A chance. That's all Mike Tomlin ever wanted.
It didn't matter whether he was a 103-pound budding junior varsity defensive back, a 5-year-old playing cards with his mom and older brother, a seventh-grader taking a crack at high school trigonometry or a 34-year-old National Football League assistant seeking a head coaching job.
Allow him in the door. Watch him. Talk to him. Listen to him. Guaranteed, he won't waste your time. If he doesn't deliver, if he isn't quite what you're looking for, fine. Everybody moves on and is better for the experience.
Just don't dismiss him out of hand because he's too small or too young or too obscure or too different. Even if he isn't what you think you want, you at least come away with a broader idea of what's possible.
Which brings us to Sept. 9, 2007 -- today. Mike Tomlin -- the young man from Newport News, the young man who, three years out of college, told his mother that he would be a professional football head coach by the time he was 35 -- was, indeed, given the keys to an NFL franchise.
And not just any franchise: the five-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise that's practically synonymous with the NFL and, in these parts, as much civic treasure as sports team.
It's the franchise of Mean Joe Greene and Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris, of the Terrible Towel and the Immaculate Reception, of iconic coaches and revered owners.
Today, Tomlin takes that franchise into its 75th season. No one knows how he and the Steelers will fare today against the Cleveland Browns or the rest of this season or in the years to come.
Tomlin and those around him believe that Super Bowls -- plural -- are in their future. The blueprint is in place, the resources available.
"I think he's going to be a great head coach," Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy said. He's one of the league's most dignified and respected figures -- and the man who gave Tomlin his first NFL job, at 28.
"I think he's going to be a guy that will be very inspirational to his players," Dungy said. "They are going to want to play for him. He's going to be a tremendous motivator, and he's going to be a great strategist. He understands defensive football as well as anybody I've been around. The Steelers have hit on a great coach."
Mike Tomlin has just about exhausted his ability to surprise those who know him.
Such is the case when you excel at a sport played by people half again your size, when you seem to absorb everything you see and hear, when you create an accelerated path to the pinnacle of your profession.
Honor student. Record-setting wide receiver at William and Mary. NFL assistant coach at 28. NFL defensive coordinator at 33. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach at 34.
"There's a code for being a Peninsula guy," said Tomlin, Denbigh High School class of 1990. "It's a tough place, but it produces tough people. The expectations of people there are higher than those, probably, at a lot of places, and that's made us who we are."
Mike is the younger of Julia and Leslie Copeland's two sons. The Copelands have been married for 27 years. Leslie Copeland, a U.S. Postal Service supervisor in Norfolk, is the only real father that Mike and Eddie Tomlin have known.
Eddie, 31/2 years older, and Mike got their athletic ability from their biological father: Ed Tomlin was a Hampton Institute football standout in the late 1960s who was drafted by the Baltimore Colts and played in the Canadian Football League.
Eddie is a former Denbigh High standout athlete who eventually played football at Maryland. He was built more like his dad.
Mike, on the other hand, was "a wee little fellow," Eddie joked. "He was a little guy with a Napoleon complex who grew to be 6 foot 2." Eddie used words such as "fastidious" and "meticulous" to describe his younger brother.
After splitting with their father, Julia Copeland raised her sons as a single mom in their early years, working at Newport News Shipbuilding as a senior operations coordinator in the main machine shop.
When money was tight, she taught her sons card and board games at home. She taught Mike to play spades when he was 5. By 7, he routinely beat his mother and older brother, usually standing on a chair to slap down the cards on the table because he was too short to sit down and play.
Later, when Julia helped Eddie with trigonometry homework -- she has a sharp mathematical mind -- young Mike asked whether he could try a problem or two.
He had overheard her explain while sitting at the table doing his own homework, and he thought he understood.
"Pretty soon, he was working out problems quicker than Eddie," Julia Copeland said. "You can imagine how that went over."
Julia didn't want her boys, particularly her diminutive younger son, to play football. Too violent, too dangerous. But they loved it -- and they were good at it.
Mike excelled almost immediately in activities that required quickness, touch and hand-eye coordination, facets that didn't require great size or physical presence.
Tomlin's gift for being a quick study came in handy on the field, as well. "He always had great awareness on the field," Eddie Tomlin said. "Some of that was probably straight survival. When you're a 100-pound kid on a football field, you can find yourself in physical danger if you aren't aware of what's going on around you."
As Mike finally began to grow and his physical gifts caught up to his curiosity and intelligence, he didn't want teammates to know about his academic honors and achievements.
When Julia proudly displayed a bumper sticker declaring her son an honor student, Mike immediately peeled it off and swore her to secrecy.
"He didn't want his teammates to think he was a nerd," Julia Copeland said. "He just wanted to be Joe Average Football Player."
