Secret Supper is June 17th. Get your tickets before they sell out!

Following a Steelers legend

The Baltimore Sun

LATROBE, Pa. -- A year ago, Willie Parker came into training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers here at Saint Vincent College trying to make the team's fervent fan base forget that Jerome Bettis was no longer rumbling out of the backfield.

Though Parker had led the Steelers in rushing during their Super Bowl championship run in 2005, even scoring a 75-yard touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks on the NFL's biggest stage, Parker knew that many wondered if he could measure up to one of the most beloved players in the team's history.

Which is why Parker understands what first-year Steelers coach Mike Tomlin must be going through while taking over for Bill Cowher, who went from a relatively unknown assistant to an icon in 15 mostly winning seasons that included 10 playoff appearances and two trips to the Super Bowl.

"Coach Tomlin, he's a guy that's trying to get to know you because he's new; Coach Cowher, he was a legend," Parker said recently. "It's like comparing me and Bus [Bettis]. He was a legend, Hall of Fame-type dude. I was new and trying to make it and all that stuff and get everybody on my side."

Though a disappointing 8-8 record in Cowher's final season might have helped defuse the debate about his departure, it certainly didn't quash the questions about Tomlin, who had been an NFL defensive coordinator for one season and an NFL assistant for six.

But Tomlin, 35, was comparable in age to both Cowher (34) and the legendary Chuck Noll (37) when they were hired. Like Cowher, who was defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Noll, who was defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Colts, Tomlin was defensive coordinator of a unit in Minnesota that finished first against the run last year.

Not that Tomlin feels any pressure to prove he belongs in this small Steelers fraternity.

"I don't equate football to pressure," Tomlin said after a recent practice. "When you talk about pressure, you're talking about real-life issues. We're competing here. This is what we do. It's fun. I love it. You can't put it into words."

Bruce Arians, who was promoted from Steelers' receivers coach to offensive coordinator, thinks there's a reason that Tomlin doesn't look nervous about taking over for Cowher and keeping those die-hards from calling for Cowher's return.

"Pressure is something you feel when you're not ready for something," Arians said. "He's ready. You've got to go and win games and get your team ready daily and not worry about what other people might think compared to Coach Cowher. It's going to take 15 years, anyway."

Despite a background spent coaching defense, Tomlin has changed more with the offense, essentially rewriting the playbook with everything from blocking schemes and pass routes to terminology. Admittedly, he has relied heavily on Arians and his other offensive assistants.

"I've worked for guys that had a great deal of trust in me and they allowed me to do what it is they hired me to do, and I want to do the same with the men that I hired," said Tomlin, who retained eight of Cowher's assistants. "I trust that they're good coaches."

Those who have watched Tomlin evolve from his introductory news conference through organized team activities and minicamps, and now from training camp to preseason games, see someone who has already tried to separate himself from Cowher.

"Everything's been good," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, looking to rebound from a disastrous 2006 season. "It's been pretty smooth. He's thrown us a bone, as he calls it, once in a while, and he's been tough when we're not expecting it."

Think Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy - who gave Tomlin his first chance in the NFL - with a louder voice.

But definitely not Cowher.

"They're different," backup quarterback Charlie Batch said. "When you have a guy who's been around for 15 years, you kind of see how he conducts business. When you have a guy in his first year, every day is different. You don't know what the schedule may be, you don't know what he's thinking. I think everything is a learning process."

Said John Mitchell, assistant head coach and defensive line coach: "I think Coach Tomlin has done a great job. He came in here, he knew he had to win the players over, he won them over. He won the coaches over. Everyone is buying into what he has to say." Mitchell joined the Steelers under Cowher in 1994.

Parker said there is a difference in how Cowher got his message across and how Tomlin is doing it.

"Coach Cowher is hard, and he'd get in your face. Coach Tomlin isn't, like, spitting in your face, and all that, he's calm. It's like two different-type coaches," said Parker, who established his status as one of the league's top running backs with 1,494 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

Tomlin's relaxed demeanor belies the workaholic that lurks inside.

Describing himself as an insomniac who only sleeps "four-plus" hours a night during the season - like another of his former bosses, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden - Tomlin has been game planning for this moment since he coached wide receivers at VMI in 1995.

The resume might not have been that impressive until he hit the NFL in 2001, but Tomlin doesn't seem overwhelmed by the job.

"It is what I've always done, it's coaching," Tomlin said. "It's working with a larger group of men, enjoying it, having a good time. It's team-building. That's what training camp is about. But it's not a one-man show. Everyone's got to put their hand in the pile and move forward."

But Tomlin makes it clear: Looking smooth doesn't necessarily mean it's easy.

"You never anticipate it being easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it," he said. "We're not taking anything for granted. We're respecting the process. It's not necessarily about the destination for us; it's about the journey. We're respecting every aspect of the journey."

Perhaps the most respect Tomlin has for his new position is the 75-year tradition of the Steelers. All he has to do is look around the practice fields at Saint Vincent College and see generations of fans in black and gold filling the bleachers as if they were church pews.

"Nobody truly understands it until you're a part of it," Tomlin said. "You think you do, but you don't. You think what you understand what the relationship between this organization and the community is about. I'm still in the process of learning it, and it's special."

don.markus@baltsun.com

Pittsburgh Steelers

Training camp: Latrobe, Pa.

Last year's record: 8-8

Key additions: Head coach Mike Tomlin is the most significant change, but others on the field and the sideline will be important. Along with Tomlin comes quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson, who will be counted on to return Ben Roethlisberger to form. The Steelers added linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley with their first two draft picks, and tight end Matt Spaeth with their third.

Key losses: Just as Tomlin is the biggest addition, longtime coach Bill Cowher is the most glaring loss. When offensive line coach Russ Grimm didn't get the job, he left for Arizona and took offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt with him. Linebacker Joey Porter also left, but some might see that as a plus if Timmons and Woodley develop.

When they will play the Ravens: Nov. 5 in Pittsburgh; Dec. 30 in Baltimore.

Where they will finish: Many are predicting that the Steelers will unseat the Ravens for the AFC North title, and a favorable early-season schedule could set up a couple of big games with Baltimore to decide the division race.

DON MARKUS

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
82°