that now. I smile about being in that position now to provide that for people.”
Tomlin definitely inspired the campers in Newport News.
He was reared in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area, which includes Newport News, a region that has produced several NFL greats. Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor and Bruce Smith are on the long list, to name a few. Tomlin has never forgotten his roots.
“One of the things I want to convey to them [the campers], whenever I come back, is that I’m a regular dude. I’m no different than them,” Tomlin said. “And the only way you can convey that is to spend time with them. I don’t coordinate this from a distance. I don’t participate in this at a distance.
“I put my T-shirt on and get out and spend the day with these guys. Hopefully, in doing so, they can get close to me and realize I’m no different than them. Then, in turn, maybe they realize they can do whatever it is I do, or do whatever it is they aspire to do.”
Tomlin once aspired to become a winning NFL football coach. He accomplished that and so much more.