From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED January 26, 2009
WITH A RUGGED 23-14 win over the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, the Steelers have a chance to be the first team to win six Super Bowls. Their opponent: upstart Arizona and the two men coach Mike Tomlin trumped for his job ( Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm). On the night of Jan. 18, after beating the Ravens, 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. The week before the AFC Championship Game, 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 that Wednesday was ragged, and when Tomlin called everyone together at the end of the session, several players expected to be blasted for 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."
The night before the game, Tomlin's message was simple: The most physical team will win. He even hung a sign at the team hotel with those words. Then the Steelers went out and proved their coach right in one of the most bone-crushing games in playoff history. There were Carey Davis's wicked opening-kickoff layout of Ravens special-teamer Daren Stone (who headed to Pittsburgh's bench before being redirected), receiver Limas Sweed's ferocious block on cornerback Corey Ivy and safety Ryan Clark's vicious fourth-quarter hit that floored Baltimore back Willis McGahee. The NFL doesn't like to glorify that kind of football, but the hits were seismic, one more jarring than the next.
It's remarkable that Tomlin is already 15th among NFL coaches in tenure. "He's going to be one of those guys who stays here for 40 years," backup quarterback Byron Leftwich says of Tomlin. "He's perfect for this job."
Tomlin has already shown he's the right man for the Steelers, a coach in the mold of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. But that matters little to him. Right now he's only concerned with one more game, one more win.