A chance. That's all Mike Tomlin ever wanted.

It didn't matter whether he was a 103-pound budding junior varsity defensive back, a 5-year-old playing cards with his mom and older brother, a seventh-grader taking a crack at high school trigonometry or a 34-year-old National Football League assistant seeking a head coaching job.

Allow him in the door. Watch him. Talk to him. Listen to him. Guaranteed, he won't waste your time. If he doesn't deliver, if he isn't quite what you're looking for, fine. Everybody moves on and is better for the experience.

Just don't dismiss him out of hand because he's too small or too young or too obscure or too different. Even if he isn't what you think you want, you at least come away with a broader idea of what's possible.

Which brings us to Sept. 9, 2007 -- today. Mike Tomlin -- the young man from Newport News, the young man who, three years out of college, told his mother that he would be a professional football head coach by the time he was 35 -- was, indeed, given the keys to an NFL franchise.

And not just any franchise: the five-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise that's practically synonymous with the NFL and, in these parts, as much civic treasure as sports team.

It's the franchise of Mean Joe Greene and Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris, of the Terrible Towel and the Immaculate Reception, of iconic coaches and revered owners.

Today, Tomlin takes that franchise into its 75th season. No one knows how he and the Steelers will fare today against the Cleveland Browns or the rest of this season or in the years to come.

Tomlin and those around him believe that Super Bowls -- plural -- are in their future. The blueprint is in place, the resources available.

"I think he's going to be a great head coach," Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy said. He's one of the league's most dignified and respected figures -- and the man who gave Tomlin his first NFL job, at 28.

"I think he's going to be a guy that will be very inspirational to his players," Dungy said. "They are going to want to play for him. He's going to be a tremendous motivator, and he's going to be a great strategist. He understands defensive football as well as anybody I've been around. The Steelers have hit on a great coach."


Mike Tomlin has just about exhausted his ability to surprise those who know him.

Such is the case when you excel at a sport played by people half again your size, when you seem to absorb everything you see and hear, when you create an accelerated path to the pinnacle of your profession.

Honor student. Record-setting wide receiver at William and Mary. NFL assistant coach at 28. NFL defensive coordinator at 33. Pittsburgh Steelers head coach at 34.

"There's a code for being a Peninsula guy," said Tomlin, Denbigh High School class of 1990. "It's a tough place, but it produces tough people. The expectations of people there are higher than those, probably, at a lot of places, and that's made us who we are."

Mike is the younger of Julia and Leslie Copeland's two sons. The Copelands have been married for 27 years. Leslie Copeland, a U.S. Postal Service supervisor in Norfolk, is the only real father that Mike and Eddie Tomlin have known.

Eddie, 31/2 years older, and Mike got their athletic ability from their biological father: Ed Tomlin was a Hampton Institute football standout in the late 1960s who was drafted by the Baltimore Colts and played in the Canadian Football League.

Eddie is a former Denbigh High standout athlete who eventually played football at Maryland. He was built more like his dad.