Though Mike Tomlin's head coaching career is still in the very early stages of its very early stages, Steelers linebacker Larry Foote was recalling its actual postpartum hours the other day, the first days after the quick and clumsy coaching search of January 2007.
"A lot of people," Foote was saying, "did a lot of bickering. But coach Tomlin came in and earned his respect. Now the locker room is with him. He tells you the truth. I wasn't here when [Bill] Cowher was first here, but Tomlin is a little bit tougher.
"Make no mistake."
There'd be no productive result in comparing the head coach of the Steelers to his predecessor on one random weekend 21 months into the current administration, except for this little flash point on the broad historical overlay of successful head coaches.
Don Shula, with more wins than any NFL coach in history, started 15-7.
Bill Cowher, with more wins than any Steelers coach not named Chuck Noll, started 15-7.
Mike Tomlin, without undue interference from the Cincinnati Bengals this afternoon, will start his NFL head coaching career 15-7, and though any semi-arbitrary 22-game window should have no conceivable relevance as a professional barometer, the fact that Tomlin's regular season record might read 15-7 by sundown is at least significant in the way it differs from just about every coach in Steelers history except Cowher.
Other than Tomlin and The Jaw, only Buddy Parker had even a winning record over his first 22 games in Pittsburgh (among those who even lasted 22 games), and Parker's 12 wins weren't anything like a guarantee of looming success. Noll himself went 5-17 until the cavalry arrived in the draft rooms of the early '70s.
As it happens, Tomlin's start would not be merely identical to Cowher's, it would be inextricably linked to Cowher.
"He didn't come into a situation where we were a losing team and the coach had been fired," tight end Heath Miller said quite correctly. "I remember it was said that coach Tomlin was a guy who could get our attention, and that's a good quality in any football coach, but I don't think we really needed someone to get our attention."
Just about everyone at Tomlin's new address had his hands on the same Lombardi Trophy that Cowher hoisted in Detroit only a year before, so they weren't exactly in the dark about what had to be done. They might have been in the dark as to the extent of Cowher's personal reflections on job, family, compensation and on the vague sense that he had to start taking piano lessons, but Tomlin didn't miss on his only opportunity at a memorable first impression.
"They're very similar in their passion for the game, their work ethic, and the energy they bring to it; it's kind of contagious," Miller said, "but the thing I admired right away about coach Tomlin was that he was himself; he was his own coach, and he knew how he wanted to coach."
The other richly evident aspect of the transition that Tomlin was so smart that he was plainly too smart to outsmart himself. There was no apparent purpose, Tomlin recognized instantly, to reinventing a team that had most of its Super Bowl components still developing.
"Most times a guy in his first job comes in and wants only his guys around," said veteran corner Deshea Townsend. "But coach Tomlin did the right things. He kept coach [Dick] LeBeau, kept pretty much the same systems. That's when I knew this was a smart guy. Most times smart people are going to be successful.
"He and coach Cowher, their personalities are different, but they're similar in a lot of ways. They let you play. They want you to prepare hard and study hard, but when the game comes, they let you play. They correct you on Monday. Coach Tomlin, like coach Cowher, really understands the game and everything about the game, on and off the field. He knows little things are important, on and off the field."
What Tomlin understands about this afternoon is that no one is going to be terribly impressed with the first 22 games of his head coaching life if he ends up gagging on what the Bengals introduce, even as an 0-6 entity that hasn't been able to beat the Steelers the last six times they've met in Ohio. He understands that you don't look ahead in this business, because if you did, you'd see the next six games as a fairly threatening sandwich: Cincinnati, the Giants, Washington, Indianapolis, San Diego, Cincinnati -- a quadruple meat seasonbuster on two slices of thin white toast.
Yeah, 15-7 would be satisfying for about 24 hours, but were it to morph into something like 15-11 by mid-November, there'd surely be no use in recalling that memorable Bill Cowher line, "I couldn't be more prouder."
First published on October 19, 2008 at 12:00 am