Knowing Mike Tomlin

The Steelers will talk to their oldest candidate, Chan Gailey, for their head coaching position on Saturday, but Ryan Wilson has some thoughts on the youngest candidate to interview for the job: Mike Tomlin.

I know Mike Tomlin. Okay, I don't know him, but he was a year ahead of me at William and Mary and played on the football team. I met Mike a few times through quarterback Shawn Knight, who also doubled as the shortstop on the Tribe baseball team. And I knew Shawn because I played baseball too. I wasn't very good; I came in as a no-hit, all-field middle infielder and left as a no-hit, no-field head case. Think Mackey Sasser and Steve Sax … times a thousand. That was me.

Anyway, William and Mary's wasn't exactly a powerhouse baseball program and because of that I got to play maybe more than common sense would dictate. I feel confident in saying that when Shawn and I were both in the lineup, William and Mary fielded the only all-black middle infield in the Colonial Athletic Association. That was the highlight of my collegiate baseball career. And that was also where the similarities ended between Shawn and me.

Shawn was possibly the best athlete I ever competed with or against. He was a 5'9", 165-pound dynamo, who was very raw as a baseball player. The fact that he ran a 4.39-forty and was just so … athletic more than made up for his lack of game experience. And it certainly didn't keep the San Diego Padres from taking him in the 13th round of the 1994 draft.

But it was on the football field where he really stood out. During his junior season, Shawn set the NCAA Division I-AA record for passing efficiency (204.6 rating). Then there were his stats:

Knight passed for 2,035 yards and 22 touchdowns, completing 69.4 percent of his passes while being intercepted only four times. He also ran for 311 yards and five touchdowns.
If Shawn were 6'4" instead of 5'9", he'd probably be in the NFL right now. He was amazing. But so were his teammates.

In addition to Knight, Darren Sharper was the starting safety and linebacker Jude Watty would go on to have a cup of coffee with the Green Bay Packers. Knight's receivers still hold many of the school's pass-catching records -- a lot of that had to do with Knight -- and one of his favorite targets was Mike Tomlin.

That's right, Tomlin was a wideout in college. He left William and Mary with four career 100-yard receiving games, holds the school record for highest yards-per-catch average for both a season (25.5) and a career (20.1), is fourth in career touchdown receptions (20), ninth in career receiving yards (2,054), served as team captain and was named all-conference his senior season (along with Knight and Sharper).

I didn't know Tomlin all that well -- it wasn't like we hung out -- but I'd talk to him when I'd see him, usually with Shawn somewhere in the vicinity. I'm sure I didn't bring much to the conversation and more than ten years later, I have no idea what we discussed, but I remember thinking at the time -- and I haven't changed my opinion since -- that Tomlin had … it. That … something that's hard to explain but you know it when you see it. Shawn had it too, but in a different way.

For all his athleticism, Shawn marched to a different drummer. He was a little quirky, kept to himself and didn't really fit in to the whole college social scene despite his lofty campus status as the starting quarterback. (Yes, even quarterbacks at small Division I-AA schools can parlay their local celebrity into … well, what Jeff Reed still can't pull off as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.)

Mike was different. He carried himself the way guys who are confident in what they're doing carry themselves. And that's how he played football too. Tomlin was a big receiver, maybe 6'1" or 6'2", and he was Plaxico Burress but without the drops and the disposition. I imagine he's not much different as a coach.

I keep in touch with a few of my friends from college, and one of my buddies, who also lives in Washington, D.C., played football with Tomlin. And when I say "played football," I mean he was a four-year third-string quarterback. Being a career backup isn't as bad as it sounds: you're still a quarterback, and oddly, girls still find this fact attractive; and his biggest job on game days was to make sure he didn't misplace the clipboard. And my buddy fully embraced his role.

Strangely, he doesn't really follow football, and even though he claims to be a Tennessee Titans fan, he didn't know Steve McNair was in Baltimore until about three weeks into the 2006 season. I was talking to him the other day and mentioned that Tomlin had an interview with the Steelers and wondered what he thought of his former teammate.

The first words out of his mouth were "solid guy." Followed by: "smart, hard working, extremely focused, and funny. Really funny." He went on to say how Tomlin would some times mimic Shawn when the quarterback wasn't around (but in a good way -- probably like this), or how he could bust up a room with one well-directed crack. My buddy also described Tomlin as "tough, really good under stress, and never seemed fazed by criticism … no matter how loud the critique was."

My buddy's assessment basically reinforced what I remembered from back in the day. And it made me think that maybe Tomlin had a chance at the Pittsburgh job.

At 34, age certainly isn't an issue -- Cowher was 34 when he was hired 15 years ago. But the fact that Tomlin learned the Cover-2 defense under Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, two of the smartest defensive minds in football, puts him at a disadvantage in Pittsburgh where the 3-4 defense has been successful forever.

Realistically, I don't think Tomlin will get job, but not because he's underqualified; Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm are just as qualified, are very familiar with the organization, and if either of them get the job, turnover among assistant coaches would be minimal. Undoubtedly, Tomlin would hire some of his own assistants and while staff upheaval comes with very little near-term costs for teams like the Saints and the Jets (both teams were bad last season; if they struggled this year under new coaches, we would all just attribute it to growing pains), for the Steelers, who won the Super Bowl 12 months ago, are two years removed from a 15-win season, and still have many of the players and coaches responsible for this success, a one- or two-year setback would be disastrous.

Apparently, the Steelers will name Cowher's replacement early next week. Conventional wisdom suggests it'll be either Grimm or Whisenhunt, although I'm still undecided on whom I prefer more. And even if this isn't Tomlin's time, I'm sure he left a strong impression on the Rooneys during his interview and he'll be an NFL head coach soon enough. And who knows, maybe sooner than we think.

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