Shortly after Mike Tomlin was named coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in January, he had dinner with star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
On the menu was how Tomlin, an unknown outsider, was going to win over a team that was expecting offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt or offensive line coach Russ Grimm to be tabbed as Bill Cowher's successor.
The 35-year-old, first-time head coach chewed on what Roethlisberger had to say, and at spring minicamp he met with each player. He also debuted the "news," a daily rundown of mistakes by Pittsburgh players that Tomlin goes over in front of the team. Among his first headliners was Roethlisberger.
The message was clear: The new coach in the Steel City didn't have a heart of stone, but he had an iron will and nobody was going to bend it, not Roethlisberger and not the fans who had embraced Cowher for 15 years and Chuck Noll for 23 seasons before that, and been rewarded with five Super Bowl titles.
"I've been blessed to be around some great coaches and I have some great mentors in this business," said Tomlin, whose big break came in 2001, when Tony Dungy hired him to be the Buccaneers' defensive backs coach. "Everybody has a different perspective on what it is that we do, but one of the things that reverberated throughout everybody is be yourself and do it your way. That's what I've done."
After following a Super Bowl season in 2005 with a disappointing 8-8 campaign last season, Pittsburgh is back among the AFC's elite and may be the NFL's best chance to prevent the Patriots from going undefeated. The Steelers enter Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium against New England at 9-3 and boast the league's top-rated defense, which is allowing 12.9 points per game.
Tomlin pointed out he didn't come to a team where the cupboard was bare, but his Patriots counterpart praised his work.
"He's done an excellent job," said New England coach Bill Belichick. "The team is playing well. They are well-coached, well-disciplined. They do a lot of things well and I think that's a reflection on Mike, the staff, and the players. I think they are a real good football team."
Tomlin, who was a standout wide receiver at William & Mary, is so young, he was a college teammate of Vikings safety Darren Sharper. Last year, Tomlin was Sharper's defensive coordinator in Minnesota.
Tomlin said his age and race - he is African-American - are only issues for the media to harp on. Cowher was only 34 when the Steelers hired him, and Dungy became the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl last season, guiding the Colts to the crown.
It hasn't taken Tomlin's players long to realize he is the same as any other coach.
"He's the leader of this team," said running back Willie Parker. "He's the head honcho, so of course you're going to respect what he's saying. People in there respect the position, and he's at the top."
The primary change in Pittsburgh is that Tomlin's style is more Dungy's quiet strength than Cowher's raucous rage.
"The change, we've gotten adjusted to it by now," said Parker. "We're still learning new things about Coach Tomlin, but Coach Cowher was a legendary coach. No matter who you are, he was in your face. Coach Tomlin is kind of the opposite most of the time. But he has his way of letting you know what you do right and what you do wrong."
That way is the news report, his version of Belichick's humble pie. Tomlin serves up a heaping helping of humility to his team, and nobody's feelings are spared.
"He lets you know what's right and what's wrong," said Parker. "He doesn't sugarcoat anything that isn't up to his caliber or his standard. He'll let you know. You don't want to be on the news."
Tomlin has even made himself a "news" item for not being prepared. That would have been the case the last time he faced the Patriots. Last season, Tom Brady and the New England offense torched Tomlin's Vikings defense in a 31-7 victory at the Metrodome. Using a spread, no-huddle attack, the Patriots racked up a season-high 430 total yards.
"Different offense for them, different defense that I'm with, different scheme, different team," said Tomlin, a 4-3, Tampa-2 devotee who elected to let Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau continue to run the Steelers' trademark blitzing 3-4.
But Tomlin is willing to acknowledge history when he thinks it's relevant. He understands the importance of his role as a young, successful, African-American head coach, and is thankful for those like Dungy, whom he often speaks to, although not about football, for blazing the trail for him.
"I've benefited from the struggle of those that have come before me," said Tomlin. "I'm grateful [for] the opportunity that I have because of the labor of some of those guys. And also, I understand the responsibility that comes with this opportunity - that I have to create opportunities for those that come after me, whether we're talking about young coaches, whether we're talking about African-American coaches. That's just life."
As for the meeting with Roethlisberger, Tomlin said he took those words with a grain of salt. Winning games, not players' allegiance, is his focus.
"I coach, they play. Mutual respect is required and the reality is they're here to please me," Tomlin said. "That's just how the game is. That's how any game is. I respect what it is that they do. They have a level of respect for what I have to do, in terms of getting those guys ready to play. Together we eat, as they say."
Pittsburgh is a town that's always hungry for a good football team, protruding jaw on the sideline or not. That's why in the end it's not Tomlin's age or race that will define his tenure. It's his record. That will be there for all to see in black and white.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.