CANTON, Ohio ― About the time his Pittsburgh Steelers were taking the field for a training camp practice Friday night at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn., head coach Mike Tomlin was seated at table 118 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame gold jacket ceremony.
Only one player could pull the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL away from the day job he has not missed in nearly two decades.
“How cool is this?” Tomlin said smiling. “This weekend. Being here for this dude. I haven’t missed a practice in 17 years and I don’t even feel bad about it. I got a night practice tonight. But ain’t no way in hell I was missing this. You know what I mean?
“Man, it’s so damn humbling. I ain’t made a play.”
This dude is Ronde Barber and Tomlin had so much to do with his journey to football immortality that Barber invited him to place the gold jacket on his shoulders as the newest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Friday night.
Tomlin wasn’t alone. This year, the hall mandated that a player who already owns a gold jacket place one on the players from the incoming class. That, too was an easy choice. 49ers general manager John Lynch roamed the Bucs secondary with Barber for seven of his nine seasons in Tampa Bay and also shared the stage with Tomlin Friday.
“So before they made this change, I told Mike when I was with him on vacation, ‘You’re going to give me my gold jacket,’” Barber said. “They called me two weeks ago and said a gold jacket (player must present the jacket).
“John knows the deal. He said, ‘I’ll stand there with Mike, but Mike is putting the jacket on you.”
Barber was the first modern-day player to receive his jacket Friday. Shortly after a highlight video finished, which included his 92-yard interception return for a touchdown in the NFC championship win over the Eagles, Barber walked the gauntlet of returning Hall of Fame players and received big hugs from Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp.
He pointed to his back with his left thumb, the way he used to do after making a big play. Tomlin placed the jacket on Barber and he thrust his hands into the air.
Barber will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday, presented by his twin brother, Tiki. It completes a journey that began with Barber sitting the bench as a rookie.
The third-round pick from Virginia was unable to crack the lineup. He played only one forgettable game when he was turned around by Cardinals receiver Rob Moore.
Barber had emerged as a pretty solid starter by the time Herm Edwards was hired as the New York Jets head coach. But it was the arrival of Tomlin as the Bucs’ defensive backs coach in 2001 that Barber credits for his career turnaround.
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“He inspired me,” Barber said of Tomlin. “He told me what I could be and went about methodically and made me what I am today. He was one of the guys I was looking forward to enjoying it with the most.”
Tomlin, 51, is only three years older than Barber. But he was able to tap into Barber’s obsession to make his performance Hall of Fame-worthy.
Tomlin had only coached in college, so head coach Tony Dungy tested him by making him put on a pair of shorts and a Bucs T-shirt, sending Tomlin to the practice field to meet with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. It’s what head coach Chuck Noll had done to Dungy when he interviewed with the Steelers.
Not surprisingly, Tomlin nailed the interview. He knew how to teach defenders to reroute receivers, how to hand receivers off to safeties in the Bucs’ Cover 2 zone, and he could teach safeties the zone-blitz technique. He also lived by an easy credo: “Misery can become great gain if you embrace the change,” Tomlin said.
“There wasn’t ever a game or play or situation in football where I didn’t know what was coming,” Barber said.
“If I was wrong, I was wrong. But a lot of times, I was right. So a lot of the plays you see me make, you go back and look at my plays and they seem easy. ‘Why is the ball where he is?’ That’s not by accident. That preparation and obsessive attention to detail made me overly confident and it never left me.
“When I get to Tampa, not so much with Herm (Edwards) but with (Tomlin) and Raheem (Morris) and it cascaded into Jimmy Lake, we would go into meetings and you can ask anybody in our room this, we had premium ops (opportunities). You’re going to get a premium op and when they do this, you’d better pick the ball off or it’s a missed op. Not like, ‘Oh, I fell into an interception.’ It’s like this is coming. Take it. Shoot your gun and I did that a lot.
Tomlin and Barber worked on fundamentals, but more than that, how to look for chances to create turnovers.
“On top of the prep I was already doing, it was like boom!” he said.
Boom indeed. And Saturday he will receive a bust that will live forever with the immortals in Canton.
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