Long shot hits

PITTSBURGH – Mike Tomlin was in his basement Sunday when Art Rooney II called to offer him the job as the next head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tomlin was excited, but ...

"I tried not to show it," he said.

"It was a great family time. We were in the basement with our three children watching football like a lot of families on Sunday at this time of year. It was awesome."

Tomlin is young enough to get away with the word "awesome." He's only 34 years old and stands in the "awesome" position of doing a job that only two others have done since 1969. Chuck Noll was hired in 1969 at the age of 37 and Bill Cowher was hired in 1992 at the age of 34.

Cowher turned 35 in May that year, meaning Tomlin, who turns 35 on March 15, is younger than Cowher was. However, Rooney said he's not concerned with his age and relative lack of experience as a defensive coordinator.

"It's something we thought about and talked about," Rooney said. "When Bill Cowher was 34 years old, you had those kinds of questions, but the bottom line is you satisfy yourself that this is somebody that can come in and be successful right away as well as be successful in the long haul, and I think Mike had all of those pieces that we were comfortable with.

"I remember looking at the first list when we were starting the search, when Bill became our coach, and it's fair to say when we looked at the guy who was 34 years old, we said, well, this guy's down the list. I think it's fair to say Mike was probably in that category in terms of our initial discussions. He probably was a long shot when we began our discussions."

But Tomlin went from long shot to finalist after one interview. And then he beat out Russ Grimm for the job after the Steelers decided they'd waited long enough to give a second interview to the other finalist, Ron Rivera. Rooney said he and his father, Dan, decided not to interview Rivera even if the Chicago Bears had lost on Sunday.

So how did Tomlin go from long shot to coach in such a short period of time?

"Well, he's a very impressive young guy," Rooney said. "I mean, when you get in the room and spend two or three hours with Mike, I think you come away feeling like this is a special person. As I said before, the main thing to think about is when this guy's standing up in front of your team, is he going to be able to get his message across? That, more than any one thing, is what convinced us that this was the guy."

Some reports had indicated the Rooneys weren't so convinced. Dan Rooney blasted one reporter in the hallway yesterday for saying on TV Sunday night that the Steelers had offered Grimm a job and then rescinded the offer later Saturday night. Rooney said the Steelers never offered the job to Grimm.

So what was going through Tomlin's mind while the rumors bounced about the internet throughout the weekend?

"At times I thought some of the reports, the false reports, were comical," Tomlin said. "It wasn't necessarily funny when they weren't going in my favor, but, you know, it's part of the process. I understand that. Really, the two men competing [Sunday] and what happened in the NFL this weekend was a nice diversion for us. We sat in the basement and cheered for Coach [Tony] Dungy and Coach [Lovie] Smith."

Dungy and Smith are mentor and colleague to Tomlin, who broke into the NFL under Dungy at Tampa Bay in 2001. Tomlin coached Tampa Bay's defensive backs and that group stole the show in winning the Super Bowl following the 2002 season. The Buccaneers' defensive backs intercepted four passes in that game and returned two for touchdowns. Dungy was gone by then, and the Bucs wouldn't allow other teams to interview Tomlin for openings.

But once Tomlin's contract expired following the 2005 season, he became defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. He took a defense that ranked 21st in 2005 and improved it to eighth last season. The Vikings were first against the run, but tied for last with Cincinnati against the pass. However, the Vikings' pass defense fared well in the critical categories of passer rating (5th), yards per attempt (12th), yards per completion (14th) and pass completion percentage (15th). The Vikings topped the Steelers' pass defense in all four categories. And Tomlin said he will be keeping the Steelers' defensive architect on his new staff.

"I really think you just look at your personnel and what they do well and what puts them in position to win, and obviously retaining Coach [Dick] LeBeau is a big part of that," Tomlin said.

"We told Mike that the staff was his decision," said Art Rooney. "We told him he had to have that final decision. We think that's the way it should be, but we also told him that we think it's a good staff and we would recommend that he consider everybody on the staff. Certainly Dick LeBeau was somebody we felt he should strongly consider. He never had any doubt that he did want to consider Dick strongly, so that one was almost automatic from day one."

Tomlin would not discuss any other potential decisions about his staff, but did touch on schematics and philosophy.

"We'll maximize what they're capable of doing [on defense], and if that means sitting some personal preferences and beliefs schematically aside, I'm willing to do that," he said. "Xs and Os can be overrated at times. You'll find that we will be fundamentalist in our approach and we'll put guys in position to execute and execute at a high level. So whatever they're capable of doing, that's what we'll do."

And his offense?

"A fundamentalist football team that wins by attrition, that's mentally and physically tough," he said. "Of course, there's no secret in the National Football League, in order to win you have to stop the run and you have to run the ball effectively. To be general, that's what our football team will be about."

Tomlin gave thanks to God to open the press conference. He then thanked Dungy, his mentor, and was obviously happy about the Indianapolis Colts' win Sunday over the New England Patriots.

Smith, who also tutored under Dungy, will coach the Chicago Bears against Dungy's Colts in the Super Bowl. They'll be the first African-Americans to coach in the Super Bowl. Tomlin, of course, is the first African-American coach of the Steelers.

"I acknowledge that it is significant," Tomlin said. "I'm just happy for those men because I know them personally. They've been very supportive and active in my development as a coach and as a man. I'm happy for them because I know them. I guess we'll make true advances in this business when it's no longer an issue, and I know that Coach Dungy has said that on several occasions."

Tomlin was born in Hampton, Virginia, and played wide receiver at the College of William & Mary from 1990 to 1994. He said he went from wide receiver to defensive coordinator because "I wasn't a very good wide receiver."

He broke into coaching at Virginia Military Institute in 1995 and in subsequent years moved on to the University of Memphis (1996), Arkansas State (1997-98) and the University of Cincinnati (1999-00) before joining Dungy's staff in 2001.

Tomlin's family consists of his wife Kiya and two sons and a daughter. His son Michael Dean is six and his son Mason is five. Daughter Harlyn Quinn is eight months old.

"They couldn't understand the first time they saw reports on TV and they saw the Pittsburgh symbol behind my head," Tomlin said. "They thought I was a traitor."

Tomlin had played midget football and rode the incline in Pittsburgh at the age of 12 and remains inspired by the city he now calls home.

Tomlin didn't make any bold predictions, but did say he has high expectations.

"I'm not a very patient person," he said. "I don't know anybody that's successful in this business, from a coaching standpoint, that's very patient. I'm working on it. But that's exciting. To have an opportunity to have a place where your kids can grow up and call home, particularly a place like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is awesome."

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