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One night last week a family new to Pittsburgh--husband and wife, three kids ages six years to 11 months--walked into the neighborhood bistro La Tavola Italiana atop Mount Washington for dinner. The husband had been there before. He moved around the place in a comfortable, self-assured way and recognized the Sicilian cook and owner, Carmela Giaramita, right away. "Mom!" he said affectionately, then bear-hugged her. She wasn't really his mother but had been so accommodating and friendly in his previous visits that he felt a kinship.
"Such a nice man!" Giaramita purred. "And what a beautiful family!"
New Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, 35, was seated at a corner table with his wife, Kiya, sons Dino and Mason and baby daughter Harlyn. Tomlin had his usual, Pasta alla Ben, a fusilli-and-sausage dish named after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who introduced him to the place in January.
"It's starting to feel like home here," said Tomlin, who in 12 seasons as a college and pro assistant had lived in six cities. "It's an awesome feeling to finally be in a place you can call home. For so many years, we've felt like migrant workers."
"When we move into a house," said Kiya, "the first thing I think of is not how beautiful it is. I think resale value."
"Baby," Tomlin, smiling, said to his wife, "I've got a feeling we'll be here awhile. This is where we'll raise the kids."
As the Steelers' third coach since the Nixon Administration--the archrival Browns, by contrast, have had 13 since Chuck Noll took the Steelers' reins in 1969-- Tomlin has every reason to feel as if he hit the coaching lottery in succeeding Bill Cowher. Having just finished his first season as a defensive coordinator, with the Minnesota Vikings, he was a long shot to get the job over two longtime Cowher offensive assistants, line coach Russ Grimm and coordinator Ken Whisenhunt (box, page 59), and two other candidates--just as he had beaten long odds when, as a precocious 28-year-old in 2001, he beat out 10 older men to become the secondary coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Steelers chairman Dan Rooney hired Tomlin for the same reason that Tony Dungy, then the Tampa Bay coach, hired him six years ago. They looked past his age--something a few college programs couldn't get beyond--and saw another Noll, a teacher. "He can make anyone understand what he's teaching," Dungy says. "That's the essence of what a coach needs to do at any level."
Well, there are a lot of teachers in the coaching ranks, but how many of them get to pilot one of the NFL's flagship franchises just 15 months after it has won the Super Bowl? The first black coach in the Steelers' 74-year history, Tomlin wasn't hired because of the Rooney Rule (the NFL stipulation that requires teams to interview minorities for coaching vacancies). Tomlin got the job because of these traits: He welcomes change and does not shy from confrontation; he gets players to perform at a higher level than they had been before he coached them; and he has great determination to win, which can be described as about midway between Noll's quiet hatred of losing and Cowher's spitting fury in the face of defeat. "I am a sick competitor," Tomlin says.
And not a bad tactician, either. In his lone season as a coordinator, he took the same basic cast in Minnesota that finished 19th in the NFL against the run in 2005 and rebuilt it into a stone wall. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, only one team allowed fewer than the 985 rushing yards the Vikings gave up last year. His challenge in Pittsburgh: take a veteran team that appears to have seen its best days (8--8 in 2006) and get it back into Super Bowl contention. He'll have to do it without Pro Bowl linebacker Joey Porter, who left for the Miami Dolphins as a free agent, and perhaps without Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, who walked out of Tomlin's first full-squad minicamp last weekend angry over his contract. The new coach has to figure a way to get Roethlisberger back in a groove, merge his 4--3 defensive scheme with veteran coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3--4 ideas and convince the players who had long been schooled by Cowher's staff that he knows what he's talking about.