FORT WORTH, Texas — When it was Don Shula, they said he was a genius.
He was 39 when he went to his first Super Bowl and 44 by the time he won his second.
When it was Chuck Noll, they wondered if he wasn't some kind of mastermind.
He was 37 when he was hired as a head coach and 44 by the time he won his second Super Bowl.
When it was Jon Gruden, they called him a Boy Wonder.
He was barely 39 when he won his first Super Bowl and … well, he never has gotten around to a second.
So why, when it comes to Mike Tomlin, are the adjectives arriving so slowly to the party?
He was 36 when he won Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium, the youngest coach to ever ride off in a confetti sunset. And now, at 38, Tomlin is perhaps days away from winning another Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In case you're wondering, that would make him the youngest and the second youngest to ever lead a team to a Super Bowl title.
And yet, somehow, there have been few prodigy headlines. Almost no mentions of greatness. He is going for a pigskin Ph.D., and no one seems to notice that he's the youngest guy in the class.
"He's done a phenomenal job this year," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "With all the adversity we've been through, not having Ben (Roethlisberger) for the first four games, missing Troy (Polamalu) for three games, having Aaron Smith out, playing musical chairs with the offensive linemen. He just keeps plugging guys in, and we keep winning."
To be fair, there have been some extenuating circumstances that might have kept the plaudits from piling up at Tomlin's door. Circumstances that, today, look kind of silly.
For instance, go back to Jan. 22, 2007. The day the Steelers hired Tomlin, he was a 34-year-old long shot, and some critics suggested he was a beneficiary of the Rooney Rule that requires teams to interview a minority candidate when looking for a head coach. The rule is named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney, and one Pittsburgh columnist wondered if Rooney wasn't trying to enhance his own legacy.
Tomlin acknowledged he probably got in the door because of the Rooney Rule, but he won the job with his confidence, his intellect and his ability to connect with people.
He's the kind of guy who got straight A's in high school in Newport News, Va., and reached the state level in academic competitions but never let his football teammates know about his classroom achievements.
The kind of guy, years later, who was supposed to return to Virginia for a free football clinic for inner city kids but missed the last flight out of Pittsburgh. So he hopped in his SUV and drove 700 miles through the night and walked straight into camp and started teaching.
"Sure, there was skepticism. He had never been a head coach," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We had candidates inside our locker room that a lot of people felt like, at the time, we're going to get the job. We thought Ken Whisenhunt might get the job or Russ Grimm. So when they brought in Coach Tomlin, a young guy, I didn't know what to think.
"I was eating lunch one day and Mr. Rooney came in and asked me if I had met the new coach yet. I said no. He said, 'You're really going to like him.' And he was right. I really do."
Of course, you could also go back to Feb. 1, 2009. That was the day he led the Steelers to a 27-23 victory against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. At the time, critics pointed out that many of his best players were leftovers from Bill Cowher's last team.
And that was certainly true. But those critics failed to see that Cowher went 8-8 with that same group of players the year before Tomlin was hired. And they failed to recognize how Tomlin navigated through some rough stretches when a handful of veterans, loyal to Whisenhunt and Grimm, tried to undermine him even before he coached a single game.
Maybe he did win with a lot of Cowher's players in 2008, but that argument was pretty weak by 2010.
"Mike Tomlin was very militant when he came in," Ward said. "He wanted to see who was going to challenge his authority, and he got rid of some of the guys who tried that. He just wanted to lay down the law. 'This is my team, and I don't care how Coach Cowher did things.' A lot of the guys respected him for that.
"So he kept the guys who followed him, and once he got a full year or two in and got to know us, he let up a little bit. He gave us some off time. He saw that the first year we were a tired team by the time we reached the playoffs, and he learned from that."
So what do you suppose they will say Feb. 6, 2011?
If the Steelers beat the Packers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday, Tomlin will have won more Super Bowls than Cowher. More than Tony Dungy. More than Mike Holmgren and John Madden.
The good news is he will still be shy of his 40th birthday, so we'll still have plenty of time to call him a genius.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]