As Mike Tomlin entered the Ferguson Center auditorium Friday afternoon, a couple hundred kids and several dozen parents watched the end of an NFL Films video that concluded with the Green Bay Packers celebrating last February's Super Bowl win over Tomlin's Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Booooooooooooooo!" Tomlin bellowed from the side of the stage as the film ended and the house lights came up. As folks turned to see where the booing came from, he broke into a huge grin.
"Y'all aren't going to make me watch that again, are you?" the Peninsula native joked to the audience a few minutes later.
Tomlin was one of the marquee presences Friday at the annual Hampton Roads All-Star Football Camp (a.k.a., Carl's Camp) at Christopher Newport. The camp resumes Saturday morning, with Tomlin and a handful of NFL players past and present as guest counselors.
Tomlin absorbed a few good-natured jabs and questions from campers Friday, and did what he often does: Use every experience, large and small, successful and unsuccessful, as teaching tools.
"I lost the biggest game of all time," he told the audience. "I'll say it again: I lost the biggest game of all time. But life is about challenges and doing the very best you can."
People can work and prepare to the best of their ability and still come up short. How people respond to success and failure, he said, is often more important than the act of succeeding or failing itself.
"I learned more about myself from losing that game," he said, "than I did from winning two of them."
Tomlin explained later, "I think that's true under any circumstance. If you're committed to being the very best that you can be and you're a competitor, there's more to be learned from failures, probably, than there are from successes.
"Not from the standpoint of what you could have done differently, but you just learn about yourself — your resiliency, your commitment to what it is you're chasing. The fact that it's unwavering."
What Tomlin learned from the Super Bowl loss, or rather what was reinforced, was the extent to which his DNA is interwoven with professional football.
"That I am legitimately in this business," he said. "I'm in it to win it every year. I'm going to compete, I'm going to do the very best that I can with the group of men that I'm with, and that'll be unchanged, regardless of the outcome."
Tomlin has watched countless and specific segments of the Packers' loss, but insisted that emotionally, he has put the game behind him.
"Maybe it's just the NFL game and the quickness of it, from week to week," he said. "You don't get a lot of opportunities to admire your work. It's on to the next one, if you know what I mean.
"I processed that game and moved on about as quickly as I do most other games, and that was a little surprising to me."
As Tomlin and a group of campers walked toward the field following a water break, one youngster volleyed: "Why'd you lose the Super Bowl?"
Tomlin reflexively answered: "Because we turned the ball over three times." He swung his head toward the direction of the question and said flatly, "Who said that? Did you say that?"
The youngster shrank away a bit, and Tomlin returned the needle: "Why'd you say that and then punk out on me? Look at me when you're talking."
He then veered over and, with a big smile, shook the young man's hand.
Self-examination aside, Tomlin was clearly in his element Friday — teaching, guiding, encouraging. Didn't matter if he was reminding kids to put their trash in the proper receptacle or instructing them to stay low while changing direction during a drill.
The camp also provided an opportunity for actual hands-on coaching, which he hasn't been able to do during the NFL lockout. He declined to discuss the lockout, even as to how it's affected his own work schedule and what an NFL head coach is able to do during a lockout.
Tomlin was much more effusive about his annual Peninsula homecoming.
"It's more than an obligation," he said. "It's a pleasure to come back and encourage and inspire others in some of the ways that we were encouraged and inspired. We take a great deal of pride in being from this area.
"This area is highly respected in our profession, on a lot of levels: playing, coaching, scouting, and what have you. So it's just great to get back, be at home and meet the next generation of young people that are going to make us all proud in this industry and encourage them."
Camp director and founder Carl Francis, the NFL Players Association director of communications and himself a Peninsula native, still marvels that Tomlin has remained so committed to the annual event as he has risen through the ranks and his time has become even more valued.
"Mike has always expressed an interest in having a connection to his community," Francis said. "He understands that without his community, he wouldn't be where he is now."
Francis told the story of the aftermath of Tomlin's first Super Bowl win in 2009. Tomlin didn't attend the celebratory post-game bash, instead choosing a low-key gathering with family and a few close friends.
Francis texted congratulations to Tomlin, who almost immediately texted back: Thanks. This is going to be big for the camp this year.
"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' " Francis said. "You just won your first Super Bowl. You're in the history books, and you're texting me about what it could do for the camp? But that's the kind of person Mike is and that's how much this means to him."
Clearly, Tomlin cannot wait to return to work. He would like to believe that experience — even with a disappointing conclusion — will make him a better coach, but he isn't prepared to say so.
"I haven't had an opportunity to prove it," he said. "I think the proof is in the pudding. Too many people give credence to things that are theory-based. I like to base how I coach on how we perform. I'm trying to build an outfit this year and I'll let that be my grade sheet."