Chatting with Mike Tomlin

With nearly a month under his belt as the new coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin hosted a meet-and-greet with members of the Pittsburgh print media and spoke on a variety of topics. Here's what he had to say:

In the three weeks since he was named head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Tomlin has become an instant celebrity. But he's also been quite busy, breaking down film of the team, hiring coaches and learning the ins and outs of his new job. We caught up with him this week.

Q: Mike, I read you have a photographic memory.  

Tomlin: You've got to consider the source on that. I don't know where you got that from, but you know I tend to remember things as they pertain to ball, particularly plays. That's helped me throughout my career. If I see something generally once, that's important to me, I can log it. Who told you that?  

Q: I read it somewhere. I think you'd gone into your garage to check notes you'd made 10 years earlier that fit a situation, and the writer, or maybe one of your ex-players, said you have a photographic memory.  

Tomlin: Yeah, I do tend to remember issues like that and remember the moment that it was important and I can go back and dig it out.  

Q: But as far as remembering reporters and where they work?  

Tomlin: No. It doesn't carry over to everything, just ball.  

Q: Mike, have you talked to every player on the team and how many guys have you actually met face to face so far?  

Tomlin: No, I haven't talked to every player on the team. I'm in the process of sorting through that. I met quite a few face to face. It is their down time, the part of year where they get away and regenerate, in terms of the game. So the guys that are around are the guys I've met with face to face. Other ones I'm contacting over the phone and just going about it that way at this point in time. There'll be enough time for me to sit down with everyone here when the time is right.  

Q: Mike, did you see what Alan Faneca said? And are you concerned at all that there are some veterans who were a little disappointed that either Grimm or Whisenhunt didn't get the job?  

Tomlin: Yeah, I did see what he said and no I'm not concerned about it whatsoever. Transition's never easy, particularly at a place like this that has had great stability. Some organizations get quite used to change. This is not one of them, thankfully. So you don't expect it to be easy or comfortable for everyone, but not concerned about that at all. I think as they get to know me that those kinds of questions will quickly be laid to bed.  

Q: If players are nervous about a new boss, can that be a good thing?  

Tomlin: Some people motivate through fear. To me, fear is not a good long-term motivator. I think you motivate true professionals through teaching, so that's my approach. Charismatic leadership or motivation, fear motivation, or teaching; I tend to focus on teaching.  

Q: What about the veterans who've played longer or are even older? Do you have any fears that some of those guys might be out of reach?  

Tomlin: None. Playing is playing; coaching is coaching. It's quite obvious that you see the game differently from that standpoint. Mutual respect is required. Respect the experience that players have and gained through playing and coaches the same way.  

Q: Do you have a plan in place to show the players exactly what your process is?  

Tomlin: I'm not here to entertain them, or try to win them over immediately with glitz and glamour. That's short-lived. I'm going to be myself. We're going to get started about the business of putting together a great football team. That's just rolling your sleeves up and going to work on a day-to-day basis. That's what they're going to see from me. The things that they see from me Day One, once we get started on our off-season program, are the same things that they're going to see from me next January when we're in the thick of things.  

Q: Mike, what are you seeing on film?  

Tomlin: I see a very talented team, of course, a team that's physically and mentally tough. We have some standout players at various positions. There's a lot to be excited about.  

Q: What do you think went wrong this past season?  

Tomlin: Again, I hesitate to pass judgment on what happened in '06, first and foremost because not being here you don't know exactly what they were being asked to do, or what the circumstances of the situations were. I think that's important. I'm looking back to gain information as I move forward. I'm not looking back to pass judgment on what happened here, nor do I care what happened here. My focus is the '07 Steelers, not the '06 Steelers.  

Q: Can you tell us what you see, what would help you in moving forward?  

