'Swinging hammer harder' philosophy of this year's camp shows Tomlin's depth of leadership

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Experience as a coach helps understand the challenges of caring enough about players to make them hate you at times. That's the task in front of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin this year. And it's winning Tomlin respect.

I've read some of the posts that have been up recently about the tone that Coach Tomlin seems to be setting at training camp and it's inspired a few thoughts on the nature of head coaching that I'd like to share.

I'm currently the head coach of a high school football team in New Jersey. This will be my third season as head coach, and before that I spent 18 seasons as an assistant in various roles at various levels.

I've been fortunate to have been around some pretty good football people in that time. I've seen many different styles and different approaches towards coaching, from tyrants who belittle their players as a form of motivation to "players coaches" who are exceptionally laissez-faire in their approach. Personalities as varying as Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells (dictators) to John Madden (mad scientist) to Tony Dungy (father figure) have all won Super Bowls. Even our own three Super Bowl-winning coaches - Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin - are all very different in terms of their style and personality.

It is certainly not a "one-size-fits-all" profession.

Nor is it a profession where scheme is king. Schemes are sexy and we love to talk about them. And schematic innovations pop up every now and then that are considered the greatest contribution to the game since they laced up the pigskin itself. The forward pass was revolutionary at its inception. So was the shotgun. The Run 'n Shoot. The zone blitz. The "46" Defense. And now the zone read. Coaches at multiple levels have been successful employing each of these schemes. And yet many of their contemporaries have tried them and failed.

What gives?

What makes one coach successful and another yesterday's news? Style and scheme both matter, of course, as do a myriad of other factors such as personnel, assistant coaches, ownership, scouting, etc. However, the thing I've learned that is more essential to being a head coach than anything else is this: you have to know how to manage your team.

That probably sounds like a "captain-of-the-obvious" remark but it's something a lot of coaches fail to do properly. There's so much going on as a head coach that you're more like the CEO of a company than you are a hands-on teacher of football. The coordinators and position coaches do most of the football instruction; the head coach organizes, evaluates his personnel, sets the tone for the team and makes the day-to-day decisions about how to best get his men where he needs them to go.

Most of that has little to do with style or with X and O's. They are overwhelmingly managerial and psychological tasks. A great head coach (FYI, my team went 4-6 last year; I'll let that speak for itself) must understand when to lean on his team and when to take his foot off of the gas. He must know what players to trust as leaders. He must know how to coax more out of men who believe they've given everything they have. He must be ruthlessly realistic and dispense with any illusions he might have about his team. He must love his players enough to have them hate him at times. And yet they must know he loves them and will go to the wall for them. Coaches who forget these things are not long for the league.

My larger point in all of this is as follows: I love what I'm reading about Mike Tomlin's approach to this training camp so far. I love seeing him swing his hammer a little harder this year.

As evidenced by the penalties, turnovers, mental errors and inability to win close games that ruined our season last year, there's little doubt he had to re-evaluate his approach coming into this season. We can argue all we want about whether our personnel or our schemes were good enough last year but the problem was more big picture than that.

Did MT create the right environment in his locker room, his film room, his weight room, on his practice fields and in the hallways of his offices to establish the necessary mindset to win those close games and to not commit those costly penalties and turnovers? The evidence suggests he did not. And now, so far at least, the evidence suggests he's taking a different approach - an approach that feels more urgent, more competitive and more forceful - toward creating this season's environment.

That's managing your football team.

I've always been a big fan of Tomlin and I've always admired him as a coach. Maybe he got too close to his veterans last year and eased off the gas too much. Maybe he let locker room issues affect the product on the field. Maybe he didn't coach the details the way he and his staff had in the past.

I don't know what the root causes of slipping to 8-8 were. But I love the way he's going about it remedying them. Anyone who is too arrogant to change what they do when it's not working will not be successful. Perhaps last year humbled Tomlin a bit. Whatever the case, these early camp reports have me more excited than usual for the return of Steeler football.

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