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Steely resolve at the helm

Pittsburgh coach Tomlin insists on a standard of excellence, and he gets results

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / February 4, 2011

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FORT WORTH — It was Tuesday, in the midst of the circus known as Super Bowl media day, and Mike Tomlin was seated at a riser, a dozen of his players situated to his left and right.

The 38-year-old Tomlin is no stranger to this big top. In just his fourth year at the helm of the Pittsburgh Steelers, this is the second time he has led his team to the championship game.

He seems to be made for these moments.

Tomlin is smooth. He can be frank and funny, but he also will give one-word answers to questions others might give elaborate (and phony) responses to, and he reveals just enough without giving away too much.

In short, he gets it.

Tomlin was a surprise choice when the Rooney family named him head coach of the Steelers in January 2007. He was just 34, and had but one year of experience as an NFL coordinator, spending the previous season running the Minnesota Vikings defense.

Some players within the organization believed the Steelers would elevate Russ Grimm, the assistant head coach and offensive line coach, as Bill Cowher’s replacement. The team had already fulfilled its Rooney Rule obligation to interview a minority candidate but called in Tomlin as well.

He clearly left an impression on the Rooneys, who had no fear of hiring a young head coach. Cowher was also 34 when he was hired 15 years earlier.

“The Mike Tomlin pick, it came out of left field,’’ said veteran wideout Hines Ward. “Nobody expected that. We thought we were going to hire within. That’s what a lot of players thought. When they named Mike Tomlin, a lot of people didn’t know Mike Tomlin.

“When he first got here, he was very militant. There were some veteran guys that challenged his authority, and they’re no longer here.’’

Just as Cowher’s tenure was marked by success, Tomlin’s has been as well. And now he has the Steelers on the cusp of a seventh Super Bowl title.

But Tomlin doesn’t appear to have let his quick ascension affect him in a negative way.

On Tuesday, he was asked about Doug Legursky, the backup center who has stepped into the spotlight this week as starting center Maurkice Pouncey deals with a high ankle sprain.

Tomlin said Legursky has endeared himself to his teammates for his “get in where he fits in’’ attitude.

“From a football-personality standpoint, this is a guy that plays with a chip on his shoulder,’’ Tomlin said. “He’s a little short, he’s from Marshall — not an enormous program — he’s undrafted. I think he’s continually trying to prove that he belongs, like I am. I like working with guys like that.’’

Legursky trying to prove he belongs makes sense. But Tomlin? Hasn’t he shown that he has made it as an NFL head coach?

“That’s just lies that I tell myself to make me get out of the bed in the morning,’’ he said, smiling. “I shadow-box a lot with myself, that’s what keeps me going.’’

His relative youth helps in the locker room, and on the final day of practice before the AFC Championship game against the Jets last month, he was wandering through the locker room, chatting with players, smiling and joking.

They call him a players’ coach.

For better or worse, his players always know where they stand with Tomlin, and they respect him for that.

He knows how to push buttons, knows how to motivate, knows how to keep his players on message. He holds his players — rookie to veteran, starter to 53d man — to a standard.

“One of his famous quotes is, ‘The standard is the standard.’ I think that’s something that all of the guys really believe,’’ said linebacker James Farrior. “I think we all accepted that part of it, and we really feel like when somebody’s injured or somebody’s out, the next guy is supposed to come in and step up and not really have any drop-off.

“Even though they might not be the same player, you’re still supposed to play at a high level.’’

Tomlin has adjusted his ways since his first months in Pittsburgh. He isn’t as militant, as Ward described him.

“They don’t give a coaching book on how to be a head coach,’’ Ward said. “Once he saw the type of players he had on his team on a day-to-day basis and knows how we practice, how we get through the week of preparation, he started to cut back a little bit [on physical practices].’’

This year may have been Tomlin’s most challenging. Allegations against Ben Roethlisberger led to the star quarterback being suspended for the first four games of the season; linebacker James Harrison flirted with retirement after incurring sizable fines for helmet-to-helmet hits; and the team has endured myriad injuries.

Tomlin likely didn’t need many little lies to get himself out of bed as he was dealing with all of the issues this season.

The standard is the standard, and in Pittsburgh, the standard is winning.

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.

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