Tomlin: Yeah. I like to evaluate players in terms of what they're capable of, from a potential standpoint. Seeing what they do well, seeing what they individually potentially struggle with fundamentally, and that's why I'm looking at the tape, simply from that standpoint, to evaluate personnel, to see what they fundamentally do well, to see what they fundamentally struggle with, and, as we come together and put our plan together, build around the strengths of our men.  

Q: Do you talk to the other coaches to help you evaluate personnel?  

Tomlin: To be honest with you I've been quite hesitant to pass judgment on the men based on what I'm told, again because, number one, I was not here, and, number two, I think that it's only fair, when you're starting off on a new relationship, that you build that relationship on the interactions between the two parties. I'm going to base my judgments and feelings about the men off of our relationship during the time that we spend together. I'm making a conscious effort not to pre-judge them in that regard because I think it's the right thing to do. One thing about this league, about this profession, it's obvious some people succeed in certain situations and fail in others and vice versa, so I think we'd be selling potential men short if we took some things for granted based on what's happened in the past.  

Q: How do you start since you're coming in new? Are there starters in your mind? Do guys go in with any kind of status? Is everybody the same? How's that going to work as you move forward?  

Tomlin: It's never cut and dried in that regard. There are certain things that are obvious. You have to use your common sense. Alan Faneca is a starter. You know, really … really. The big thing you have to be open to is you can't be close-minded in terms of potential change. Change is part of football. It doesn't matter whether I'm in year one or year 15 here. You have to have an open mind that roles change on any given team from year to year. Players emerge; players fade. That's part of football, so I have an ear to the ground in terms of expecting some things to change because they always will and they always do, but at the same time it does involve a little common sense and understanding that known commodities are known commodities.  

Q: Mike, have you determined what positions need to be strengthened as you move forward into the draft and free agency?  

Tomlin: Still in the process of that. I'm greedy. You know, I'd like to strengthen all the positions, but at the same time I'm a realist. It's not necessarily what positions need to be strengthened, it's about prioritizing what positions you want to focus on. That's what we're in the process of doing. It's sincerity when I say I'd like to strengthen all positions, but you have to prioritize.  

Q: Mike, did you know Dick LeBeau before you came here? And now that you're here, what are your thoughts on working with him?  

Tomlin: I knew of Dick LeBeau. I think that everybody in this business knows of Dick LeBeau. (I) had a great deal of respect for him, and as I start to work with him on a day-to-day basis he's exceeded my expectations in terms of what he's capable of. He's an awesome coach. He's a detail guy. He's a humble guy. All he wants to do is win. It's been refreshing. And not only him, but the entire defensive staff with (John) Mitch(ell) and Keith Butler and Ray (Horton) and Lou (Spanos). It's been fun. We're in there every day hacking away at it, trying to find ways to get on and off the field.  

Q: Do you need to determine, before the draft and free agency, the type of defense you're going to run? And what type of outside linebacker or defensive end you're going to be looking for?  

Tomlin: No, we don't. The elite players defy scheme. They do. Troy Polamalu's going to be an excellent safety, regardless of what defensive scheme he's in. Casey Hampton's going to be a dominant interior defensive lineman, regardless of what scheme he's in. So the elite players defy scheme. We're not going to get enamored with that. What we're going to do is we're going to continue to shape our package to do what our players do and do well. It'll be a constant evolution, just like the players are constantly evolving.  

Q: Mike, you wouldn't have to watch much film to see the quarterback was much different last year than he was the year before. How do you get that rectified? Was that one of the reasons why you changed the quarterbacks coach?  

Tomlin: I changed the quarterbacks coach because I felt strongly about some of the things that Ken (Anderson) was able to bring to the table. His experience both as a player and as a coach is well-documented. I think he has a unique experience from that standpoint in that he's experienced just about everything that someone can experience from inside that helmet. I think that will help him in terms of building a quality relationship and mentoring Ben (Roethlisberger). In terms of what went wrong last year, again, a lot of times the quarterback position gets too much credit when things go well and gets too much blame when things don't go well. So I'm not enamored with that. Like everyone else I mentioned, I'm not going to judge Ben and what happened. I look forward to working with him. I'm more focused on the quality of his play in '07 than trying to get something rectified that I wasn't around on a day-to-day basis and don't know what the issues were.  

