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Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Tomlin picked up a few things in Minnesota

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Introductory Super Bowl news conferences were playing in the background Monday when something stopped me in my tracks. A few sentences from Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin were all it took to send me tumbling back to a 3-year-old memory. Suddenly I was recalling a conversation with a confidant of Minnesota coach Brad Childress during his first training camp in 2006.

 
  Kevin Terrell/NFL
  Mike Tomlin, left, took some cues from his former boss, Brad Childress, when he took over as head coach in Pittsburgh.

Don't be alarmed, the person said amid the most brutal and jarring training camp I had ever covered.

It was difficult not to be. Players were getting worked over in daily full-contact drills. Reporters had lost much of their access and were lucky to get an audience with Childress once every three days. Fans were complaining about a lack of autographs and the team's seemingly intentional decision to practice on fields as far away from the stands as possible.

But this confidant was convinced it was all part of a larger plan. This is the way Brad feels he needs to approach it. The players and everyone else need to know there will be discipline and that's how the program will run. It'll be a lot easier to pull back later on than it would be to tighten things up.

In my mind, the resulting hard feelings and strained relationships played a role in the Vikings' 6-10 finish that season. Some players never bought into the message, and others said they never understood it. Childress has since loosened up a bit, but some of the damage of that first impression was permanent. He remains deeply unpopular with fans and has a distant relationship with most players.

Tomlin was the defensive coordinator on that 2006 team, and in many ways he was the anti-Childress: A gregarious young coach with enthusiasm and an open door for his players to air grievances.

And yet what did Tomlin do upon leaving the Vikings to take Pittsburgh's head coaching job in 2007? Essentially, he pulled a Childress. Read what he said Monday, shortly after the Steelers touched down in Tampa to continue preparations for Super Bowl XLIII:

"It was my intent to come in here in '07 and to draw some hard lines in the dirt as a basis for beginning to form a relationship with our football team. It's a heck of a lot easier to pull back than it is to pull down."

The words were almost identical to those used by Childress' confidant in 2006. Tomlin was remorseless about running a difficult training camp in 2007. He displayed little emotion and seemed to go out of his way to project the image of a stoic leader. There were a number of reports about players disagreeing with his methods or reacting petulantly to his challenges.

As promised, Tomlin pulled back the dictator persona this season to reveal an intense but more human character.

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"I'm probably more in my comfort zone this year with the football team than I was a year ago," Tomlin said. "Not that I wasn't comfortable. I was. But this is more of who I am. I think that they have an understanding of that. I think that all relationships are based on sharing. We didn't have any experiences to call on. Our relationship was edgy, if you will. That comes with the territory, if you will."

Tomlin's words were oddly similar to what Childress said at the start of his second season in 2007:

"I just think that when you are charged with changing a culture, you have to set your fence posts deep with things you believe in. It's always easier to back away a little bit, but in the situation that I came into, I did it exactly the way that I felt like it needed to be done. Change is uncomfortable for everybody involved. It might be short-term discomfort. Hopefully, we are building the foundation as we move ahead."

Tomlin, in essence, took the worst moments of Childress' tenure and used them as a building block for a Super Bowl team. Which begs the obvious question: Why did it work better for Tomlin than for Childress? After all, Tomlin is 22-10 in his two seasons with the Steelers while Childress is 24-24 in Minnesota and does not have a playoff victory.

I can suggest three reasons. (I'm sure you can provide a few more.)

  1. Tomlin has a knack for communication and personal interaction that Childress and many other NFL coaches can't duplicate. Anyone who has heard Tomlin speak or dealt with him in a one-on-one situation knows it's easy to believe and follow what he says. Some people are better at it than others. As a result, Steelers players clearly understood his first-year message of discipline and knew it was a foundation block rather than a permanent fixture. Simply put, Tomlin sold it.
  2. Let's be fair. The Steelers won the Super Bowl two years before Tomlin's arrival, and he inherited much of that nucleus. There is no substitute for championship experience. The players heard his message and adjusted accordingly.
  3. While installing his own fundamentals, Tomlin took care to preserve the best of the Steelers' structure. At the top of that list was retaining defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and continuing the 3-4 defense for which the team was built. (Tomlin's personal preference is to run a 4-3 defense.) It was a winning decision, but also an important show of respect. Contrast that with Childress, who imposed a strict version of the West Coast offense on a team that had been using a downfield passing offense for almost 15 years. Tomlin almost certainly learned from that experience.

During his Monday media availability, Tomlin mentioned all three NFL coaches he has worked for. From this vantage point, it seems that Childress' contribution to Tomlin's learning curve was every bit as significant as those of Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. You probably wouldn't have guessed that when the 2008 season began.