NEWS, NOTES &
The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
By Bethany Bradsher
Pride in Tomlin's triumph
extends to ECU
All rights reserved.
(Photo: ECU SID)
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
“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
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