HAMPTON — Mike Tomlin's annual homecoming produced the expected result: mobilizing the local chapter of Steelers Nation and providing a celebrity boost for a favorite cause.
Tomlin, the Peninsula native and Pittsburgh Steelers' head coach, reprised his role as headliner at the Hampton Roads Youth Foundation's yearly banquet and fundraiser.
"It's important," Tomlin said before Thursday evening's festivities began at the Hampton Roads Convention Center. "We're a generation of people who were inspired by people who have come before us — men that took a personal interest in our growth and development.
"We're just trying to be a generation that passes it on to the next. That's kind of our mission and continues to be our mission. We're not interested in putting any names on this camp. It's the Hampton Roads Youth Foundation. We're just excited about having an opportunity to give back."
Tomlin makes a point to give back each year, whether he was a low-level college assistant or the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl.
He gladly bounced all over the convention center Thursday evening, posing for photos, doing interviews, shaking hands, connecting and reconnecting with family, friends and fans. Before ticketholders arrived, he made a point to walk to the concession area and shake hands with and thank the workers.
Thursday's event was a precursor to Tomlin's participation in the annual two-day Peninsula all-star camp run by fellow 757ers Carl Francis and Vernon Lee, Friday and Saturday at Christopher Newport. Tomlin always can be found on the field, running drills and coaching as hard as any counselor there.
Tomlin's trip home is one of his last breaks before he returns to Pittsburgh and prepares for training camp and the 2013 season. The Steelers went 8-8 a year ago and missed the playoffs in a season in which they lost 78 starts to injuries.
"We're not looking for justification or excuses or reasons," said the Denbigh High and William and Mary grad. "We are what we are. In 2012, we were 8-8. Obviously, we're not interested in being that this year."
The Steelers again had one of the NFL's best defenses — No. 1 in yards and against the pass, No. 2 against the rush. But they were 26th in rushing (96.1 ypg), their lowest figure in Tomlin's tenure, with just eight rushing touchdowns. They were 14th in passing and 21st in yards. Their turnover ratio (minus-10) was tied for 24th in the league.
"I don't worry about doing it better," Tomlin said. "I don't judge this year relative to last year. It's about putting together a formula that plays to the strength of the men that we're working with and meeting the challenge of '13. I don't even look at it in that perspective, to be honest with you."
Tomlin, who turned 41 in March, is no longer the young head coach with something to prove. Entering his seventh year, there are only six head coaches with longer tenures in their current jobs: Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Marvin Lewis, Mike McCarthy, Gary Kubiak and Sean Payton.
"Each year you get presented with new and different challenges because the variables change," Tomlin said. "The cast of characters and the challenges that you take on with them are ever changing, and that's one of the things that's interesting and challenging about the job. I wouldn't necessarily say it becomes easier. Obviously, I get more familiar with some of the issues, but at the same time, I don't take that for granted."
During Tomlin's tenure he has overseen a shift in the Steelers' franchise. Leaders such as Hines Ward, James Harrison and James Farrior are gone. Iconic safety Troy Polamalu missed nine games with injuries last season and it's unclear how much more wear and tear his body can absorb.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger enters his 10th season and has evolved into a team leader and elder statesman. He, too, was limited by injuries at the end of last season. The offensive staff has been retooled, as well, with Todd Haley entering his second year as coordinator and Jack Bicknell Jr., his first season as offensive line coach.
"I think when you have continuity and you're at a place for an extended period of time," Tomlin said, "you see people come and you see people go. You've got to be light on your feet and build around new faces sometimes. That's what we're in the process of doing. It's a fun challenge. It's good to be somewhere long enough to have that issue to deal with."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun