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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

By Bethany Bradsher

Pride in Tomlin's triumph extends to ECU

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

East Carolina assistant head coach Rick Smith is too humble and too seasoned to take any credit for Mike Tomlin’s dizzying ascent through the ranks of football coaching. But he certainly had a hand in opening one crucial door for Tomlin along the way.

It was 1999, and Smith was the defensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati. The Bearcats, then in Conference USA, needed to bring in someone to coach the cornerbacks. One of the three candidates they interviewed was Tomlin, then just 26 years old.

He was very impressive in the interview,” said Smith, who also coaches the Pirate defensive backs. “I knew then that Mike was a very special coach and a special man. Just everything about Mike was special.”

There are few men in football coaching who are as well-equipped as Smith to assess exceptional leadership. He has coached at the collegiate level for 27 years, six of those as a defensive coordinator, and also spent a year coaching in NFL Europe.

Smith's collegiate stops have included Louisiana Tech, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Tulane, Baylor, Alabama, Georgia Tech and East Tennessee State.

In his first season at Cincinnati, Tomlin helped the Bearcats improve from 111th to 61st in the nation in pass defense. The next year, his secondary was eighth in the nation in interceptions.

Smith remembers Tomlin taking hours watching practice tape, pen and notebook in hand, and delivering detailed reports of successes and failures to each of the players in his charge.

Tomlin only lasted two years on that Cincinnati staff, which also included current ECU defensive coordinator Greg Hudson. The two years were are all it took for the Tampa Bay Buccaneer brass to take notice and bring him in to coach the defensive backs.

“We weren’t the least bit surprised when we heard that Monte Kiffin called and wanted to interview Mike about the DB's job at Tampa Bay,” Hudson was quoted as saying recently. “Mike was only 28 years old, but word had gotten out about this great young guy coaching the DB's at UC.”

Tomlin stayed in Tampa Bay for five years, with the highlight coming at the 2002 Super Bowl, won by a Buccaneers squad whose secondary grabbed four interceptions and ran two back for touchdowns to win the Lombardi trophy for the franchise.

During one of Tomlin’s seasons with the Bucs, 2005, the defense led the NFL in total defense, allowing only 277.8 yards per game.

“I thought Mike always did a great job of listening and processing what he heard before he put his mouth in motion,” Smith said. “He was very mature at that time for his age and experience.”

Much has been made of the Steelers’ seemingly risky decision to take on Tomlin two years ago, hiring him as only the third head coach the organization had in nearly four decades. But Smith saw in him the type of coach that multiplied the benefits from every opportunity he encountered. He worked harder than most, Smith said, and he persisted with confidence when new steps upward appeared.

“I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished and proud that his kids will be taken care of,” Smith said. “He didn’t have a silver spoon in his mouth. Everything he has accomplished, he has earned.”

Now at the pinnacle of his career – as the coach of the Super Bowl champion Steelers – Tomlin is an example to countless people who might feel that youth or race are obstacles to fulfilled dreams. Smith is planning to call him in the next week or so, and Hudson has kept in close contact with Tomlin in the eight years since they coached together.

It’s all part of a coaching fraternity that knows this certainty: A story like Tomlin’s, when hard work and heart take the day, elevates the entire profession.

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02/04/2009 03:02:05 AM

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