A Year Later, It’s Now Mike’s Time

By John Harris
Updated: January 20, 2009

PITTSBURGH — At 34, Mike Tomlin was young and unproven, an anomaly among NFL coaches. Two years later, Tomlin is a virtual Methuselah in the coaching ranks when compared to two recent hires of his own cloth.

Tomlin begat 32-year-olds Josh McDaniels and Raheem Morris, who were recently hired to coach the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively. Morris, who coached with Tomlin in Tampa Bay, has been described as a Tomlin clone.

In a league where imitation is considered the sincerest form of flattery, young coaches are in — thanks to Tomlin. Now 36, he’s the youngest coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl, as the Steelers prepare to face the Arizona Cardinals on Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla.

Fittingly, aspiring NFL teams want a Tomlin of their very own. If only it were that easy.

Tomlin replaced Bill Cowher a year after the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. Several key veterans were Cowher loyalists who favored Cowher assistants Ken Whisenhunt or Russ Grimm — both now with the Cardinals preparing to face their old team in Super Bowl XLIII — landing the job.

Tomlin, who was the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator for only one season and had no head coaching experience, had to win over those veterans, or else.

“He took control of this team,” inside linebacker Larry Foote said. “Trust me, he ruffled a lot of feathers, but we couldn’t do nothing but respect it. He came in and said my way or the highway — and it’s his way. Everybody jumped on ship.

“He demanded respect, and he earned it.”

Franchise receiving leader Hines Ward was struck by how easily a youthful Tomlin imposed his will on a team whose players had just won a Super Bowl.

“Last year, he had to come in and set the laws down. A lot of guys were set in coach Cowher’s ways,” said Ward, a Cowher favorite. “(Tomlin) was very strict on his rules. If he started an 8 o’clock meeting, he wants you there at 7:58. If you were (late), you were going to get put on his so-called ‘news board’ and you would get fined. He had a year under his belt to let guys know this is his team and this is how he wants things run around here.”

Instead of a negative, Tomlin’s youth worked to his advantage, according to defensive captain James Farrior.

“I feel like it’s a good thing that he’s so young and that he’s so close to our generation. He can relate to our generation a lot better than older coaches. He’s a couple of years older than me,” said Farrior, who turned 34 on Jan. 6. “I feel like he can talk to the players on the level that we’re on. He’s able to get his point across, and that’s probably the main thing.”

To think that Tomlin is now the third-youngest coach in the NFL. What’s next? A 25-year-old coach taking his team to the Super Bowl?

Don’t laugh. Given what Tomlin has accomplished, anything seems possible.