Q: Mike, you said you're not going to rush to judgment about watching film and what happened last year, does that make it more difficult heading into free agency and the draft?  

Tomlin: No. I am sure what I have. I just said I'm not evaluating men by what I see on tape, in terms of what they were being asked to do, or passing judgment on them in that regard. What I am doing is looking at what they do well and what they don't do well fundamentally, and I get just as much information from that, or more information from that, than I do evaluating how they fit in a particular scheme. I'm just looking at the players, what they do well, and what they struggle with fundamentally, and basing our needs on that information.  

Q: Considering the expectations, this can't be an easy position to step into. Are you feeling any pressure? Have you sensed any of it in the city yet?  

Tomlin: I do, and I enjoy it. I do. If you don't like pressure, you're in the wrong business. I thrive on it. That's how you know you're alive. If you don't want to get out the bed and meet the challenges of the day, I don't know what you do for a living at a high level. Do you guys feel a little pressure when you're competing at the highest level?  

Q: Right here.  

Tomlin: You know what I mean. I always laugh when people ask me that, because if you're competing in any industry – if I'm in mortgage banking and I'm competing at the highest level in the international stage of mortgage banking, I would imagine there's some pressure.  

Q: Wouldn't it be easier to step into a 2-14 situation with young talent, a lot of high draft picks and a lot more money to spend in free agency?  

Tomlin: Personally, I'd rather step into this situation (laughs). Would you rather go to a newspaper with absolutely low expectations in terms of your performance or do you want to compete? I struggle to understand why someone would think I have an issue with expectation. It's part of the business. You love it. That's what drives you. That's the competitor in all of us that do what we do. I welcome that.  

Q: But there's less margin for error here.  

Tomlin: Great.  

Q: If you were to implement new ideas here, you won't be getting as much time for them to take place.  

Tomlin: Great. Pour gasoline on the fire. Really. Really. That's what we do, man. That's what we do for a living. We compete, and you'd better have confidence in yourself and your ability to do the job if you expect your men to take the field with that kind of swagger. And I do.  

Q: You're under the microscope more here than maybe almost any other coach in the world. It's a high-profile position.  

Tomlin: When you dream about getting your opportunity, and you lay awake at night dreaming about getting your head-coaching opportunity, that's what you wish for. And if you don't get it initially, you hope you build a program that gets to that point where the expectations are sky high and you're capable of competing for a world championship every single year. So whether or not you get it year one, or whether you build it six, seven years into the process, that's what you lay awake dreaming about. It just so happens I'm getting an opportunity to be part of a team that's capable of competing for world championships right now. Great.  

Q: Have you had any surprises in what comes with being a head coach?  

Tomlin: Like I talk about not pre-judging players, I don't try to paint a picture in my mind of what's required of me to do this job on a day-to-day basis. I prioritize a to-do list and I go about the things I need to do on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes I'm surprised, but nothing groundbreaking, really. I'm having fun. I really am. I'm living a dream.  

Q: What do you think of using starters on special teams?  

Tomlin: I have an all-hands-on-deck mentality. And you guys will find it's not going to be lip service. It's a legitimate phase of the game. There are three phases of the game. We need to be willing to do what it takes for us to win as part of being a blue-collar team. If it requires starters being special-teams players in certain situations or quite often, than we've got to be willing to do that. I think my track record in terms of teams I've been involved with will tell you that. Antoine Winfield made a rack of plays on special teams last year. Ronde Barber was a special-teams player even after he emerged into a Pro Bowl player when I was in Tampa. It's a phase of the game and great players have an opportunity to impact the game in that phase and so you call on them to do it.  

