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Tomlin shows youth can prevail in taking Steelers to Super Bowl

TAMPA, Fla. -- The AFC Championship Game had just ended, and Mike Tomlin stood in his usual spot, at the top of the tunnel, just a few feet outside the doors to the Pittsburgh Steelers' dressing room at Heinz Field. He had a hug or a pat on the back for every Steelers player who walked past him.

In one respect, it was an expression of pride and gratitude for a job well done after the Steelers, with their victory over the Baltimore Ravens, earned a trip here for Super Bowl XLIII. But it also was Tomlin's way of demonstrating that he was the one responsible for the whole team. Most other NFL coaches are among the first to enter the dressing room after a game. They leave the chore of ushering in any stragglers to someone else.

Not Tomlin.

"Seven," he shouted after spotting Ben Roethlisberger, who wears that jersey number, make his way up the tunnel. "Who's still out there?"

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When the quarterback said that a few more players were behind him, Tomlin yelled: "Let's go! I'm waiting on them all."

The scene served as a classic reminder of what Tomlin's piercing eyes, booming voice and fiery demeanor have suggested all along. No matter the situation, he takes charge and he takes responsibility.

It also was further validation that, when it comes to coaching, youth hardly is wasted on the young. At 36, Tomlin is the youngest coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl. And he only needed two seasons to do it.

It's no stretch to say that Tomlin's rapid success -- he guided the Steelers to a 10-6 record and an AFC North crown in his first year, and a 12-4 finish and another divisional title in his second -- helped pave the way for a couple of 32-year-olds to land head-coaching jobs this year: Josh McDaniels, with the Denver Broncos, and Raheem Morris, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

For Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, age doesn't matter as long as the right man is filling the job.

"Mike is a very bright person," Rooney said. "He's very thorough. He talks to his players, he talks to me, he communicates very well with the press. I mean, Mike has just been a real pleasure to have with us."

Although "pleasure" might not be the first word Steelers players use to describe what it's like to play for Tomlin, they've had no problem adapting to his tough, demanding style. When Tomlin became the coach in 2007, he knew there was no other way to approach the job. It was either be assertive or be gone. Quickly.

Tomlin faced multiple obstacles as the replacement for Bill Cowher, who ended a 15-year run at the helm in Pittsburgh one season after winning Super Bowl XL. Cowher, only the second man to coach the team since 1969, had grown into one of the strongest and most recognizable personalities in the history of the franchise. The bulk of the players began their NFL careers with him. They believed in him and were fiercely loyal to him. Any new coach would have a hard time gaining their trust.

Conventional wisdom had the Steelers going with a familiar face by promoting either offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm. However, Rooney made a choice that stunned the team and the rest of the NFL. Tomlin had just finished his first season as a defensive coordinator, for the Minnesota Vikings, and at 34, he was the league's second-youngest coach in '07. Whisenhunt became the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, the Steelers' Super Bowl opponent, and Grimm accompanied him as an assistant.

There was so much for Tomlin to prove, yet he never flinched at the enormous challenge. He promptly established that it was his way or the highway. And Tomlin's way meant a more grueling training camp and harder practices throughout the season. It meant that if a team meeting was scheduled for 8 a.m., everyone should plan to arrive at least two minutes early. Any lack of compliance, and a player would wind up on Tomlin's dreaded "news board," which meant he had drawn the wrong kind of attention from the coach and could count on a fine.

"It was my intent to come in in '07 and to draw some hard lines in the dirt as a basis of beginning to form a relationship with our football team," Tomlin said. "It's a heck of a lot easier to pull back than it is to put down."

Naturally, this resulted in what he described as an "edgy" relationship with his players in that first season. Linebacker James Harrison, for one, was stunned when Tomlin had the team practice in full pads twice a day during the early part of training camp and kept them in full pads through workouts until the final few weeks of the regular season.

"I guess that (was) his way of saying, 'You know what? This is my team, this is how I'm going to run things,'" Harrison said.

Gradually, Tomlin gained respect from his players as someone who meant business. He also made an impact with his unbridled exuberance.

"Coach Tomlin is a guy that just brings such an energy and an excitement, whether it's to meetings or to the sideline," Roethlisberger said. "You know, chest-bumping guys and hitting guys, even when you're not expecting it. He just has an energy that guys feed off of. And I think they really appreciate that, and they want to play for him and win."

"I think the team is a reflection of him," Rooney said of Tomlin. "But I also think that he relates to the players and, therefore, their thoughts and personality get involved, too."

Tomlin was smart enough to understand that the Steelers' defensive dominance was well established through the use of the 3-4 scheme of coordinator Dick LeBeau, and that members of the unit wanted to stick with the philosophy and with LeBeau calling the shots. Although Tomlin arrived with a 4-3 background, going back to his start in the NFL as a defensive backs coach for Tony Dungy (and later Jon Gruden) with the Buccaneers from 2001 to 2005, he didn't force a philosophical change and left LeBeau in charge of the defense. The Steelers proceeded to have the NFL's top-ranked defense two years in a row.

And for all of the emotion he displays, Tomlin actually has a remarkable ability to stay even-keeled. For instance, he did his best not to show too much excitement after the Steelers won the AFC title because it would have contradicted what he had been telling his players since the start of the season: You're capable of going the distance.

At the same time, during a team meeting soon after the Steelers' arrival here Monday, Tomlin urged his players to enjoy the week and not get so caught up in preparing for the game that they ignore the fun that goes with being part of such a spectacle.

The players appreciate his honesty and consistency.

"I think Coach has been the same guy since he stepped foot in the door the first day," tight end Heath Miller said. "He's genuine. He's going to be who he is. He's not going to try to be anybody different or do things a different way because someone else wants him to. He's going to be honest and straightforward with his players, and I think that earns respect with guys throughout the locker room."

The heavy physical tone that Tomlin set for the team in '07 proved to be a learning experience for him. Players became worn down late in the season, which helped lead to a slump and a wild-card-round loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tomlin eased up considerably in 2008, and the Steelers finished the regular season strong enough to earn a bye, which -- combined with fewer full-pads workouts -- allowed them to be fresh enough to perform at their best in the playoffs against the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore.

"I'm always going to be open and willing to change if it produces better results," Tomlin said. "Like every year that I've been in this profession, I analyzed the things that I'd done and how I potentially could have done some things better to produce a better outcome.

"Thankfully, we're where we sit here today. I don't know if it is, in any way, directly related to some of the decisions that I made, but I'll always be searching for the ceiling, in terms of putting our team in the best position to perform."

Spoken like a natural leader.

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