The son of a single mom in newport news, Va., Tomlin loved to play football but wasn't heavily recruited as a receiver coming out of Denbigh High. At William & Mary he became a three-year starter—and an obnoxious chatterbox. By the time Sharper arrived in Tomlin's junior year, Tomlin and fellow wideout Terry Hammons were the sheriffs on the team; they abused the kid in practice, trying to prepare him to play at a top Division I-AA level early in his freshman year. "I'm going to run by you, young kid. You ready? You ready? Get ready!" Tomlin would say to Sharper. Then Tomlin would beat Sharper on the play as promised, toss the ball to secondary coach Russ Huesman and say, "Better find somebody to cover me, Coach." Finally, according to Sharper, Tomlin would jiggle and preen all the way back to the huddle.
A solid receiver (his career average of 25.5 yards per catch remains a school record) with middling speed, Tomlin worked out for the 1995 draft but had little hope of making an NFL team. That's when a William & Mary assistant, Dan Quinn, took a job at Virginia Military Institute and invited Tomlin to audition for the wide receivers coach's job. "I was on trial for one weekend of practices," says Tomlin, "and I was hooked. I had never really thought about being a coach, but I loved it." He spent one year at VMI (at a salary of $12,000), one at Memphis, two at Arkansas State and two at Cincinnati. The Bearcats ranked 111th nationally in pass defense in '98, but in Tomlin's first season they rose to 61st.
Dungy noticed. He needed a secondary coach on his Bucs staff in 2001 and wanted to break in a college assistant. Tomlin was the last man he interviewed. Dungy handed him a pair of shorts and a Bucs T-shirt and told him to meet defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin on the practice field. "I wanted to see how he coached, how he taught, his techniques," says Dungy. " Chuck Noll did the exact same thing to me before he hired me in Pittsburgh."
Tomlin showed how he would coach defenders to reroute receivers in Tampa's Cover Two scheme, how he would instruct cornerbacks to turn wideouts over to safeties in zone coverage, how he would teach safeties zone-blitz technique. Then the three watched some game tape together. "I didn't think I'd get [hired]," says Tomlin. "I figured it was just another job I'd lose out on because I was so young." Three days later, just before he was set to interview for an assistant's position at Notre Dame, Tampa Bay called: The job was his.
The fact that Tomlin was 28 didn't bother Dungy, who was 26 when Noll named him Steelers secondary coach in 1982. And though Tomlin had only one year under Dungy, who was fired by the Bucs after 2001, the importance of being an even-tempered coach and teacher made an indelible mark. "Coaching under Tony was invaluable," he says. "He never rode the emotional roller coaster. I fed off his quiet strength."
That lesson came in handy last year in Minnesota. The Vikings' defense, ranked 21st in the NFL in '05, featured some players who were earning their millions but also had some underachievers. The first day he worked with the players, Tomlin told them that he didn't care about how many Pro Bowls they had or how much money they made. The players who showed him that they were the best would be the ones who played.
Nosetackle Pat Williams, who had a reputation for being hard to coach and a big talker, reported to training camp about 10 pounds overweight. Tomlin banished him to a side field, ordering Williams to run sprints during each practice until he was down to 325. It took five days.
At defensive meetings each day, Tomlin put two pages on the overhead projector. One was the Loaf Chart, which totaled the number of plays on which each of his players had dogged it during the previous practice. Tomlin preached accountability. The other sheet was called the News, which singled out players for mistakes such as jumping offside or dropping an interception or looking half-asleep. "I'm not telling a story," Tomlin would say. "I'm reporting the news."
"You definitely did not want to be in his newscast," cornerback Fred Smoot says. But midway through last season, he was. Eight games into the second year of a six-year, $34 million free-agent contract, Smoot was not playing well: no interceptions and just one pass breakup. Tomlin opened a midweek defensive meeting by saying, "We're going to have a change at cornerback. Cedric Griffin's going to replace Fred Smoot, and if Fred does not come and compete for the job, Cedric's going to be the corner the rest of the year."
Recalls Sharper, "The feeling in the room was, Wow! But Mike was so blunt, so honest, and he had said at the beginning of the year that that's the way it was going to be."