Turning down several offers from Ivy League schools among others, Tomlin arrived at William and Mary as a 6-foot-2, 165-pound freshman wide receiver.
It didn't take long for him to make an impression on and off the field. His analytical approach to football meshed well with head coach Jimmye Laycock's offensive system that requires quarterbacks and receivers to read and react to coverages.
"He was one of those guys that had kind of a presence," said former Tribe teammate and fellow receiver Terry Hammons -- coincidentally a Pittsburgh native and diehard Steelers fan who remains one of Tomlin's closest friends. "He wasn't loud, but he was someone that people gravitated toward and was fun to be around."
Tomlin was a good-natured trash-talker who loved everything about football, from 6 a.m. winter training runs and film study to the games themselves.
When Tomlin left William and Mary with a sociology degree and several school records, he surprised many around him by choosing to become a coach.
"I went ballistic," his mother said with a chuckle. "I told him, 'We didn't send you to William and Mary to get into coaching. You need to get a real job.' I mean, it was coaching. How hard could it be? But all the time, he kept saying, 'Mom, I have a plan.' "
Brief stops at VMI and Memphis were followed by full-time gigs, first at Arkansas State and then at the University of Cincinnati. While at Cincinnati, where Tomlin helped turn a ragtag defensive secondary into an efficient group, he did an NFL minority internship.
Word began to trickle out about the young coach who was effective beyond his years. At Tampa Bay, Dungy was looking to replace Herm Edwards, who had just gotten the New York Jets head-coaching job. Bucs longtime defensive guru Monte Kiffin called Cincinnati head coach and old friend Rick Minter about Tomlin.
Kiffin recalled Minter telling him, "'Oh, no, how'd you find out about him? Bad news for me. I have to start looking for a coach right now because if you bring this guy in, there's no way you won't hire him.' Lo and behold, he was right."
Tomlin was the hands-down choice over about a dozen other guys, nearly all older and with NFL experience.
He became a 20-something coaching All-Pros Ronde Barber and John Lynch and helped the Bucs win the Super Bowl in his second year, after head coach Jon Gruden was brought in to replace Dungy.
"The one thing that impressed me about Mike was when he got to Tampa, he was able to communicate with every player on our team," Dungy said. "That included veterans, rookies, young guys, older guys, and communication is his biggest strength. He knows the game. He knows it in a way that's not cocky, and he doesn't come across as a know-it-all. He's very confident in what he can do and very knowledgeable."
When Brad Childress was hired as head coach by the Vikings last year, he essentially made Tomlin the head coach for defense while he tended more to the offense. Under Tomlin, the Vikings' defense improved from 21st overall and 19th against the rush in 2005 to eighth overall and No. 1 against the run last year.
"Pete Carroll was a 25-year-old (graduate assistant) for me at Arkansas when I was defensive coordinator for Lou Holtz," Kiffin said, referring to the Southern Cal head coach and former NFL head man. "I told Lou, 'He won't be here long.' Mike was the same way. ... You can just tell. Some guys are just really special and are going to be coordinators and head coaches."
LONG SHOT CANDIDATE
Tomlin wasn't the logical choice to take over for Bill Cowher, the Steelers' 15-year monument. Two Steelers assistants, Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt, were the acknowledged favorites. Tomlin was only 34 and had just finished his first year as a coordinator -- usually the last steppingstone to a head-coaching position.
But the Steelers widened the interview process to include minority candidates. Indeed, the NFL's "Rooney Rule" -- which requires that teams interview at least one minority candidate for vacant head-coaching positions -- is named for Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney, who pushed for the measure in league meetings.
But if the Rooney Rule got Tomlin in the door, it didn't get him the job.
"Certainly, one of the things that set him apart is his character, his personality," said team President Art Rooney II, also a son of the Steelers' beloved owner and founder. "The more we talked with him, the more comfortable we got with him.
"He's an impressive guy. Get in a room and spend two or three hours with Mike -- you come away feeling like this is a special person. The main thing you think about is 'When this guy is standing up in front of your team, is he going to get his message across?' That, more than any one thing, is what convinced us that this was the guy."
As great a leap as many people thought of Tomlin's hiring, it wasn't out of character for the Steelers: Cowher was 35 when he was hired. Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, who oversaw four Super Bowl winners, was 37.
Tomlin is one of six black head coaches in the NFL this season and the first in the history of the Steelers, which he appreciates but doesn't dwell on.
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm not breaking ground," Tomlin said. "Some of my best friends in coaching, guys that I look up to, are breaking ground. Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith, Herman Edwards -- those are my uncles in this business. I walk on the ground that they've already paved. I don't have that mentality about what I'm doing or what I do.
