When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were looking for a secondary coach to replace Herman Edwards in 2001, coach Tony Dungy brought in more than a dozen candidates to interview for the position. Most had experience coaching in the National Football League. But not all of them.
The last person to interview for the position was Mike Tomlin, a 29-year-old assistant coach from the University of Cincinnati. Not only had Tomlin never coached in the NFL but he also had only six years as an assistant coach in college.
None of that mattered to the Buccaneers.
"When we met him, we all kind of looked at each other," said Monte Kiffin, Tampa Bay's longtime defensive coordinator. "You could feel the room come alive. When we put him on a plane and sent him home, we all said, 'That's our guy.' John Lynch was sitting in the room with us, he's been to four Pro Bowls, and he told me later, 'I can't believe this guy. He's awesome.' "
"Half the players were older than him," said Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli, who was Tampa Bay's defensive line coach at the time. "But the decision wasn't even close."
And so began the meteoric ascent of Mike Tomlin, one of three finalists to replace Bill Cowher as head coach of the Steelers.
His star is rising so fast that those who know him believe he will be an NFL head coach soon, if not this year, almost certainly by 2008. Included in that group of admirers are the members of the Rooney family who, in this instance, matter most -- team chairman Dan Rooney and president Art Rooney II.
Tomlin bowled them over in his first interview last week, just as he seems to do with everyone who comes in contact with him. He was the first of the three finalists to have a second interview with the Steelers.
"To me, the No. 1 thing you want, if you're running an organization, is someone with character and integrity and a family guy at the very top of your club," Marinelli said yesterday from his office in Detroit. "You see that with Tony Dungy and Herm Edwards, and he has the same character. There are no character flaws. That's all you want. Now you add in something else like his football knowledge and you got something special."
Tomlin, 34, spent five seasons with the Buccaneers before leaving last year to become defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. After just one season with the Vikings, he is on the fast track to becoming a head coach, despite his tender age and limited experience.
The Vikings ranked eighth in total defense last season and led the NFL in rush defense. Like the Steelers, they did not allow a 100-yard rusher in 2006. They were the only NFL teams to accomplish that feat. In a Dec. 10 game against Marinelli's Detroit team, the Vikings held the Lions to minus-3 yards rushing, the lowest total by an NFL team in the past 45 years.
"One of the things you noticed right away was he was eager to learn and how much confidence he has in what he's doing," Marinelli said. "That comes from intelligence. He's an extremely, extremely bright guy. That confidence allows you to be demanding. He has all those skills. Soon as someone meets him, they come away with that impression."
Age doesn't seem to be a problem for Tomlin.
He is the same age as Cowher and Chuck Noll when they were hired by the Steelers. But he is also young enough that one of the players in the Vikings' secondary -- safety Darren Sharper -- was his teammate at William & Mary.
When Cowher was hired by the Steelers in 1992, he was the same age as right tackle Tunch Ilkin.
"He has great people skills, great relationships with his players," Kiffin said. "But there's a fine line in there where you're going to let them know you're going to do it my way. He can do that."
Tomlin was a three-year starter at William & Mary and finished his career with 101 catches, 2,053 yards and 20 touchdowns. As a wide receiver, he was a speed player who could outrun and outjump Division I-AA defenders.
But he never played professional football, opting to become a coach a year after graduation.
"When he told me he wanted to pursue coaching, I said great, coaching needs people like you," William & Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said yesterday.
"I'm not surprised he's in this position. Mike is a genuine good person who happens to be a good football coach."
"I had a lot of respect for him, which is hard for me to say being a defensive player and him being a wide receiver," said Jason Miller, a Canonsburg native who was a linebacker at William & Mary when Tomlin was a wide receiver. "Linebackers don't have a lot of respect for offensive players. But he wouldn't take any nonsense from any defensive back."
Added Miller: "He was always a motivator on the sideline and in the locker room. He never let people get down. What I enjoyed about him, he always had a joke or a smile on his face. He took things light-hearted ... until he gets on the field."
Tomlin spent one season at Virginia Military Institute in 1995, another as a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis and two years as wide receivers coach at Arkansas State. At Memphis and Arkansas State, he worked with Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler.
When he went to Cincinnati in 1999, Tomlin switched sides of the ball, leaving the offense and becoming the Bearcats' secondary coach. Along the way, he gained admirers with his defensive knowledge, displaying an understanding not usually befitting a former wide receiver.
"Tony Dungy was a quarterback who was a mastermind in defense," Marinelli said. "I was an offensive lineman who became a defensive line coach. You see that happen a lot. Players trust him. That's why he's special."
And that's why he's seemingly on a fast track to becoming a head coach in the NFL, perhaps with the Steelers.
"It's not necessarily what you do from an X's and O's standpoint, but how you do it, what playing winning football is all about, not just inside the white lines but outside the white lines," Tomlin said.
"Coaches, in a lot of ways, whether you're a head coach, a coordinator or a position coach, are somewhat of a life coach. You have to be prepared to do the things that come with the job. If you're going to instruct men inside the white lines, you have to understand what outside the white lines affects what they do."