Eyes on a Super prize

See how Mike Tomlin became the youngest head coach in 43 Super Bowls.

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Mike Tomlin in Tampa

Mike Tomlin in Tampa (Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press / January 27, 2009)


The most important football game Mike Tomlin ever played was among the most forgettable.

Forgettable because William and Mary routed Virginia Military Institute 45-7.

Important because, unbeknownst to him, the game began an improbable odyssey that tonight makes Tomlin the youngest head coach in Super Bowl history.

Hundreds of millions will watch on television, and more than 70,000 will fill Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, as Tomlin guides his Pittsburgh Steelers against the Arizona Cardinals.

Little more than 14,000 attended the 1994 William and Mary-VMI contest. There was no TV coverage.

As the game unfolded, VMI coach Bill Stewart couldn't stop watching a William and Mary senior receiver from Newport News. Mike Tomlin totaled 121 yards on four receptions that September afternoon and caught a 63-yard touchdown pass on the second play.

But it was more than numbers. Tomlin played full speed on every snap, whether blocker, decoy or primary receiver, and he did so modestly.

"There was not one ounce of showmanship, not one ounce of flamboyance," said Stewart, now West Virginia's coach. "I thought, 'This is how the game should be played.' "

That offseason, when Stewart needed a graduate assistant, he thought immediately of Tomlin.

Julia Copeland envisioned her youngest son in law school or in the corporate world. Certainly not bunking in military barracks and making pocket change as a football coach.

But when Stewart called, Tomlin jumped.

"He was a coaching machine," Stewart said. "The players loved him. They played their hearts out for Mike Tomlin. … I knew right then that this guy was going places most people never dream of."

Stewart assigned Tomlin to coach the Keydets' wide receivers. His sole advice: Make them play like you used to.

And so he did. VMI's receivers trained harder, ran more precise routes and blocked more forcefully.

"The guy was born to coach football," Stewart said. "The guy has tremendous communication skills, tremendous teaching skills."

Rip Scherer suspected the same.

Scherer coached James Madison throughout Tomlin's college career, and his team defeated Tomlin's three times in four attempts. Moreover, Scherer knew Tomlin through JMU linebacker Billy Johnson, Tomlin's best friend from Denbigh High School.

Following the 1994 season, Scherer left JMU for Memphis, a struggling Division I-A program. He bumped into Tomlin at a coaches' convention in early 1996 and offered him another one-year graduate assistant's position.

Scherer's sales pitch: If you accept, you'll be coaching in the NFL by the time you're 35.

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