Just in case his head gets a little too big, either from becoming only the third Steelers head coach in the past 38 years or perhaps by doing so by the tender age of 34, Mike Tomlin knows that there are still people in Pittsburgh who need proof that he's ready take over one of sports' most hallowed jobs -- including some in his own house.
"My kids are totally and utterly unimpressed," said Tomlin, who has since turned 35 and is the second-youngest head coach in the NFL. "I was getting ready to go to a function (this summer) and my five-year-old was flipping through the channels, and when my face came on the screen from one of my press conferences, he went straight past Dad and onto the Cartoon Network.
"Never even paused. You gotta love that."
Such ambivalence, of course, is not shared by the remainder of Steelers Nation. The hiring of Tomlin, having spent only one season as an NFL defensive coordinator, was an upset to be sure. He went head to head for the job, vacated by Bill Cowher after a 15-year run, against popular Cowher assistants, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, who were believed to be the favorites for the position.
But throughout the interview process, team chairman Dan Rooney, president Art Rooney II and the rest of the Steelers' decision-makers kept coming back to Tomlin. They continued looking hard at a young, intense guy whom they believed would end up being a head coach elsewhere within a year if they didn't hire him. They loved Tomlin's fire.
They were blown away by his interviews. To a man, every person they spoke to about Tomlin absolutely raved about him.
"It was a surprise when he was picked," CB Ike Taylor said. "Everyone was like, 'Where did that come from?' But we knew the Rooneys knew what they were doing, so we had faith it was a good decision."
Cowher was 34 when he got the job. He had limited coordinator experience, too. So the idea of hiring Tomlin wasn't against what team officials like to call The Steelers' Way.
It just sent a message that things would be changing in 2007.
"Transition is never easy," Tomlin said soon after getting the job. "It's good to be a little uncomfortable."
"I think there was a need for change," said a former Steeler who is on another team's roster this season. "Not that (Cowher) had lost the team. I just think guys got a little too comfortable. We all did.
"We had just won the Super Bowl. You didn't notice it at first, but when we started out the way we did (2-6 to open the season), it was pretty obvious."
Rumors of 2006 being Cowher's final season percolated from the moment the team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. Combined with Ben Roethlisberger's season-long trials -- the bike accident followed by the appendectomy followed by the concussion -- it led to a bittersweet exit, even with a promising 6-2 finish and an 8-8 mark.
Tomlin, not surprising to those who know him, approached his interview with vigor. He knew he'd have to go above and beyond to make the Steelers pass over two known quantities in Whisenhunt, believed to be Cowher's preference, and Grimm, who outwardly appeared to be a good fit in a blue-collar city. Of course, it didn't hurt that the founder of the so-called "Rooney Rule," which requires teams to interview a minority candidate for vacant head-coaching jobs, was named after the Steelers' owner.
"All I knew when I went in there to talk was that I had a shot," said Tomlin. "That's all I wanted."
And he was used to beating out the more-seasoned competition. At 27, Tomlin was coaching the secondary at the University of Cincinnati, only two years after switching to defense from being a receivers coach at Arkansas State. He was in Cleveland recruiting in early 2001 when he made a quick call to the Bearcats' football office to check messages. There was one: Then-Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy had called wanting to interview Tomlin for the vacant secondary coach job.
"I was like, 'Yeah, whatever," Tomlin said. "That's what buddies do when you are out recruiting, they play jokes on you. I told our secretary to hold onto the phone number and that I would check back at the end of the day.
"But then I called back, and Coach Dungy had called again. I got the number, and it was 813 (area code). I said, 'Man, that's Tampa, Florida.'"
It was, in fact, Dungy calling, and Tomlin flew down to Tampa to be the ninth -- and final -- interviewee for the job. It was no contest. Monte Kiffin, the team's longtime defensive coordinator, said the room came alive during the interview. Lions head coach Rod Marinelli, the Bucs' DL coach at the time, said he knew Tomlin was the choice right away. Bucs FS John Lynch, who sat in on the interviews and was six months older than Tomlin, told anyone who would listen that Tomlin should be the pick. He was.
"When I got the (Bucs') job, I knew they had interviewed eight other reputable position coaches who I had a great deal of respect for, guys who were my peers in college football that were doing big things at big BCS schools.
"I learned a lot about the process and about not worrying about the competition from that experience. So my perspective going into (the Steelers' interview) was a little different."
In his time with Dungy, Tomlin also gained the proper perspective of how to run a team on an everyday basis.
"He was the same guy every day," Tomlin said. "Regardless of circumstance, he never rode the emotional roller coaster and made sure his team never did. The confidence he had in his players and the coaches, the men who helped execute the plans he laid out, it showed. It permeated throughout the organization."
Tomlin's calling card, like Dungy's, is defense. Despite playing wideout at William & Mary (where he was teammates with FS Darren Sharper, whom he coached in Minnesota last season), Tomlin said he always was attracted to the urgency of defense.
"You can avoid bad offensive situations," Tomlin explained. "You can throw the ball out of bounds, you can live to play another down. But I just love the urgency of being on the defensive side of the ball -- every time the ball is snapped, you have to make something happen."
Despite leading the Vikings to a great turnaround on defense last season (from 21st in '05 to eighth in '06, including No. 1 vs. the run), one of Tomlin's first moves was retaining longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the famed architect of the fire-zone defense and a popular figure in Pittsburgh. The combination of LeBeau, a 3-4 proponent, and Tomlin, a disciple of the Tampa-2 scheme embodied by Dungy, Kiffin, Marinelli, Lovie Smith and others, has Steelers fans both curious and anxious to see what concoctions the two can brew up. ...........................