When I opened the paper on January 22, 2007, I said to myself, “Who in the hell is this guy?”
Most Pittsburghers expected Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt to succeed Bill Cowher as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach. Both served under Cowher as assistants and were considered very Cowher-esque. When dealing with Steelers football, most Pittsburghers don't like change, and Russ or Wiz under the head coach’s headset would have lessened the anxiety for fans and players.
Unless you were deeply ingrained in NFL culture, you had no idea who Mike Tomlin was. Personally, I couldn’t get my head around it. Most of that confusion dealt with the Rooneys risking the sacred legacy of the Steelers, who have a much-publicized history of choosing quality coaches. In retrospect, shame on me for questioning the Rooneys. I should of known they would be looking out for the Steelers legacy more closely than myself, or anyone else for that matter.
Once the buzz settled down, Pittsburghers realized most everyone who had played for or who had worked with Tomlin vouched for his character. However, criticism surrounded his attendance of small William & Mary, which isn't exactly known as an athletic powerhouse. The W&M Tribe was also the last team he played ball for. Then came criticism of his age. When he was a defensive backs coach in Tampa and Minnesota, Tomlin was the same age, and sometimes younger, than the players he coached. This fact would also follow the 34-year-old to Pittsburgh, where Tomlin became the 9th coach in Steelers history to be hired in his 30s, but the only one who hadn’t played pro ball in some way, shape, or form. After 15 years of Cowher, how was this young, un-established guy going to handle or improve a veteran team one year removed from a Super Bowl victory? It was a long offseason waiting to see what this guy was all about.
What we ended up seeing was a well-mannered, intense young man who took full control of the team in the opposite way Cohwer did. Tomlin let the team know he was boss, yet he kept a youthful enthusiasm most Steelers fans had never seen. Speaking for myself, I had only lived through Chuck Noll and Cowher, so when I saw a young man running onto the field to chest bump Hines Ward after a first down catch, it was both alarming and awesome. The players responded well, and Ben Roethlisberger commented on how much he appreciated Tomlin’s non-dictatorial approach. This displayed the rarity of Tomlin’s personality, a leader who was able to effectively control while remaining part of the gang.
As we got to know Tomlin, we began to love him. There wasn't much to dislike. He was a good-looking guy who rocked the standard NFL sideline gear like no one’s business. Even his sunglasses were cool. Women began to rave because he looked like actor Omar Epps. The Epps comparison was no coincidence, considering Omar is Mike’s first cousin. Then came the press conferences. Only the certainty of his words outdid the intensity of his face. He spoke like a coach leading his team in the golden era of the NFL, back when they played championship games and not Super Bowls. Tomlin gave one of his most famous post-game press conference quotes after a rough Steelers loss to the Ravens in the ’09 season, stating, "We will not go gently. We will unleash hell here in December, because we have to. We won't go in the shell. We will go into attack mode, because that is what is required." My God. After that one, I was conducting trips to the grocery store with an unheard of intensity. I was also working on a Brooks Orpik design at the time and wasn’t able to come up with a tagline. The Orpik/Ovechkin “Unleash Hell” tee was finished four days after that press conference.
So now that we're looking back on the first four years of the Tomlin era, do you not feel even more enamored with the genius of the Rooneys? They picked a guy who no one knew, and now he's the toast of the league. Tomlin’s organizational moves have been as classy as his on-field swagger. He was humble enough not to implement his “Tampa 2” defense and instead let the great Dick LeBeau continue on with Blitzburgh. He retained Bruce Arians when everyone wanted him gone, and now our offense has a high-powered air assault to compliment the classic, bruising running attack. He allowed players to develop their personal styles rather than forcing a fundamental change. He altered the climate and attitude of an already award-winning team and won a Super Bowl. He suffered through intense player scandals and went to another Super Bowl.
Mike Tomlin is Pittsburgh’s O.G.
Keep it real, Coach.