Q: Do you need a second back, do you have one and will you use one?  

Tomlin: The answer to all those questions is yes we need one; we have potential men identified. It is important. I was saying to someone the other day, if you look at the teams in the conference championship games, all of them had two backs. I'm talking about the two guys in New Orleans, the two guys in Chicago, the two guys in New England, the two guys in Indy. The last four teams had two backs who are capable of being feature-caliber backs. I think that's just part of today's NFL. If we're going to be part of that mix, I think we should do the same.  

Q: Why is the NFL going that way, to two backs?

Tomlin: I think just having the ability to be multiple, having the ability to attack defenses in different ways. If you look at New Orleans, Deuce McAllister is a power man, Reggie Bush is speed. If you look at New England, Corey Dillon is power, the rookie Lawrence Maroney is speed. You have to have the ability to have a change of pace offense, to attack people in different ways. Central, from a perimeter standpoint, having the ability to play both in the game at the same time and go two-back or one-back. It just gives the defense more things to work on. I think it's just part of today's NFL.  

Q: Who picks starters, role players, etc.? Do you take input from your assistants and do you then make the decision?  

Tomlin: I'll take input from assistants not only on those matters but all matters, but ultimately the final decision will be mine.  

Q: When's your mini-camp schedule, your OTAs.  

Tomlin: We have a tentative schedule right now in terms of our minicamps and OTA practices. There's a date coming up when we have to submit those dates to the league. We're massaging that schedule and continuing to bounce it around to make sure it best fits our needs. It's a tentative schedule, it's pretty rock solid but it's not finalized at this point.  

Q: How do you feel about getting an extra preseason game and time at camp?  

Tomlin: I enjoy it. It gives us another week of training camp. I enjoy camp. I think that it's an opportunity to eliminate some of the outside distractions that are involved in everyday life. You just get to focus on the game itself and the team element of the game and the chemistry and camaraderie associated with football. I've always enjoyed camp. I know most players won't agree with that but I've always enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to it.  

Q: Will you use the two required minicamps that you get?  

Tomlin: Yes.  

Q: Your offensive coordinator said he'd like to go more four wide on early downs and is intrigued by moving Kendall Simmons to center. What are your thoughts on those?  

Tomlin: We're going to do what we have a chance to be successful with. If that means spreading people out, then we'll spread people out. That's a part of today's NFL offensively. I think you can't hit your head against the wall, you can't run on the beach, you have to do at times what defenses give you and play to our strengths. And if four wides happens to be a strength of ours  vs. a given opponent on first and second down, then of course we'll be willing to do that.  

Q: Does that suit Willie Parker better?  

Tomlin: I think Willie's a guy capable of succeeding in a lot of offensive schemes, as I was mentioning earlier in regards to Troy or Casey. I think Willie's that kind of guy, to be honest with you. I think initially coming in, I had a perception of him as a perimeter runner. But it was obvious the more tape I watched that he's capable of hurting you in a variety of ways. I'm developing a great deal of respect for what he's capable of doing as a ball carrier in all facets of the game. I'm less concerned about doing that to play to Willie's strengths. I'm more concerned about being capable of doing that if it gives us a schematic edge.  

Q: And the center?  

Tomlin: That is an option. It is not an option that I'm extremely familiar with, but again I'm having an open mind in regards to personnel roles on the football team, and I think we need to do that. I know that he's played a little center, but it doesn't show on tape. It may show a little preseason tape but I haven't had a chance to watch it yet.  

Q: How much have you talked to Ben Roethlisberger, and do you feel a need to reach out to him given how important he is?  

Tomlin: I felt the need to reach out to him because he's the quarterback of the football team. I have talked to him quite a bit, or more than most. It's the quarterback position in the National Football League. I think to a degree that the things that come with that, we have to have an understanding of what we need to do; he's a big part of that. So it requires a relationship. Just laying the groundwork with Ben, the basis of that relationship, I'm looking forward to continuing to do it.  

