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Tomlin's ability to listen, manage personalities leads to Super success

TAMPA, Fla. -- There is an unmistakable fidelity about Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, an air of wisdom and assuredness that belies his 36 years.

He is a Super Bowl-winning coach now -- the youngest ever -- and he accomplished it while coaching in his 36th NFL game. Think about that -- 36 years old, 36 games in, and Mike Tomlin has joined an exclusive group.

When the Arizona Cardinals grabbed their only lead late in Super Bowl XLIII on a two-play drive that began on -- you guessed it -- their 36-yard line and ended on Larry Fitzgerald's catch-and-run touchdown that dropped the Steelers behind 23-20, all was set for Pittsburgh's furious finish. Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turned to a player whom Tomlin once believed required a makeover.

Tomlin deactivated wide receiver Santonio Holmes for a Oct. 26 home game against the New York Giants -- a game the Steelers lost. Tomlin was not happy with Holmes' level of professionalism. Tomlin wanted more. He got it from Holmes.

Holmes said of their meeting: "He told me how he was going to handle it; I did not want to hear that. But he did what was best for the team and for me."

This is the key thing about Tomlin's decision, the beauty of it. What he did in requiring more of Holmes affected his team as much as it did Holmes, the Super Bowl XLIII Most Valuable Player who made the winning touchdown catch.

"I think it took real guts for coach Tomlin to do that with such a big game on the line and knowing how much Santonio means to our team," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "When he did that, he put action behind the words he had been preaching. He did something that raised the accountability of everyone. That was a decision that had a lasting impact on this team."

Just like the one that Tomlin made concerning Polamalu in the coach's first season with the Steelers.

Tomlin allowed Polamalu, a Greek Orthodox Christian, to worship at a monastery more than a one-hour drive away from Phoenix in the early morning hours on the same day of a September road game at Arizona. Tomlin kicked curfew aside for Polamalu so that this player could fulfill a wish, a personal mandate that meant everything to him.

So, tough love, admiring love -- little difference for Tomlin. Every situation with his players, he knows, requires its own clarity.

This is a cutting-edge coach who gets it. If you are going to sell it to your team, sell your brand, your concepts, your beliefs and your blueprint. Your message resonates best when you are as good a listener as you are a talker. Young football players need that as much as discipline. They need quality in their coach, along with the quantity of tasks demanded.

Mike Tomin says yes, he is a football coach, and that is what he does, but it is not who he is.

He comes from the Tony Dungy coaching tree and said that Dungy "paved the road. I just have to walk down it."

Tomlin took notes, paid attention, got his chance to lead and used his knowledge gained.

"That's the business of coaching," Tomlin said of his relationships with his players. "Working with these players, you are a life coach in many ways and have to wear many hats. I embrace that more than the X's and O's. I get more enjoyment from that than the other things. I'm an unrealistic dreamer. That's my story."

His story as a coach appears far from complete.

The Steelers have hired just three coaches since 1969, and now each one -- Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin -- has won the Super Bowl. This victory helps cement Tomlin's tenure, his style, his presence with the Steelers for a lengthy ride. He knows his next team will not feature the same 53 players. This group is history, it is done, he said.

But so much of what Tomlin is, what the Steelers are, will endure.

"There are tough decisions you have to make in this role as a leader," Tomlin said. "I do not run from that. I do not make those decisions with a punitive mindset."

No, he makes them with an aura of fidelity and clarity that serves him and all of the Steelers fittingly well.

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