Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Secret to Steelers Coach Tomlin's Success: Take Notes
By JUDY BATTISTA
The New York Times
January 26, 2009
TAMPA, Fla. — Sometimes in the off-season, he creeps down to the basement in the middle of the night and pulls an old Franklin Planner from the stacks. Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin — reluctant intellectual — goes back to school then, flipping through the meticulous notes he has kept since he was a youngster, line after line bringing back the memories of what he did in a practice, of how a coach handled a wayward player, of the goals he hoped to accomplish that season.
For years, Tomlin tried to shield his smarts from view. When the “My Child is an Honor Roll Student” bumper stickers arrived in the mail, Tomlin threw them in the garbage before his mother could put them on the car. It was weird, he thought, when his friends first realized in 11th grade that he had gotten straight A’s. Even at William and Mary, an elite college just a few dozen miles from his home in Newport News, Va., he playfully mocked one of his best friends as Poem Boy, only to quote Robert Frost in his news conference after the Steelers won the American Football Conference championship last week.
But those notes in the basement serve as a road map of Tomlin’s meteoric career rise and inform his decisions still. The 1996 volume is a particular favorite because Tomlin was a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis, with the ideal fly-on-the-wall vantage point to observe coaches while bearing few responsibilities. Nobody, save perhaps Tomlin himself, could have imagined that a dozen years later — only two years after he met much of the N.F.L. while pushing his baby’s stroller through the league’s annual meeting — Tomlin would become the youngest Super Bowl head coach in league history.
“Shocked is not a word that I would use,” Tomlin, 36, said of landing the Steelers job in the first place. “I’ve always been extremely competitive. I’m a big dreamer, I guess. I’ve been known to be pushy.”
Tomlin has never lacked for self-assurance. When he told his mother he was forsaking law school to take his first $12,000-a-year coaching job — a decision she thought was insane — he told her coolly that he had a plan. Tomlin’s father, Ed, played in the Canadian Football League, but Tomlin had little relationship with him after his parents separated when he was a baby.
The lure of football came, instead, from neighborhood coaches. Athletics were viewed as a way out of a sometimes difficult neighborhood, Tomlin said, so the coaches became the disciplinarians, the guidance counselors. He wanted to be among them, even if he didn’t need sports to escape. He was a wisp of a high school wide receiver, but he was also quietly stowing recruiting letters from Ivy League programs.
Tomlin wanted to be known as a jock then, not a smart kid, something he knows sounds silly now. But perhaps that was why he could always command a room, able to make the biology students and the offensive linemen equally comfortable.
“He would walk through the door at 10 o’clock at night and light up the room,” said Pete Tsipas, the owner of Paul’s Deli, a student hangout at William and Mary where Tomlin worked the door. “Fifteen years later, he still knows everybody’s name.”
At William and Mary, Tomlin bulked up and became a downfield receiving threat, establishing a team record by averaging 20.2 yards a catch. But football also provided Tomlin an opportunity for the perfect melding of the academic and athletic, and perhaps the underpinnings of his coaching style: he memorized his opponents’ biographies, the better to trash-talk them. Tomlin calls himself a flatliner now, projecting only cool dressed in black on the Steelers’ sideline. But back then, he was emotional — even a little cocky.
“Confidence was never a problem with Mike,” said Minnesota Vikings safety Darren Sharper, a college teammate who was later coached by Tomlin when he was the Vikings’ defensive coordinator. “He would talk trash not only to players, but to coaches. It was a comedy every day. He is always ready to go, trying to get guys to compete.”
Tomlin and his friend and fellow receiver Terry Hammons were fans of NFL Films, and in one they noticed that the great Cleveland running back Jim Brown behaved oddly near the sidelines before games, to unnerve opponents.
“We had such delusions of our own grandeur, we would do these weird drills, we’d get dressed up to our waist, go out with our shirts off, do some push-ups and then start doing ball drills,” said Hammons, who was Poem Boy and is now a lawyer in London.
Hammons calls Tomlin socially intelligent, possessing a knack for knowing what spurs others on. He was the guy singing “It’s a Beautiful Morning” in the bitter cold of an off-season workout. And years later, after Steelers running back Willie Parker complained about play-calling, Tomlin noted in a news conference that Parker wasn’t complaining last season, when he led the league in rushing for most of the year. The zinger delivered, Tomlin made Parker a game captain a few days later.
In college, Tomlin became a voracious student of the voluminous William and Mary playbook and game film, and he offered his suggestions to Coach Jimmye Laycock. For all his chattiness on the field, Tomlin was a deliberate thinker, given, a sociology professor said, to hanging back in an argument so he could analyze data — the thoughtful approach he takes today when talking to reporters.
From his first coaching job, with the wide receivers at Virginia Military Institute, the notebooks filled up quickly, Tomlin’s career buoyed by his amalgamation of smarts and swagger. At the University of Cincinnati — his fifth career stop in five years — the secondary he took over went from being ranked 111th in the nation in pass defense to 61st in his first season. Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, then coaching in Tampa Bay, heard about him while they were looking for a defensive backs coach.
After putting Tomlin through a 15-hour interview, Kiffin called the veteran safety John Lynch to tell him about Tomlin’s preparedness and poise, about Tomlin’s attention to technique and his plans for motivation. “Monte said, ‘I have good news and bad news,’ ” Lynch recalled. “He said, ‘I got a heck of a secondary coach.’ I said, ‘What’s the bad news?’ ‘You’re a year older than him.’ ”
Tomlin, then 28, was used to the uneasiness his youth created. When the Buccaneers held a brief minicamp early in Tomlin’s tenure, he had known the players for two weeks. But he presented Lynch, a perennial All-Pro, a tape of 75 plays he thought he could improve on from the year before.
“At first, I thought, What’s up with this guy?” Lynch said. “But then I started reading the detail. He’d show a play, then have a long paragraph about what he thought I could do better. I learned a lot from him right away. That sold me on him.”
The Steelers were a veteran team one season removed from a Super Bowl title when Tomlin got the job Jan. 22, 2007, at age 34. The players were watching him closely. Tomlin ran an intentionally savage training camp to make the point that he was in charge and to help him determine the hardest workers.
Now the Steelers credit him for delegating authority to his assistants, rather than interfering with play-calling, and for easing up on some players as he has grown more comfortable with them.
“I like the head-scratching,” Tomlin said. “I go out of my way to not put them at ease. There’s nothing wrong with being in a permanent state of arousal and not finding a comfort zone.”
That wisdom is undoubtedly jotted in one of his notebooks, which will stretch a little longer for this season. There is no hiding how smart Tomlin is now, but that was never the whole book on him.
A few weeks after he became the Steelers’ coach, Tomlin invited Hammons, a Pittsburgh native and lifelong Steelers fan, to his first minicamp. Tomlin showed him the five Lombardi Trophies. He introduced him to the team’s chairman, Dan Rooney. Hammons was overwhelmed.
“We get out on the practice field, and he’d come over to me and say: ‘You know what, Terry? I could blow this whistle and all of the Pittsburgh Steelers would come running over. Do you want me to blow this whistle, Terry?’ ” Hammons said. “And he just laughs and walks away.”