He’ll be The Other Coach on Sunday evening, the guy on the sidelines opposite Rex Ryan who looks like that doctor on “House.”
Mike Tomlin doesn’t mind.
“Our styles are probably more similar than you would imagine,” Tomlin said in his press conference Tuesday. “Rex just has more fun with you guys [the media].”
It is hard to think of the charismatic, bombastic Ryan and the quiet Tomlin as being part of the same profession, never mind envisioning them as having similar approaches. Ryan embraces the role of lightning rod, taking pressure off his players by drawing the focus of controversy to himself. Tomlin’s three key words for his players are humble, grounded, and selfless.
They’re as different as Times Square and the Golden Triangle, the glamorous media capital and the blue-collar workingman’s city. But what’s obvious this week is the mutual respect the two share.
“This is a great football coach,” Tomlin said of Ryan. “He has the pulse of his football team. He does a great job of motivating them, is very sound schematically in all three phases, and his glass is always half full. I appreciate that.”
“He’s one of my favorite coaches,” Ryan said of Tomlin. “He’s a man’s man, and his team plays like that.”
Ryan recalled a Monday night matchup between Tomlin’s Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens in 2007, when Ryan was their defensive coordinator. The Steelers ran roughshod over the Ravens, turning three Baltimore fumbles and an interception into a 35-7 halftime lead. “They ran the ball every snap in the second half,” Ryan said (not quite true, though the Steelers did run on 22 of 30 offensive plays). “The one thing is we could stop the run, they got like a yard and a half per carry. It was like batting practice; he wasn’t trying to rub our nose in it.”
Asked to define what it means to be a Steeler, Tomlin was succinct: “Win.”
His matter-of-fact leadership has seen the Steelers through the off-season firestorm around Ben Roethlisberger, got them through the subsequent four-game suspension at 3-1, and has now taken his team to the AFC title game despite the decimation of his offensive line.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Steelers have established themselves as the league’s flagship franchise, an extraordinary turnaround for a team with one playoff appearance (a 21-0 loss in 1947) in its 35 previous seasons. They’ve had three head coaches in that time, gone more than two seasons without reaching the playoffs just twice, won six Super Bowls in seven appearances, and been owned and operated by one family.
The organizational excellence made the transitions from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher and then from Cowher to Tomlin look seamless. But no coaching change takes place without some degree of turbulence. Tomlin’s record in his first four years has been remarkable, and almost completely overlooked.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Tomlin’s won-lost record is tied for fourth among all coaches since the merger in their first four seasons:
George Seifert, 1989-92 52-12, .813
Chuck Knox, 1973-76 44-11-1, .795
Joe Gibbs, 1981-84 41-16, .719
Bill Cowher, 1992-95 43-21, .672
Mike Martz, 2000-03 43-21, .672
Mike Sherman, 2000-03 43-21, .672
Mike Tomlin, 2007-10 43-21, .672
Tomlin has won three division titles and a Super Bowl in those four seasons. Only Joe Gibbs, George Seifert, and Barry Switzer can join him in that claim since 1970.
He is the youngest man to coach in or win a Super Bowl. He was the third African-American man to coach in a Super Bowl, the second to win it. There are 21 coaches in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Tomlin has done better in his first four years than 11 of them did in theirs.
He’s thirty-eight years old. He’s rarely mentioned as one of the league’s top coaches. His success is treated as the result of the organization around him.
All coaching successes begin with a great organization, and depend on great players. This year’s hot model makes for great copy, but The Other Guy on Sunday night is younger, more accomplished, better built for the long run – and a great coach in his own right. Don’t let the bright lights distract you from that fact; we know they won’t distract him.