Mike Tomlin inherited a team one year removed from a Super Bowl championship. The franchise quarterback was 24, the incomparable safety 25, the fan base Labrador loyal.
Nice work if you can get it, the antithesis of the typical coaching transition — think Hazmat suit and fire extinguisher.
So when Tomlin guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to their record sixth Super Bowl championship in his second season, skeptics reserved judgment on the youngest coach to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Then, in 2009, the Steelers failed to make the playoffs. They endured a turbulent offseason that included the departure of Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes and suspension of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Oh, and with training camp looming last summer, media were asking why Tomlin's contract had not been extended.
Was Tomlin's future in Pittsburgh not as bright as that initial flash? Would fans start clamoring for former coach Bill Cowher? Had the Steelers fallen behind division rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati, not to mention AFC stalwarts New England and Indianapolis?
Tomlin and his team answered with a 12-4 regular season, AFC North title and two riveting playoff victories that advanced them to Sunday's Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers.
Tomlin, 38 and a graduate of Denbigh High and William and Mary, is the second coach to reach two Super Bowls in his first four seasons. The other: Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins.
"Well, it's his team now," veteran receiver Hines Ward told reporters last week. "When he first inherited the team, a lot of those players were under Coach Cowher and did things Coach Cowher's way. Mike Tomlin was very militant when he came here. He wanted to see who would challenge his authority and he got rid of some of the guys that questioned his authority a little bit.
"He kept the guys that followed what he wanted. Once he got a full year or two of the guys he knows and sees everyday at practice, then he let up a little bit. He gave guys off time and stuff like that. I think guys love playing for him. He's just a pro's coach and he stands up for everybody."
Three-year contract extension in hand, Tomlin confronted myriad challenges this season.
Fed up with Holmes' drug issues, Pittsburgh traded him to the New York Jets. The Steelers juggled quarterbacks Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch while Roethlisberger sat out the first four games, his punishment for an offseason sexual encounter that the woman said was coerced.
Also, injuries riddled the offensive line and caused two defensive cogs, safety Troy Polamalu and end Aaron Smith, to miss significant time.
"A couple of years ago, I watched the New England Patriots go 11-5 without Tom Brady," Tomlin said during Super Bowl media day. "That's what good teams do — they win in spite of."
"I think this team is kind of different because of all the adversity that we had to go through," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "(Tomlin) has done an phenomenal job of just plugging in guys and putting them in, and that's what the … 53-man roster is all about. It was a great job by Coach Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, our player personnel guy. Our hats are off to those guys. They are the reason we all put it together and are playing in the Super Bowl."
Indeed, while the Steelers' trademark defense, again the NFL's best, is essentially unchanged from two years ago, the offense has turned over considerably. Ward, Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller and guard Chris Kemoeatu are the remaining starters.
Every specialist — punter, kicker, holder, long snapper, kick returner and punt returner — also is different from Tomlin's first Super Bowl. Finally, after last season's disappointment, Tomlin fired offensive line assistant Larry Zierlein and special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky.
So clearly the guy can adjust.
"We believe in building through the draft," Tomlin said. "I don't think that's a big secret. Equally as important as that is we believe in paying our own players — those who are deserving — and simply adding to and supplementing that. That's our business model. It's worked for a long time prior to me getting here. I think it creates an atmosphere where guys care about one another. They care about the organization. They understand that it is bigger than them."
But the business model needs a face, and that's a job at which Tomlin excels.
"I think with him being such a young coach, he's able to relate to the players better," linebacker James Farrior said. "He has a good grasp of how guys are feeling in the locker room. He walks around the locker room every day. I think he has a pretty good temperature of the team at all times. …
"It's always a process when you get a new coach in, but I don't think it took a long time for him to establish himself and develop a good relationship with the players. … I think he does a good job of letting the coaches coach and the players play. He doesn't try to do too much as far as micromanaging everything."
Much of Tomlin's approach he learned from Tony Dungy, who as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach hired Tomlin as a defensive backs assistant.
"He is a servant leader," Tomlin said of Dungy. "He tries to lead through service, and I do the same. I learned that from him in providing the men what they need to be great. Every day when I go to work, I don't think about things I have to do, I think about the things I can do to make my men successful."
Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh green as Gumby after one season as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, five years as Tampa Bay's secondary coach. Steelers ownership hired him rather than more established candidates such as Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, both connected to the organization.
"There was skepticism," Farrior said. "He had never been a head coach. We had candidates inside our locker room at the time that I think a lot of people thought were going to get the job. I think people thought Whisenhunt might get the job or Russ Grimm.
"So, when they brought in Coach Tomlin, he was a young guy. People told me that he coached with a lot of excitement, and I didn't know what to think. I was at lunch one day and (owner) Dan Rooney came in there and was like, 'Hey, have you met your coach yet?' And I said, 'No.' And he said, 'You're really going to like him,' and he was right."
That's Pittsburgh's history. Neither Chuck Noll (four Super Bowl titles) nor Cowher (one) was the candidate du jour when they took over the team, either.
The foundation they built eased Tomlin's transition.
"It's not broken, so I wasn't going to try to fix it," he said. "It's sound, it's time-tested and it's proven. I didn't have any deep or philosophical thoughts regarding it. I was more interested in what I needed to do to add to that legacy. …
"A study of history is a window into the future, particularly when you are talking about football and this organization I happen to be a part of. You can learn so many lessons, formally and informally, from the experiences of those who have come before us, particularly the 1970s Steelers. One of the things I enjoy most about my job is that many of those guys live in town and I count them as friends. We get together informally, and they educate me about their experiences. It always provides a little insight into what applies in situations and circumstances that we face."
The '70s Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years. This generation may or may not approach that, but Tomlin's start is encouraging.
In four seasons he's produced five playoff victories, three division titles and two Super Bowl appearances.
"It's probably about two Super Bowls … short of my vision," Tomlin said. "That's just me. I'm not in a reflection mode, I'm really not. I'm just trying to do it. We've got a really good football team, guys who are not only talented but are selfless in work. So we are trying to maximize the opportunity that we have.
"Largely, the core of this unit has been together here for a number of years, so we find ourselves in this game for the second time in four years. We're excited about it. It's not going to paralyze us. We're not going to dwell on it or over-analyze it. We are simply going to prepare and ultimately play. Maybe later in life when we're all old, maybe we'll sit around and reflect a little bit."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP