PITTSBURGH — Each morning at 8:30, coach Mike Tomlin sets the tone for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
With a booming voice, he greets his team.
“The way he says good morning, it just wakes you up,” second-year linebacker Alex Highsmith said earlier this season. “It just brings a lot of attention.”
This week, his voice is even louder with the big team meetings moved to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex’s indoor practice field. Folding chairs are scattered around the cavernous structure, all turned to face the hanging video board and the coach, usually wearing black-and-gray sweats, standing under it.
Then, Tomlin goes through a rundown of the day’s objectives and how the men assembled are going to accomplish them.
“Mike Tomlin sets the stage for us every morning,” inside linebacker Robert Spillane said. “… He does a great job of getting all 53 people on the same page and doing it in a quick and concise manner, where you have an understanding of what the game plan is going to look like for the day, but also our mentality for the practice and any important information going forward.”
It’s the kind of routine that has been established through years of consistency — one of Tomlin’s greatest calling cards through 15 non-losing seasons as the Steelers head coach. It’s also been one of his most important traits this season as his steady leadership helped his team navigate a roller-coaster 1-3 start and a three-game midseason winless streak to reach an improbable playoff matchup against the No. 2 seed Kansas City Chiefs (12-5) in the wild-card round Sunday (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC).
“The one thing I salute Coach Tomlin, win, lose, up or down, it’s always the same attitude,” wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud said. “That’s hard to find. You never change your ways. You’ve just got to find a way to win.
“For him, every meeting is different, but they all go back to the culture he’s trying to build, having that fight, having that finish. That’s something that we stand on every game: Vikings game down at halftime, Chargers game down early. Just having that finish and that fight, I think will help us in the long run.”
Tomlin’s fiery halftime speeches have been necessary this season, fueling some of those notable fourth-quarter comebacks. But it’s what he does on a daily basis that endears him to his players even more.
Defensive captain Cam Heyward said Tomlin’s presence has made the Steelers’ (9-7-1) season less tumultuous, less of a roller coaster and more like a different metaphor.
“We’re basically canoeing out there,” Heyward said Thursday. “We’re out there, just staying level. He doesn’t get out of character. He doesn’t have to do anything different. He preaches the same goals. Whether it’s stopping the run, understanding situational football. Being in our face about it. Being honest with us.
“When you understand your goals, it allows you to expect that with yourself and not allow anything less.”
Heyward said Tomlin is the force that keeps the canoe from tipping over — even if Tomlin downplays the qualities that make him an exceptional leader.
“I don’t want to make a big deal out of that,” said Tomlin, who became the second-winningest Steelers coach after passing Bill Cowher with 150 wins in Week 9. “That is my job.
“Football is an emotional game played by high-energy men who are really emotional. They need to hear a steady voice. They need to hear consistency in messaging in belief, and so it’s my job to exemplify that.”
The 49-year-old, who is the NFL’s only current Black head coach, is also not afraid to let it loose. Publicly, Tomlin is often reserved, only speaking in his no-nonsense Tomlinisms. But twice this season he’s blown kisses to the sideline camera after a win, and following the Week 18 win against the Baltimore Ravens, Tomlin even danced with some of his players in an Instagram Live video of the locker room celebration.
“We always see that side of Coach T,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “He shows that with us all the time on the inside, so it’s for everyone else to finally get that side of him. It’s a little different side. We see that Coach T all the time, being very personable, being very relatable to all of the players, having a blast. It’s funny when everyone else gets to see it.”
After beating the Ravens in the regular-season finale to help secure a playoff berth, Tomlin praised quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s poise and said he keeps the team calm in tense situations.
“He’s the same when everybody else gets funny,” Tomlin said. “Everybody else gets a little tight, he’s the same guy.”
But the same thing is true about the head coach.
“Really nothing outside his normal self,” cornerback Cam Sutton said of what Tomlin’s done for the team this year. “He’s always been that inspirational leader, just that overall figure to us. It goes beyond football. That relationship carries throughout many adversities, whether it’s football related, life related. He’s always dependable. Always reliable. Always a guy willing to sacrifice and willing to be the front and the head of all of that.
“We’re just appreciative of being behind a guy like that, who comes to work each and every day as the front-runner, leave it all on the line for us. Who doesn’t want to follow that?”
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