Tomlin building own legacy with Steelers
January 14, 2009 3:17 PM
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- Every day, Mike Tomlin walks by five Lombardi trophies on the way to his office.
Not two or three.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is well aware of the football legacy in Pittsburgh.
It's a tremendous symbol of excellence for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But for Tomlin, it's also a daily reminder of the extremely high standard the second-year coach has to live up to.
One can almost feel the ghosts of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher swirling around Pittsburgh this time of year. It's playoff time in the NFL, and every Pittsburgh head coach dating back to 1969 has become legendary by contributing at least one Super Bowl to the organization and the city.
Tomlin wants -- and expects -- to do the same.
"I love the high expectations that come with this job," said Tomlin. "I'd rather have high ones than low ones. It's a sense of pride, because the tradition is awesome. You can't put a price tag on it. It's inspiring."
Tomlin, 36, already has Pittsburgh (13-4) in the AFC Championship Game against the rival Baltimore Ravens (13-5). The game guarantees that one AFC North team will represent the conference in Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII.
These are the big games Tomlin needs to eventually win to be mentioned alongside his lofty predecessors. Noll, who won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, is a Hall of Fame coach and Cowher is a lock for Canton when he decides to permanently retire.
Tomlin is doing well so far.
He is 22-10 in his first two regular seasons and won his first career playoff game last week against the San Diego Chargers. Tomlin's winning percentage of .688 is better at this point than both Cowher (.623) and Noll (.566). But everyone knows football excellence in Pittsburgh is judged by hardware.
"I want to win one for him just for the fact that he is a great coach," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "He's following in the footsteps of coach Cowher and coach Noll, but the tradition here doesn't stop. This organization is still all about winning Super Bowls and being there to give yourself a chance to play in the playoffs."
Cowher dealt with many of the same issues following in the footsteps of Noll. He spent 15 years in in Pittsburgh and -- despite consistent winning -- didn't win the Super Bowl until year 14 of his tenure.
Cowher struggled most in AFC title games, where he was 2-4. He split two Super Bowl appearances -- losing Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys and winning Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks.
This is the 14th AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh's storied history. The Steelers are 6-7 in their previous appearances.
Tomlin has a chance to advance to his first Super Bowl much earlier than Cowher, who got to his first big game in his fourth season. It also doesn't hurt Tomlin that this year's playoff field is wide open as three No. 1 and No. 2 seeds were upset in last week's divisional round.
Pittsburgh, the second seed in the AFC, is the highest-seeded team remaining in the postseason.
"We've worked out cans off all year to get to this point," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "Now it's about seizing this opportunity, taking advantage and going to Tampa."
Tomlin has said numerous times that the 2008 Steelers are not his story. It's a humble statement but not completely accurate.
Tomlin's rapid growth as a coach is one of the reasons Pittsburgh is in title contention. The Steelers saw no drop-off after switching head coaches for the first time in 15 years, and Tomlin deserves much of the credit for keeping continuity and high expectations intact throughout the organization.
"He's done a phenomenal job of getting all his players and getting this team back to where we wanted to be," Ward said. "Last year we fell short in the playoffs. This year we advanced to the next round and we're one game away from the Super Bowl. So a lot of players do want to win it for him.
"To go to the playoffs his first two years, we can't ask for any rookie coaches to do that."
The Mount Rushmore of Steelers coaches may someday include Tomlin. But, first, he has to add a sixth piece of hardware to that very same trophy case he passes at work every single day.