PITTSBURGH — Coach Mike Tomlin still is only 38 years old, still hasn’t played a down of NFL football, and still has only one year as a coordinator on his resume.
But after his Pittsburgh Steelers secured their second Super Bowl appearance in his four seasons as coach, the last thing Tomlin has to worry about is whether he’s gained the respect of his players … past or present.
“I think a lot of guys,” Pittsburgh defensive tackle Chris Hoke said, “would love to come play for coach Tomlin.”
Former Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend concurs. And he should know. He played for both Bill Cowher and Tomlin, and was a key member of that Pittsburgh transition phase.
“He had to put his identity on the team. He had to do things he felt would make us better, and he had to do his own way,” Townsend said of Tomlin. “He was coming in for an established coach, one that guys respected. So, not only was he the new guy, he was the new guy for a guy who had been there a long time.”
Whatever he did, it worked. After all, he’s already a Super Bowl champion, and is on the cusp of joining an exclusive club of two-time winning coaches — before his 40th birthday, no less.
Maybe that’s why Tomlin appears to be as beloved by his players as any other NFL coach.
“It was a different feel to have a young guy, this coordinator from Minnesota who came up through the ranks pretty quickly coming in here,” Townsend said. “Before he had spoken to us, there was this type of unknown of how it was going to be.
“But all that disappeared when he came on. When he first got there, he was so well-received, and the way he addressed us as men, guys gained an instant respect for their new coach.”
The rest is history. In four seasons, the Steelers — who will meet the Packers in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 — have made the playoffs three times, won three AFC North titles and have secured two berths in the Super Bowl. Their worst season under Tomlin? 9-7.
“Coach Tomlin took over the team right away,” said Hoke, a 10-year veteran with Pittsburgh. “He put his imprint on this team when he first got here — two different teams, two different personalities, two different coaching styles. They both do great. I was very close to Coach Cowher. I think Coach Tomlin is a great coach. I’m close to him. Two different styles, but two different ways of winning and they both win.”
Townsend knows that all too well. He, like so many other teammates, developed a strong relationship with Cowher over nine seasons and was part of a veteran core that wasn’t used to change. This was Pittsburgh, after all, the one NFL team that doesn’t have much fluctuation in the coaching department.
And initially — while the aforementioned respect was there to an extent — there was a hint of skepticism among some of the players with “the new guy.”
Tomlin was much harder on his players than Cowher was, so that became a sticking point. During his first training camp in 2007, in fact, the Steelers were in pads and hitting more often, running more, being forced to finish plays with more vigor during early fundamental drills.
“We were doing things that we weren’t used to doing,” Townsend said, “and that led to some complaining about how we were practicing and some of the stuff that was going on during practice.”
They eventually put it all together enough to start out 9-3. But they stumbled down the stretch, going 1-4 including a 31-29 home wild-card playoff loss to Jacksonville. To date, that is Tomlin’s lone postseason defeat.
After that first season, though, Tomlin became kinder and gentler. He pulled back the reins in training camp. And he often gives veteran players weekly days off from practice during the season.
“The great thing about Coach Tomlin is he learned us very quickly,” said Townsend, now a talk show host in Pittsburgh. “Once he saw how hard we worked at everything else, he knew to back off in some of the other areas. That’s a great trait for a young coach. Some coaches aren’t willing to listen to their players.
“He was willing to adjust to us, but also keep his own spin on it.”
He’s spinning it all the way to Dallas.