IN 1969 and 1992 the Pittsburgh Steelers hired head coaches not just for their superior teaching ability and their unflinching honesty, but also because the Rooney family believed they could be once-in-a-generation leaders. The Rooneys got it right both times. � Over 38 years in Pittsburgh, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher combined to win 370 games and five Super Bowls. When Cowher stepped down after the 2006 season, it seemed likely that offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or offensive-line coach Russ Grimm would be promoted. A relatively unknown African-American defensive coordinator, Mike Tomlin of the Minnesota Vikings, was brought in for an interview, in part to satisfy the NFL's Rooney Rule, which mandates that teams include at least one minority candidate in their search for a new head coach. In two sessions Tomlin blew away owner Dan Rooney and team president Art Rooney II with the force of his personality and his feel for how to bring out the best in players. He could be special, the Rooneys thought. Whisenhunt—who'd already taken the Arizona Cardinals' top job, fearing he might get shut out in Pittsburgh—and Grimm were stunned that the Rooneys hired a no-name outsider. Grimm followed Whisenhunt to Phoenix as his assistant head coach.
A few days after Tomlin was hired, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took his new boss to lunch and told him a lot of the players were unhappy that two well-liked assistants had been passed over for a 34-year-old they'd never heard of. The two men spoke frankly. "You're going to have to earn the guys' respect and trust," Roethlisberger said.
Fast-forward 24 months, to the AFC Championship Game on Sunday night at Heinz Field, with 1:00 left in the first half and the Steelers leading the Baltimore Ravens 13--7. Pittsburgh rookie wideout Limas Sweed, uncovered deep down the left side, dropped a sure touchdown pass, then fell to the ground and lay there. Replays showed the only injury was to his pride. But when Sweed was slow to rise, the Steelers had to take their last timeout—one they'd wish they had when the clock ran out before they could attempt a short field goal. After Sweed finally walked off, to 65,350 boos, he was met at the sideline by a livid Tomlin. For 10 seconds the coach blew up, and the wideout took it.
"I wasn't mad because he dropped the ball," Tomlin said later. "That kind of mistake can happen to anyone. I was pissed that he'd lay on the ground, fake an injury and cost us our last timeout. My point was, Be a man! Grow up!"
Three plays later Sweed was back in the game and delivering a ferocious block on cornerback Corey Ivy, enabling tight end Heath Miller to gain an extra yard or two. " Coach Tomlin's got an interesting way of explaining stuff," Sweed said. "He's got a little magic in him."
With a rugged 23--14 win over the Ravens, the Steelers have a chance to be the first team to win six Super Bowls. Their opponent: upstart Arizona, and the two men Tomlin trumped for his job. On Sunday night that angle didn't interest the Pittsburgh coach.
"This is the Steelers' story," he said, "not my story."
But much of it is Tomlin's story. Pittsburgh is 24--11 in his two years, and his fingerprints are all over the team. The players parrot what he says in weekly Wednesday meetings. Veterans like his hands-on practice style. He calls out slackers. He won't let injuries be used as excuses. Last week, as the Steelers prepared to face Baltimore for the third time this season, talk of bounties and mutual hatred mixed with the typical conference title game hype. So when he addressed his players on Wednesday, Tomlin told them, "Block out the noise. More humble, more grounded, more selfless makes us all more opportunistic." He put a "14--4" sign in the meeting room (the Steelers' record with a win over the Ravens) and said, "That's our only focus." Later that day linebacker LaMarr Woodley ducked his head into Tomlin's office and said, "Humble, grounded, selfless!"
Practice on Wednesday was ragged, and when Tomlin called everyone together at the end of the session, several players expected to be blasted for such a poor effort in such an important week. But Tomlin told them, in essence, Don't press. Don't try too hard. We have lousy practices here and there during the year, so don't worry about this one. The game's not until Sunday. We'll be fine.
"Perfect," said defensive captain James Farrior. "We all breathed a sigh of relief. He brought us back from thinking we'd really messed up and let us know we're men, we're professionals and we'd be O.K."