PITTSBURGH — Only a few minutes after the Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC championship game, Coach Mike Tomlin pondered the question he knows will be asked a lot going into the Super Bowl.
What will it be like coaching against the man you beat out for the Steelers' job, Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt?
Tomlin sidestepped the query as skillfully as Troy Polamalu dodged Ravens defenders on his interception return that sealed the Steelers' 23-14 victory Sunday night, sending them to the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons.
"I am just enjoying the moment right now — you won't let me, though," Tomlin said, and with a hint of a smile. "I will have more thoughts on that later."
Imagine that: Mike Tomlin asking for time. He certainly hasn't needed much in a coaching career that began with him serving as an assistant to current West Virginia coach Bill Stewart at VMI in 1995 — the same year Bill Cowher took the Steelers to the Super Bowl — and has rapidly ascended since.
Now that Pittsburgh is headed to its seventh Super Bowl, each of the Steelers' three coaches in the last 40 years has taken them there. Chuck Noll first got there in his sixth season in 1974, Cowher in his fourth. Tomlin needed only two years after unexpectedly being hired for one of the best-known coaching jobs in American pro sports.
If the Steelers win, Tomlin — at age 36 — would be the youngest Super Bowl-winning coach. Still, Tomlin is as much an old-school coach like Noll as he is a contemporary coach like Cowher, who was also in his mid-30s when Pittsburgh hired him in 1992.
"He's doing a great job," Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "He did everything perfect since he's been here. I can't say enough about him."
Tomlin demands his players be on time for everything — an 8 p.m. meeting means 7:58 p.m. — and practice with a purpose. He allows coordinators Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau the freedom to coach without meddling, yet he has his hand in everything the Steelers do.
He laughs and jokes with his players, as Cowher did, but he can show as stern a face as Noll ever did. Maybe that's his football genealogy at work; Tomlin's mentor was former Colts coach Tony Dungy, who became the NFL's youngest coordinator at age 28 — in Pittsburgh, under Noll.
"Last year Coach Tomlin came in and really set the laws down," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "A lot of the guys were set in Coach Cowher's ways. He was very strict on his rules. Now, he has a year under his belt to let guys know that this is his team and this is how he wants things run around here. He understands what players need to be pushed, what players need to take time off to be fresh."
Tomlin regularly rests some regulars, such as Ward, during Wednesday practices to give their older bodies more bounce-back time. As Ward said, Tomlin hasn't been in the league long, but "he knows we're not going to win ball games on Wednesdays."
Tomlin is doing fine on Sundays and the other assorted days NFL teams play. His two-season record is 24-11, compared to Cowher's 20-14 and Noll's 6-22, though neither of them inherited a team that was one year removed from the Super Bowl. The Steelers beat Seattle 21-10 in Detroit three years ago, Cowher's next-to-last season on the job.
"He's very consistent. He's a great coach," cornerback Deshea Townsend said of 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 mean what he says, and he's that type of coach."
Tomlin is a bit of gambler, too.
Despite being unsuccessful several times earlier, Tomlin took a couple of late-season risks by passing up field goals to go for it on fourth down near the goal line. He called for a fake punt against San Diego. He allowed AP Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison to be his long snapper after an injury, a move that may have cost Pittsburgh a victory over the Giants.
Tomlin's most impressive quality might be his ability to take command of a room, much like Noll and Cowher could, despite being only a couple of years older than some players.
"Coach Tomlin, as a new guy coming in, brings a lot of energy and excitement," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's really been fun."
It is this attention to detail, commanding presence and ability to lead that caused Rooney and son Art II, the team president, to hire him over Whisenhunt and Cardinals assistant Russ Grimm two years ago this week. While a few players initially said they wished Grimm had been chosen, Tomlin never had any trouble winning over his new team.
Or winning, period.
"I love the guy to death," linebacker James Farrior said. "I think this team has believed in him since Day One. We all had confidence in him, we knew he was going to lead us the right way. I love him, I really do."