TAMPA — Mike Tomlin has his hands in his jacket pockets. He could be waiting at a bus stop or in line at the movies. He could be standing in his driveway, chatting with a neighbor.
Or, he could be on the sidelines, watching quarterback Ben Roethlisberger bring the Pittsburgh Steelers back from a fourth-quarter deficit, or watching the defense make a game-winning stop.
Assistant coaches wave their arms. Players run on and off the field. The 50,000 or so people in the stands scream.
Tomlin follows the play, watching with his hands in his jacket pocket.
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“That lets you know that nothing is too big,” Steelers cornerback Deshae Townsend said. “It’s just a game. Relax and play football. Go make the plays you’ve been making all year.”
Tomlin is 36 years old, which makes him the youngest head coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl. This is his second year on the job. He replaced a legend who also replaced a legend.
Tomlin often comes across as the most relaxed person in the stadium.
“He is. He’s relaxed because he’s prepared us. Anytime you prepare your team, you can watch them work,” Townsend said. “The thing I like about him is he lets us play. There’s not going to be a whole bunch of coaching after every series. If he sees something you’re doing wrong, he’ll tell you. He allows us to play, and that’s what all players like.”
Tomlin is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ former defensive backs coach who spent a year as the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator before replacing former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. Tomlin was 34 when he was hired.
Cowher was 35 when he became the Steelers’ head coach, replacing Chuck Noll, who was 37 when he took the job in 1969.
The Rooney family has a habit of hiring young defensive assistants and letting them coach for as long as they like.
Perhaps that is why Cowher and now Tomlin have not faltered under the shadow of the man they replaced.
Or, perhaps it is because the Rooneys know when it’s time for a young assistant defensive coach to become a head coach.
“Thankfully, I was the guy they were looking for,” Tomlin said.
He laid down his law before the 2007. You were either with him, or you weren’t a Steeler for very long.
“Coach Tomlin is a guy who is going to shoot it to you like it is,” linebacker James Harrison said.
When running back Willie Parker complained publicly earlier this season about the lack of carries, Tomlin handled the matter privately. When pressed by reporters for details, Tomlin said, “Every day I walk past five Vince Lombardi trophies, not five rushing titles.”
Tomlin was a wide receiver at William and Mary, then spent the 1985 season coaching receivers at the Virginia Military Institute. The following season he accepted a job as a grad assistant at the University of Memphis. It’s the kind of job that does not allow for much sleep.
But he worked with the defensive coaches while unknowingly taking his first steps towards Sunday’s championship game.
“Memphis was a unique place in that it wasn’t a dominant program, but they had a dominant defense,” Tomlin said. “They embraced that identity. I think that was the beginning of my mentality regarding playing defense. The mentality those guys had, they were intent on beating you up. When they stepped into a stadium they played the game in that manner. They had that air of confidence about them, I fed off that.”
Tomlin often coaches with his hands in his jacket pockets because he is confident in his team. He spent the week crafting a game plan with his assistants and feeding that plan to his players.
“He lets the coaches do their thing, and it works for us,” linebacker Bruce Davis said. “He’s so calm because he has trust in us, and because of that, we have trust in him.”
Tomlin learned that bit of coaching while working as an assistant for Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Brad Childress.
“I’ve been blessed that I have worked with some great people, people who took a stake in my development,” Tomlin said. “And, really, I pull from all of it on a day-to-day basis, the lessons learned from leadership. It’s all about people. It’s all about taking care of the troops. It’s about putting them first. I’ve learned that if you’re going to lead, you try to lead with a servant’s heart. I try to do that, try to take care of my men and give them what they need to be great.” Tomlin does that by believing in his message. He does that by believing in his direction. He does that by believing in his coaches and believing in his players.
“He’s so calm because he has trust in us, and because of that, we have trust in him,” Davis said. “He has faith in his team. We trust each other. He just lets us do what we do.”
And when you do that, there is nothing left to do but watch the game. Stick your hands in your jacket pocket if that makes you feel comfortable.