he most important football game Mike Tomlin ever played was among the most forgettable.
Forgettable because William and Mary routed Virginia Military Institute 45-7.
Important because, unbeknownst to him, the game began an improbable odyssey that tonight makes Tomlin the youngest head coach in Super Bowl history.
Hundreds of millions will watch on television, and more than 70,000 will fill Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, as Tomlin guides his Pittsburgh Steelers against the Arizona Cardinals.
Little more than 14,000 attended the 1994 William and Mary-VMI contest. There was no TV coverage.
As the game unfolded, VMI coach Bill Stewart couldn't stop watching a William and Mary senior receiver from Newport News. Mike Tomlin totaled 121 yards on four receptions that September afternoon and caught a 63-yard touchdown pass on the second play.
But it was more than numbers. Tomlin played full speed on every snap, whether blocker, decoy or primary receiver, and he did so modestly.
"There was not one ounce of showmanship, not one ounce of flamboyance," said Stewart, now West Virginia's coach. "I thought, 'This is how the game should be played.' "
That offseason, when Stewart needed a graduate assistant, he thought immediately of Tomlin.
Julia Copeland envisioned her youngest son in law school or in the corporate world. Certainly not bunking in military barracks and making pocket change as a football coach.
But when Stewart called, Tomlin jumped.
"He was a coaching machine," Stewart said. "The players loved him. They played their hearts out for Mike Tomlin. … I knew right then that this guy was going places most people never dream of."
Stewart assigned Tomlin to coach the Keydets' wide receivers. His sole advice: Make them play like you used to.
And so he did. VMI's receivers trained harder, ran more precise routes and blocked more forcefully.
"The guy was born to coach football," Stewart said. "The guy has tremendous communication skills, tremendous teaching skills."
Rip Scherer suspected the same.
Scherer coached James Madison throughout Tomlin's college career, and his team defeated Tomlin's three times in four attempts. Moreover, Scherer knew Tomlin through JMU linebacker Billy Johnson, Tomlin's best friend from Denbigh High School.
Following the 1994 season, Scherer left JMU for Memphis, a struggling Division I-A program. He bumped into Tomlin at a coaches' convention in early 1996 and offered him another one-year graduate assistant's position.
Scherer's sales pitch: If you accept, you'll be coaching in the NFL by the time you're 35.
"I didn't mean he'd be a HEAD coach in the NFL by 35," said Scherer, hired last week as the Carolina Panthers' quarterbacks coach and passing-game coordinator.
Tomlin's job at Memphis was to guide the scout team, a collection of reserves who mimicked upcoming opponents during practice. Scherer's son Scott quarterbacked the scout team.
"Scott had been around football his whole life," Scherer said. "But all he would ever talk about was Coach Tomlin."
Fate really began toying with Tomlin after his season at Memphis.
One of Scherer's assistants, Jim Marshall, became head coach at Division I-AA Tennessee-Martin. He hired Tomlin full-time and gave him a recruiting territory that included Memphis' East High School.
Tennessee-Martin was courting East's tailback, but so was Division I-A Arkansas State. Tomlin, Arkansas State coach Joe Hollis and his offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner, descended upon the school the same day.
"Mike tried one of my old recruiting tactics," said Fichtner, now Tomlin's receivers coach with the Steelers.
The ploy is as simple as it mischievous. Linger with the high school coach, cutting into your rival's time.
Fichtner and Hollis appreciated the kid's brashness. The three talked some football, and at day's end Fichtner chased Tomlin down the hallway, handed him a business card and asked for his cell-phone number.
Within weeks, Tomlin joined Hollis' staff. He had worked at Tennessee-Martin for less than three months and without coaching a game.
At Arkansas State, "Mike was like a sponge," said Hollis, retired in Alabama. "He wanted football 24 hours, seven days a week. … Each day was really a workday for him, whether it be recruiting, practice or game day. He was the total package. …
"He cares about everyone else before himself. Good things happen to people like that."
Hollis knew he wasn't going to keep a young talent such as Tomlin in Jonesboro, Ark., for long. Sure enough, after two seasons, 1997 and '98, University of Cincinnati coach Rick Minter called Hollis looking for an assistant.
Cincinnati offered a better program in a more vibrant community. Tomlin wanted them, but did they want him?
"I generally tell people that I can meet a guy and inside of one to two minutes know whether I want to proceed (with the interview)," said Minter, now Marshall University's defensive coordinator. "Mike was that kind of guy. He has 'it,' and you knew he had it from the moment you met him. … He has a glow about him.
"He was very, very good with our players. Attentive to detail, enthusiastic. Could be tough on kids. Mike's like the Pied Piper. … You just knew, some day, Mike Tomlin's going to be a head coach."
Tomlin worked at Cincinnati in 1999 and 2000, after which Minter received a call from Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, an old friend from their time together at North Carolina State and Arkansas.
Tampa Bay's defensive backs assistant, Herman Edwards, had just become the New York Jets' head coach, and Kiffin asked Minter about possible candidates. Minter recommended Tomlin.
Smitten by a minority internship with the Cleveland Browns the previous summer, Tomlin was eager to try the NFL. The Buccaneers hired him, starting the longest tenure of Tomlin's career — five years.
Tampa Bay won a Super Bowl with Tomlin on the staff, and in 2006, the Minnesota Vikings appointed him defensive coordinator. One year later, the Steelers, a season removed from their record-tying fifth Super Bowl victory, chose Tomlin to replace Bill Cowher.
Tomlin was 34 years old, then the NFL's youngest head coach.
Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, brought unique insight to the team's search. He and Scherer are cousins, and Scherer had long touted Tomlin.
"I knew Mike was involved with the Steelers before Mike did," Scherer said with a laugh.
Many questioned Tomlin's age and limited credentials. Not Scherer.
"Sometimes young guys, especially those who rise quickly, think they know it all," he said. "Mike doesn't."
Indeed, in building his staff, Tomlin sought more experienced hands. He retained four of Cowher's assistants and hired four former college colleagues.
The mix has produced two division titles in as many years and the franchise's seventh Super Bowl appearance.
"I've been blessed," Tomlin said, "to have been around some great coaches and people who took a personal stake in my growth and development not only professionally, but also personally. … And at different points in the season and the day, I call on those guys to help me do my job."
Amos Jones worked with Tomlin at Cincinnati and works for him with Pittsburgh, coaching special teams. He likens Tomlin to the late Bear Bryant.
"I played and coached for Bear at Alabama," Jones said. "I see (him) in Mike, in terms of being charismatic yet also being a guy who can reach out and shake a guy's hand who's not on the same plateau of life. Mike doesn't think of himself as above anybody by any stretch. He's a common man. As I say back on Southern terms, he's a man's man."
Now just wait a doggone minute. We're comparing a 30-something with two seasons of head-coaching experience with the iconic father of Southern-fried football?
Did we just not cross the line? Bryant had houndstooth hats older than Tomlin, for heaven's sake.
"He gives you that command, like Coach Bryant, where you know he has a plan," Jones added. "And if you just follow that plan and really listen, you know it's going to work. He can convey that to peers and players."
Tonight Tomlin will convey the ultimate plan, the plan to win the Super Bowl. He stands near the peak of his profession and hears hosannas from every direction.
For some desperately needed context, we complete the circle and consult the man who recruited Tomlin to William and Mary. Matt Kelchner was a Tribe assistant for 16 years before becoming head coach at Christopher Newport, and he considers Tomlin a valued friend.
"The only test that Mike has not passed that I see is the test of time," Kelchner said. "Can he maintain? That's a good résumé — you can't knock it. But the truest test is the test of time. That's a hard one."