ESPN The Magazine’s Tom Junod set out to write an in-depth story on Mike Tomlin knowing from the beginning, that Tomlin wasn’t interested in talking.
“He said ‘No’ from the beginning, and I just didn’t accept that,” Junod said. “I thought I’d charm him or just be persistent.”
After being denied the first time, Junod took a different approach knowing Tomlin didn’t want to talk about himself.
“I wrote him a personal email asking him to make a moral argument for football,” Junod said, “but he turned me down on that.”
Back to the drawing board. After the Pittsburgh Steelers unexpectedly lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in last year’s playoffs, Tomlin “earned” Pro Bowl coaching duties.
“I headed down to Orlando and figured I’d catch him at a party,” Junod said. “I approach him at the field after practice, and he knows who I am and he decides not to talk to me.”
Three times denied.
Well at this point most human beings would probably give up or feel defeated, but not Tom Junod. He gave it one more shot.
“The next day I go and see him after his second practice, and he’s clearly not happy to see me,” Junod said. “One of the things about Tomlin is he has all of these mottos and sayings for his players. So I said Coach, ‘Can you just give me one. . . just one?’ And he says, ‘I got nothing for you, man.’”
Junod was leaving Orlando with nothing from the subject of his story. Or so it seemed.
“But he did give me something,” Junod said. “He gave me a glare, he gave me an ‘I got nothing for you,’ and he gave me [access to] his team.
“I spent a lot of time in the Steelers’ locker room. It was amazing to me how unanimous the locker room was on the subject of Coach Tomlin. They have a lot of respect for him, and I experienced that,” Junod said. “They say he’s totally black and white and straightforward. And you never need to wonder where you stand with Coach Tomlin, and I experienced that.”
Through never speaking to his subject, Junod was able to tell a 6,000-word story of who Tomlin is through the eyes of those who surround the coach and through his own observation.
“Tomlin prides himself on keeping it simple but he’s anything but a simple guy,” Junod says. “He reveals himself by not revealing himself. Who is he? He’s the guy who keeps a part of himself hidden.”
Skin Deep: In search of the real Mike Tomlin appears in this month’s issue of ESPN The Magazine (on newsstands today).