Steelers say they couldn't pass up Tomlin

Published: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 23, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin didn't realistically expect to become the Pittsburgh Steelers' coach so early in his career, with so little experience as an NFL coordinator and at such a young age.



He knew it, too, although the 34-year-old Vikings defensive coordinator was excited when the Steelers called two weeks ago and offered an interview. In Tomlin's mind, jobs like this go to Hall of Fame-caliber coaches, the kind of men he has looked up to since he became a coach 12 years ago.

"I'm somewhat of a football historian, and I've got a great deal of respect for those who came before me," Tomlin said Monday after being hired for the job formerly held by Bill Cowher and, before him, Chuck Noll.

"I'm going to try my best to provide a shoulder for those who come after me to stand on," he said.

That calm self-assurance, strong personality, and a preference for Steelers-style basics — a strong running game and a nasty defense — persuaded Pittsburgh to offer him a four-year contract worth about $2.5 million annually. Tomlin is the 16th coach in the franchise's 74-year history and its first black head coach.

"I'm still coming to grips with what that means," Tomlin said.

For those who wonder if he might have used a few more years as a coordinator before becoming a head coach, Tomlin said: "I can't worry about concerns other people might have. I've been hired to do a job here and I intend to do it at a high level."

Not many Steelers fans knew much about Tomlin before Cowher resigned Jan. 5 — and, in a rare bit of candor by team president Art Rooney II, the Steelers say they didn't, either. But Tomlin quickly convinced them during a pair of three-hour interviews he was ready for the job.

During those interviews, Rooney couldn't help but be reminded how another 34-year-old coordinator with similarly thin experience convinced the Steelers in 1992 he was ready to be an NFL head coach.

"I hate to make comparisons with Bill Cowher, but there were some similarities," Rooney said. "It's fair to say that when we looked at a guy who was 34, we said that this guy is down our list. He was probably a long shot when we began the discussions."

Not for long. Steelers assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm were seen as the clear favorites when the search for only the third Steelers coach in 38 years began, but that changed when Tomlin began interviewing. Whisenhunt was hired by Arizona without waiting to see if the Steelers would choose him.

"The one thing that set him apart was his character, his personality — the more we talked with him the more comfortable we got," Rooney said. "He's an impressive young man. Get to spend some time with Mike, and you come away feeling like this is a special person."

The man who gave Tomlin his first coaching job, former VMI coach Bill Stewart, was convinced of that when he persuaded the former William & Mary wide receiver to join his staff the year Tomlin graduated from college.

"He was born to coach," said Stewart, now the quarterbacks coach and special teams coordinator at West Virginia. "He is going to be a great, great, great coach in the NFL."

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