Steelers’ Mike Tomlin back in Minnesota
The Super Bowl-winning coach finally returns to Minnesota 15 years after he was Vikings coordinator
In January 2006, after being named head coach of the Vikings, offense-minded Brad Childress needed to hire a defensive coordinator. He turned to mostly unknown Mike Tomlin, who was 33 and had never been a coordinator at any level.
Tomlin didn’t remain a secret for long.
After just one season with the Vikings, Tomlin was hired as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach and by February 2009 had led the Steelers to a victory in Super Bowl XLIII.
Tomlin remains on the job in Pittsburgh, and on Thursday night at U.S. Bank Stadium he will return to the Twin Cities as a coach for the first time since he left. The Steelers will play at Minnesota for the first time since an 18-3 win Dec. 18, 2005, at the Metrodome.
“I’m prideful,” Childress said Wednesday about how far Tomlin has come since being hired by the Vikings. “It’s just a matter of recognizing talent and him doing his thing. He’s a talented guy.”
In 15 Pittsburgh years, Tomlin, 49, has compiled an impressive 151-82-2 record and has yet to have a losing season. Even though the Steelers have had plenty of ups and downs this season, they’re 6-5-1 and in position for Tomlin to earn his 10th playoff berth.
To remain in a decent spot, the Steelers will need a win over Vikings (5-7). Tomlin is 2-1 against his former team, the loss being 34-27 in 2013, a Minnesota home game that was moved to London.
“It’s really interesting, when given time to think about it,’’ Tomlin said of returning to Minnesota. “There’s a kneejerk reaction that you’re going back to what’s familiar, but really I’m not. There’s very few within the organization that are still in the organization from when I was there. There are no players from 15 years ago. They play in a different venue. So, really more than anything I am excited about seeing what’s different.”
Childress has been excited to watch Tomlin coach over the years. He said he really began to see his talents when Tomlin served as Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach from 2001-05.
During that time, Childress was Philadelphia’s quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator, and the Eagles faced the Buccaneers four times. Childress also had observed Tomlin working out players.
“When you’re an offensive guy who’s a head coach, you want to find that key person on the other side who’s going to be in that meeting room all the time,” Childress said. “I had watched Mike work out college kids and he had a demeanor in which he presented himself in a good way. He could be an authoritarian, but he also could put a smile on a face and light up the room.”
In Tomlin’s one Vikings season, they went just 6-10, but it wasn’t because of the defense. Minnesota was ranked No. 8 in the NFL in total defense, including No. 1 against the run.
“I liked the way that he always talked to his players, and he told us the truth,” said nose tackle Pat Williams, who gives Tomlin credit for helping him make the first of three career Pro Bowls in 2006. “If you messed up, he would call you out in front of the whole defensive room, so everybody was scared. So, we always played hard every Sunday.”
Kevin Williams, then an all-pro defensive tackle, remembers well film sessions with the Vikings that season. Tomlin used a red laser light to pinpoint on the screen where players messed up.
“You didn’t want to be the guy he put the red light on,” he said. “But he didn’t do it to shame a guy, he did it to motivate the guys. He was a great coach. He held us accountable, and I loved that aspect about him.”
Childress said Tomlin put signs up at Winter Park warning the team about “loafing” during plays. When Tomlin believed a player wasn’t going all out, he would point it out during the film session.
“He created a great culture in that room, and if it got too noisy, he would just say, ‘Hey, man, I’m just reporting the news. Don’t kill the messenger. You know what the standard is,’’’ Childress said.
After the season, when the Steelers were interviewing candidates to replace Bill Cowher, who had resigned as coach, Childress gave owner Art Rooney Jr. a glowing recommendation for Tomlin. He pointed out how Tomlin had taken command of the defensive room and earned respect from veteran players.
Tomlin was 34 when he was hired and 35 when the 2007 season got underway. While some were surprised the Steelers didn’t hire a more experienced coach, Childress wasn’t.
“Because Mike has great communication skills,” he said.
In his first season in Pittsburgh, Tomlin was one of six Black NFL head coaches. Kevin Williams, who is Black, was thrilled to see him get the job with one of the league’s most storied franchises.
“Us, as African-Americans, for him to get an interview, you were always hoping he’d be able to land a job with there being so few opportunities for us in the league at the head-coaching position,” he said. “When he got the job, it was even sweeter. And you can see what a great fit he’s been.”
Kevin Williams still keeps up with Tomlin. So does Pat Williams, who makes it a habit before every season to text Tomlin and wish him the best.
“We’re close,” he said. “He influenced my life. Coach Tomlin, that’s my guy. I’m always going to respect Coach Tomlin.”