This past Saturday Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin participated in an online roundtable talk with Carl Francis and Vernon Lee, co-founders of the Hampton Roads Youth Foundation, which supports programs that aim to improve the lives of youth in the part of Virginia where Tomlin grew up. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘the 757,’ a reference to the region’s area code.
Tomlin addressed a wide range of topics during the roundtable, including how his ‘miserable failure’ of a playing career served as a catalyst to coaching success.
He also revealed how one of his high-school teachers had a life-changing impact, and how the memory of the challenge she issued has influenced his own motivational messaging.
Miss Gunner’s Influence on Mike Tomlin
The story begins when Mike Tomlin was in the tenth grade in high school and a solid ‘B’ student. Then, one of his teachers, Miss Gunner, questioned whether Tomlin could get an ‘A’ in her class.
“I had always been a competitor [and] she challenged me in the right way,” Tomlin said. “Not only will I get an ‘A’ in your class, I can get an ‘A’ in all my classes if I want. In tenth and eleventh grade I got straight ‘A’s.”
Tomlin recalls that it was only after his grades improved that he came to realize the doors that would open for him, with schools like Duke, Stanford and the College of William & Mary suddenly a realistic possibility.
“I went on to be a National Honor Society kid because of it and I know it wouldn’t have happened if not for that challenge,” Tomlin admitted.
That’s one of the reasons why he pushes his own children to excel, saying, “I challenge my kids in that way, and they respond. They deliver ‘A’s and that is the standard. When you raise the standard for kids, they will meet them. That is what they do. They adapt.”
Mike Tomlin’s Challenge for This Year’s Rookie Class
Now Mike Tomlin is calling on the players in Pittsburgh’s 2020 draft class to adapt to the added challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, which have included dealing with a virtual introduction to the NFL.
“It’s the same thing I am talking to my rookies about right now. There are a lot of reasons for an NFL rookie in 2020 to fail. I am looking for guys who are looking to excel despite this,” Tomlin said.
“We can’t fear short-term misery. We have to embrace short-term misery. There are going to be some dark days ahead. As mentors … we can’t ignore that exists,” he added.
At the same time, he insists that his players can’t worry about things that are out of their control. All they can do is respond in the right way, even if it’s not the easiest thing to do.
“It’s tough right now,” Tomlin said. “It’s made for tough-minded people. Smile in the face of it, roll your sleeves up and get working. In the long run, you know they win.”
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