By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 12:11 AM
DALLAS - In his senior year at Denbigh High in Newport News, Va., Mike Tomlin wasn't voted the school's best athlete, wasn't the big man on campus. Tomlin was voted most likely to succeed, and it might've been the easiest call anyone at Denbigh had to make.
This weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers' 38-year-old head coach will try to become the 13th coach in NFL history to win at least two Super Bowl rings. His path to the top of his profession was a quick one, but growing up around Newport News, you had to be fast to gain anyone's attention.
"That area has always had a lot of good players," said Jimmye Laycock, the longtime head coach at William & Mary. "But traditionally, it has not been known for the best students. That's why with Mike, being as good as he was and as smart as he was, we jumped on and recruited him so hard."
Tomlin's roots are deep in the Hampton Roads area, where shipyards and the military tie together much of the community. Born in Hampton, Tomlin was raised by his mother, followed his older brother's steps to the football field and soaked in everything around him.
"It's made me who I am today," Tomlin said. "I appreciate the experiences that I had growing up. Not all positive, but it didn't kill me so it made me stronger. I'm very appreciative and proud of where I'm from."
He remembers attending football camps and learning from area coaches who did more than blow a whistle, guys such as Matt Boone, John Quillen, Curt Newsome and Tommy Reamon.
"We come from an area that's steeped in football tradition, led by men who are stand-up guys and many of the reasons why I wanted to get in this profession," Tomlin said.
Laycock said Tomlin was a formidable receiver who wasn't getting a lot of attention from Division I schools.
"Mike was a very smart football player when he played here," Laycock said. "Very competitive when he played, but also very enthusiastic and very positive. Those are things that have carried over into his coaching. I remember that all the time, when he was a player, he was always upbeat, always pushing the guys around him but doing it in a fun-loving way."
Tomlin's Steelers players praise him as a motivator. He strikes a balance between being stoic and buoyant, quickly shifting one way or the other depending on the situation.
"He knows how to push buttons," said nose tackle Chris Hoke. "He knows how to get us focused and get us going. He has a certain message for every week, and he pounds that message in every single day."
Says defensive end Brett Keisel: "He understands the makeup of this team, and I think that's what great coaches do. When it's time to push us, he pushes us. When it's time to pull the reins back, he pulls the reins back. That's the makeup of a great coach, understanding your players."
Tomlin played four years at William & Mary and told the coaches there that he would like to enter their profession. He got his start as a receivers coach at Virginia Military Institute and found new jobs in six of his first seven years coaching.
"He was moving around there a number of times, and he'd always call me and ask my advice when he was considering a job," Laycock said. "I'd always ask him, 'Mike, are you still enjoying what you're doing?' Every time he said: 'Coach, I love it. I just love it.' He always had that attitude. He just loves what he's doing."
After five seasons as the defensive backs coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tomlin spent the 2006 season as Minnesota's defensive coordinator before the Pittsburgh Steelers called, looking to replace Bill Cowher.
"The Mike Tomlin pick, it came out of left field," said Hines Ward, the Steelers' 13-year veteran wide receiver. "Nobody expected that. We thought we were going to hire within, probably Russ [Grimm]. That's what a lot of players thought. When they named Mike Tomlin, a lot of people really didn't know Mike Tomlin."
Ward says Tomlin has changed in his four years leading the Steelers. When he first arrived, Ward said, Tomlin was "militant."
"He wanted to practice two-a-days, full pads all day long. By the time we got to the playoffs to play Jacksonville, we were a beat-up team," Ward said. "They don't give you a book that shows you how to be a head coach."
It didn't take Tomlin long to learn. After losing in the AFC's wild card game his first season, Tomlin led his team to a 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII the following year, becoming the youngest coach to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
But he didn't get caught up in superlatives or accolades. Tomlin preached to his players that he expected to return to the Super Bowl, to win more rings.
"One of his famous quotes is, 'The standard is the standard,' " linebacker James Farrior said. "I think that's something that all of the guys really believe. I think we all accepted that part of it."
Surrounded by talented assistants and strategists, Tomlin excels at getting the most out of his players. He remembers well the motivators who encouraged him growing up in Newport News and says he uses a lot of the same techniques.
"He doesn't give you that, 'Win one for the Gipper'-type speech," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He knows how to let us motivate ourselves and be professionals."
Roethlisberger recalls that before the Super Bowl two years ago he found a note card in his locker with Tomlin's recognizable handwriting.
"He put down, like, 'Terry Bradshaw - four, Joe Montana - four,' and he listed kind of the Super Bowls and he said, 'Where do you want to fit in that group?' " Roethlisberger said.
On Sunday, Tomlin has a chance to put his own name alongside some of the game's best - Lombardi, Shula and Gibbs, among others.
"I think the first couple of years, people had an excuse here, an excuse there for why they didn't want to give him any respect," said Hoke, the Pittsburgh tackle. "The guy has proven that he is a winner. Three of his four years, he has taken us to the playoffs and two of his four, taken us to the Super Bowl. So you've got to give the guy credit."