PITTSBURGH (AP) -The guy Mike Tomlin was hired to replace didn't just win lasting respect, a lot of games and a Super Bowl. He had a face practically sculpted for this steely town and a fierce personality to match.
But no one sees what's inside a coach until he gets pushed. Tomlin rarely yells, doesn't scowl nearly as much and his jaw doesn't jut out like a ship's prow the way predecessor Bill Cowher's did, practically inviting opponents to take a swipe at it. But there's little doubt left that testing either one would produce the same result.
``That's the way we've done it all year,'' Tomlin said moments after Pittsburgh's rock-ribbed defense stuffed Baltimore 23-14 in Sunday's AFC Championship game, booking his passage to Tampa and the Super Bowl in just his second season in charge. That would be two years earlier than Cowher and four ahead of legendary Chuck Noll.
``This has been a humble group, a grounded group, a selfless group,'' Tomlin said, his words vaporizing like steam in the frigid night air. ``We didn't start this journey to get to Tampa, but now we've got some business back there.''
A moment later, he looked toward the top of the still-packed, towel-waving grandstand.
``I love you guys,'' Tomlin shouted.
And if the sustained howling was any indication, they love him back.
Pittsburgh is a town that long ago learned to admire toughness in all its varied shapes, sizes and colors. With the Steelers, it runs all the way from the playing field up to the front office. When Cowher departed two seasons ago, club patriarch Dan Rooney and son Art Rooney II faced a difficult decision. Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, two of the assistants on Cowher's staff, were both NFL-tried-and-tested candidates who were along for the Super Bowl ride, and popular besides.
Instead, the Rooneys went with their gut and gave the job to a then-34-year-old Tomlin, whose resume included no head coaching experience and only one season as a defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings. Dicier still, hiring a largely untested black man to take over one of the league's storied franchises invited whispers that the Rooneys' decision was based as much on principle as good sense.
The owners' insistence that a minority candidate be interviewed for every vacant head coaching position was enshrined as NFL policy and came to be called the ``Rooney Rule.'' But if Tomlin even heard those whispers, he quickly made clear he wasn't going to run scared.
omlin said the day he was introduced. ``I've been hired to do a job here and I intend to do it at a high level.''
That was apparent Sunday when the Steelers, reflecting their leader, played with purpose, discipline and a calm born of believing that doing things the right way would prove to be its own reward.
``He's very consistent,'' cornerback Deshea Townsend said about Tomlin. ``He allows his players to play, but he does what it takes to get us ready. That's all you can ask from a coach - to say one thing and mean what he says. He's that type of coach.''
On their way down to the field to collect the conference championship trophy, both Rooneys were asked if they remembered what Tomlin said during his interview that convinced them he was the man for the job.
``There isn't enough time to go into that now,'' Art said.
It must have been impressive, though, since Whisenhunt and Grimm departed Pittsburgh soon after for Arizona to become head coach and offensive line coach. After beating Philadelphia earlier Sunday in the NFC Championship, all of them will be reunited at the Super Bowl.
``I don't know that I ever saw myself a certain way as a head coach,'' Whisenhunt said after the win. ``What I've tried to do is emulate some of the great head coaches I've been around - notably Coach Cowher, Coach (Joe) Gibbs and Coach Dan Henning.
and you have to make a tough decision or you're faced with something that's difficult,'' he added, ``I think back to what those coaches would have done and what I learned from them.''
Tomlin's mentor was Tony Dungy, who got his break as an assistant in Pittsburgh some 30 years ago and retired just last week after head-coaching stints in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, where he led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory. It's a safe bet Dungy feels pride knowing another black coach had booked a place in his sport's ultimate game, but moreso that one of his pupils had climbed the ladder so swiftly.
``It's not my story,'' Tomlin said with his usual candor. ``It is our story - the story of the 2008 Steelers.''
Yet inside that singular tale are dozens of less flashy, but equally instructive ones.
It's tough to pinpoint the moment Tomlin won over the town and made this his team, but earlier this season, his authority was challenged when running back Willie Parker complained the club wasn't playing ``Steeler football.'' What Parker really meant was he wasn't getting enough carries.
``Winning,'' Tomlin shot back, ``that's my interpretation of Steelers football. Every morning I come to work I walk past five Lombardi (trophies), not five rushing titles.
``The issue,'' he said, ``is winning.''
For all the things he's learned since, all the things Tomlin learned anew Sunday, that much hasn't changed.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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