"I appreciate the work that's been done by those that have come before me. I understand that what I do could create opportunities for those that come after me, so I understand the responsibility. But truth be known, I don't consider myself a pioneer."
Tomlin is famously blunt. He doesn't hesitate to praise or critcize players in front of the group. The locker-room and meeting-room evaluations, verbal and written, are often referred to as "the news."
If someone thinks they're being singled out or the evals are harsh, Tomlin's standard response is: I don't make the news, I just report it.
"He's a straight-shooter," Steelers wide receiver and team leader Hines Ward said. "He's not going to sugarcoat things or make excuses. He's a stand-up guy who wants stand-up answers. That's all you can ask for as a player."
Players appreciate that Tomlin is as hard on himself as he is on them.
"That's the good part," safety Ryan Clark said. "It goes both ways. He's not just 'I'm the king on the throne, and this is what you do, and I'm handing down judgment.' It's 'We're all in this together. If I make a mistake, I'll tell you about that, too, and we want to get it corrected.' So it's not as bad as everybody makes it seem. He's not some dictator. He's not Fidel Castro."
THE MAN, THE JOB
Now comes the interesting part: Tomlin must temper some of the qualities that made him stand out -- that got him selected at 34 to coach one of the NFL's signature franchises -- for the greater good of team and organization.
Ego doesn't appear to be a problem. Consider that Tomlin retained six Steelers assistant coaches, including legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. LeBeau turns 70 today, and his forte is the 3-4 scheme and zone-fire blitzes. Tomlin's own background is rooted in four-man defensive fronts and the pass-coverage schemes that he learned and polished from Dungy and Kiffin.
Tomlin's response: Why wouldn't I take advantage of someone like Dick LeBeau, who can teach me as much about defense as anybody?
"To be where he (Tomlin) is at his age," LeBeau said, "to accomplish what he's accomplished in a limited amount of years -- that smacks of a pretty special individual. His coaching philosophy evolved as he decided that this is what he wanted to do with his life, and what he's doing here is implementing it."
In his relatively brief tenure in the NFL, Tomlin has been exposed to -- and been given -- more responsibility than many people.
From Dungy, he learned the value of unwavering dignity and a consistent approach, regardless of results. Gruden gave his assistants the opportunity to be internal head coaches for periods within the season. Childress, himself a first-year head coach a year ago, leaned on his first-year defensive coordinator in several areas on and off the field.
"The reality is that this is my first year as a head coach, my first off-season as a head coach and a lot of things have happened," Tomlin said. "But Brad (Childress) was so good to me that I was in the inner circle on a lot of issues last year, so it doesn't feel like the first time for me this year."
For all Tomlin's preternatural maturity and the seriousness with which he approaches his position, he still possesses a wide-eyed, almost-childlike excitement about the game.
When the Steelers played in the Hall of Fame exhibition game in early August, he was genuinely touched by a 75th-anniversary Steelers display at the hall that included a photo of him -- a guy who hadn't yet called his first timeout.
He sounded like a little kid when he told brother Eddie that he'd met Jim Brown. He was almost giddy when he talked about meeting legends such as Deacon Jones and Jack Tatum in Canton, Ohio.
"Those were guys that we worshipped growing up," Eddie Tomlin said. "Mike's always been a bit of a football historian."
Hammons, the former William and Mary teammate and Steelers devotee, attended training camp a while back as Tomlin's guest. He still chuckles at the memory of the two of them standing off to the side during practice one day when Tomlin joked with him: "You know, if I blow my whistle, all the Pittsburgh Steelers will come over here and stand in front of me. You want me to blow the whistle?"
Tomlin has no trouble balancing the joy of the game and the seriousness of the job.
"It's easy, from my perspective," he said, "and maybe I'm different than most. I happen to enjoy what I do. I like what comes with this game. I like what comes with this business. Some perceive it to be positive and negative. I've learned to enjoy it all. I really do.
"I like the challenge that each day presents, whether it's in season, whether it's out of season. It never gets stale. Every day you walk into this building, it's something new that you have to deal with, whether it's football-specific or team-building or otherwise. I enjoy that element, and I think this team does."
The journey begins today, for the young man from Newport News and the old-school NFL franchise.
Tomlin understands that a lot of people who live and die with the Steelers don't know what to make of him.
He asks the same thing of them that he has of everyone with whom he has come into contact: a chance.
"I think that's all you can ask for," Tomlin said, "regardless of what business or industry you're in. If you get an opportunity to present yourself, your best self, you trust that the chips will fall where they may.
"I've been blessed. Some of the best things that have happened to me are jobs that I didn't get. A lot has been written and said about the jobs that I've gotten. I've missed on a few, too, and that's turned out to be a blessing in disguise." *Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times