Q: What do you expect of a quarterback, regardless who it is?  

Tomlin: To play winning football, to manage the game, to do the detail things that are required to keep the chains moving and to ring up the scoreboard. Just that.  

Q: What about off the field?  

Tomlin: I put no more responsibility on him than I would anyone else, and that's to realize that you represent not only yourself and your family but the Pittsburgh Steelers and the National Football League, and to conduct yourself with class.  

Q: Bill Cowher talked with him about wearing a helmet and riding a motorcycle. Did you talk to him about that?  

Tomlin: I did not.  

Q: Do you feel that's something within your realm to do?  

Tomlin: You guys will fine I have very few boundaries in terms of  things that I'm willing to talk to people about and suggest. Whether or not he takes it is another thing. That's just part of building relationships and getting to know one another. There'll be very few boundaries with me, not only with him but with any of the men in terms of things like that, because I'd ask  him to do the same thing with me one-on-one. I have no problem having those kinds of discussions, not only with Ben but with anybody.  

Q: How's the transition going for your family?  

Tomlin: The football is going  better. It is. My wife is enjoying it and is miserable at the same time. She's putting a house on the market. She's got a 6 year old, a 5 year old and an 8-month old in Minneapolis, and I'm here. She's house hunting; I'm of very little help. I want a final three, I want to walk through three homes and say, "That one!'' She's doing a lot of the leg work in terms of some of those things. It works for us. Believe me, she knows what she's doing in that regard, so I trust her from that standpoint. It is tough, it's tough on families. Just like the transition here within this building is difficult, it can be tough at times to save things going in your personal lives. That's part of this business and we understand that, we accept that. She's tough, it's going well.  

Q: Are Andy Reid's family problems eye-opening for you?  

Tomlin: Personally, I've always taken the approach that this is what I do, it's not who I am. My family comes before football; it always has, it always will. The things that are happening with coach Reid are unfortunate, but it's not because he's a football coach, it's because he's a parent. Parents across every field of human endeavor in terms of what they do professionally, it happens to them. Yeah, it gets written about and reported because of who he is, I understand that. But those are parental issues, not coaching issues. I think everyone who is a parent understands that.  

Q: (West Virginia assistant head coach) Bill Stewart said you were a good receiver and could have made it in the NFL. Do you regret not trying to play in the NFL?  

Tomlin: The longer I coach, the less I regret it because I believe God has a plan for us all, and my plan was not to play in this league but to coach in it. The competitor in you regrets it, but it's less and less as I get older, particularly you get 34, 35 years old you want to play less. When I was a young coach working for Bill, I thought I could still play.  

Q: Are you a hockey/Penguins fan?  

Tomlin: I'm a big sports fan. I like sporting events. I love seeing people compete. I enjoy hockey, I do. I became a Johnny-come-lately fan down in Tampa when the Lightning got on their Stanley Cup run. I've been that kind of fan in terms of hockey since then. I know that the Penguins have some great young talent; they seem to kick butt every time I show up so I look forward to showing up again. I'm a sports fan. I went to Kevin Colbert's son's basketball game on Friday night, because it was Senior Night and they were trying to make the playoffs. So, the energy in that kind of environment – it doesn't matter if it's professional football, professional hockey or high school basketball – I like it, I enjoy and have a great deal of respect for things involving athletics where people have to compete.  

Q: Did you get a standing ovation at the high school game too?  

Tomlin: You try to slide in and watch a little high school basketball, but I'm starting to realize that I can't slide in anywhere. That's cool. It was a warm reception and that's great, but I didn't go for that, I went to watch Kevin's son play a little basketball. Mars vs. Knoch. I guess that's somewhat of a rivalry and I got a sense, a feeling of that. That's what sports is all about. It was a good game, both teams shot the lights out, it was a good game.  

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