- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. | In the summer of 2000, Mike Tomlin knew exactly what his coaching future held - and it didn’t include the National Football League.

Then 28 years old, Tomlin was entering his second season as defensive backs coach at the University of Cincinnati. He hoped his next move would be to serve as a defensive coordinator and then a head coach at the Division I-A level.

“I had no intention whatsoever of coaching in the NFL,” he said.

But Tomlin spent training camp as an intern with the Cleveland Browns, working under then-defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. The experience changed his outlook.

“That was a great avenue to expose the NFL to me,” he said. “I left that internship committed to coaching in the NFL.”

A year later, Cincinnati coach Rick Minter recommended Tomlin to Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who named him Herm Edwards’ replacement as defensive backs coach. Tomlin spent the 2005 season as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator before being hired as the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ head coach.

On Sunday, Tomlin, 38, will become the youngest coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl when the Steelers play the Arizona Cardinals.

Two programs helped Tomlin to his spot on the podium at the Intercontinental Hotel on Monday: the internship, which is designed to give minority college assistants an NFL crash course, and the Rooney Rule, the NFL bylaw that dictates teams interview at least one minority candidate when searching for a head coach.

Tomlin might not have had the chance to impress the Rooney family during a series of interviews after Bill Cowher resigned in January 2006 if it weren’t for the rule inspired by owner Dan Rooney.

“It was a factor in me getting an opportunity,” said Tomlin, who got the job over then-Steelers assistant Russ Grimm. “I can’t tell you I had a strong opinion of [the rule] one way or the other. I always had a great deal of belief in my abilities and that, if I continued to work and do good things, I would get my opportunity - Rooney Rule or not.”

What Tomlin has done with the opportunity is win consecutive AFC North titles and help put Pittsburgh on the cusp of a sixth Lombardi Trophy, successfully replacing a coach who was beloved by the fans and respected by his players.

Defensive end Brett Keisel said Tomlin’s first meeting was telling.

“He tried to take over the room, make his presence felt right from the get-go,” Keisel said. “But you could see a few nerves and whatnot. He was a young guy, and the team had won the Super Bowl two years before. But from the second he spoke, you could see why the Rooneys hired him, just because of the way he carried himself.”

Not that everything was smooth sailing. The Steelers wilted down the stretch last year, losing four of five, including a home playoff game to Jacksonville. This season, injuries have sidelined several key players, and the offensive line has been under constant criticism for its lack of pass protection.

But Tomlin eased up on the amount of full-pad practices late in the season and the Steelers - against the league’s toughest regular-season schedule - are 8-1 in their past nine games.

“Definitely at the end of last year, we were a team on the decline. We weren’t playing our best football,” tight end Heath Miller said. “This year, our goal was to be playing our best football at the right time, and I feel like we are.”

Said receiver Hines Ward: “He understands his players. Last year, [he] had to come in and set the laws down. … Going into his second year, he understood what players needed to be pushed and what players needed to be given time off to be fresh.”

Tomlin is in his 14th year as a coach, starting at Virginia Military Institute following a four-year playing career as a receiver at William and Mary. Despite a school-record 20 touchdown catches, he knew his playing days were done, so he began a journey of four colleges in six years before going to Tampa Bay.

Since his VMI days, Tomlin has downplayed the significance of his age, saying players respond to teaching and not coaches who are closer to them in age.

“Relationships with players are personality things,” he said, “not age things.”

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