Harbaugh and Tomlin get results with different approaches
Ravens coach John Harbaugh (left) and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin have each found success early in their careers as head coaches. (November 15, 2012)
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Steelers coach Mike Tomlin commands respect with the gravitas of a Super Bowl ring, displaying a swagger evident on both the sideline and during his authoritative news conferences.
When the Ravens and the Steelers square off Sunday night in another pivotal AFC North clash, the respective imprints of Harbaugh and Tomlin will be on full display.
"Both of these guys do an excellent job managing the game and staying very close to their players and having the pulse of their teams,"former Ravens coach and current FOX television analyst Brian Billick told The Baltimore Sun. "They know their strengths, their weaknesses, the personalities. Both have a feeling for what their team needs at any given time, and you can see that on the field. Neither is an offensive or a defensive guru, so both have a broader view of the game."
And that perspective has translated into fast success for both coaches.
Harbaugh, 50, is the lone coach in NFL history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first four seasons, reaching the AFC championship game twice. In first place atop the division, Harbaugh is still chasing his first Super Bowl appearance.
Harbaugh is 51-22 in the regular season, tying Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith for the top winning percentage (.699) among current NFL head coaches with four or more years on the job.
Tomlin, 40, isn't far behind. A year before Harbaugh succeeded Billick in Baltimore, the Steelers hired Tomlin to replace former coach Bill Cowher. Tomlin has reached the Super Bowl twice, winning the championship in his second season, and is 61-28 in the regular season (.685).
"I think Mike has done a good job, and certainly so has John," said Cowher, now an analyst for NFL on CBS. "He's established himself as a premier coach and so has Mike. I think they both have great feel for their teams and both can identify with their players. More importantly, I think their players can identify with them.
"There's a real connection with the coaches and the players. When you have that type of connection, I think your personality as a football team can take you a long way. You're not constantly looking for an identity because your coaches kind of have a finger on who you are."
Tomlin reached the 60-victory mark in 88 games to tie former Seattle Seahawks coach Chuck Knox for the fourth-fewest games to hit that milestone since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
While Tomlin has shown that he's willing to make tough decisions, including switching offensive coordinators this year from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley, he's also regarded as a quintessential players' coach.
"He's cool, he's laid-back," veteran Steelers nose guard Casey Hampton said. "He never gets too high or too low.. That kind of helps you out as a player, makes you want to play for a guy. I think that's big in this business, to treat everybody the same and make everybody accountable for what they're doing. That's the big thing with him."
A former All-Yankee Conference wide receiver at William & Mary who caught 101 career passes for 2,054 yards and 20 touchdowns, Tomlin is known for his feisty nature.
"I just try to be what my guys need to be," Tomlin said. "That's what we all as coaches try to be, to give our guys what they need, not necessarily what they want, what they need, to do the job."
Inside the Ravens' locker room, Tomlin is highly regarded.
"You see the fire and his energy, and a lot of players I know love playing for him," strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "They say he's a great guy. The same can be said for Coach Harbaugh. He loves to win, he loves to compete and he put his players in the right position."
Ravens offensive guard Marshal Yanda was struck by the parallels between Harbaugh and Tomlin, considering the challenges both face in a bruising, old-school division.
"They both coach physical, disciplined, tough teams," Yanda said. "Both seem to coach the same way, and their teams are kind of alike in playing style."
During a news conference after losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to shoulder and rib injuries, Tomlin was adamant about projecting strength, saying:"Excuses are the tools of the incompetent."
Harbaugh is known as a grinder, a former Philadelphia Eagles special-teams coordinator who learned the game from his father: former college football coach Jack Harbaugh.
Although Harbaugh definitely has a serious nature, behind the scenes he tries to keep his football team loose by injecting a sense of humor into the workday.
Harbaugh regularly tell jokes and shows the players video clips from the television show "Wipeout," and amusing Pop Warner and high school football highlights gleaned from YouTube.
"John shows funny clips, and he tries dry jokes that only he laughs at," fullback Vonta Leach said. "I appreciate the attempts. He gets an 'A' for effort. We have a tough crowd."
Since the video clips are typically shown during team meetings, offensive guard Bobbie Williams characterized them as ice-breakers.
"Coach Harbaugh tries to get everybody smiling before you go into work mode," tight end Ed Dickson said. "It's pretty fun."
All business, at least publicly, during a critical week, Harbaugh didn't have much to say about Tomlin.
"I haven't really been digesting that, that's not something I've been thinking about," Harbaugh said. "We have a lot of respect for Mike, obviously a lot of respect for their whole staff."
Harbaugh obtained his first head-coaching job in 2008 when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti tabbed him to take over after Billick went 5-11 in his final season. The Ravens went 11-5 in Harbaugh's first season, losing, 23-13, to the Steelers in the AFC title game.
The Ravens are 0-2 against the Steelers in the playoffs, splitting eight regular-season games against Pittsburgh since Harbaugh took over.
"He's a hard-working, good guy," Tomlin said of Harbaugh. "That's how I've always known him. I've always had a great deal of respect for the body of work that he consistently puts out."
Harbaugh is 5-4 in the postseason overall, making the playoffs in each of his first four seasons to become only the fourth coach in NFL history since the AFL-NFL merger to do so, joining Cowher, John Robinson and Knox.
"John has paid his dues at every level," Billick said. "He's done a phenomenal job."
While neither Harbaugh or Tomlin will block or tackle Sunday night, their impact will be derived from their decisions, motivational ploys and how they handle the pressure of another trademark Ravens-Steelers showdown.
"It's not me versus coach Harbaugh, it's the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Ravens," Tomlin said. "So, I've always approached it that way. I really don't approach it as if it's me against the man standing on the other sideline."