Growing up playing athletics, Mike Tomlin didn’t dream of being a head coach in the NFL someday. No, that was not his aspiration. He wanted to be a star wide receiver. Along the way in his quest to be a great wide receiver, however, he also learned the skills necessary to be a great coach, and now here we are decades later.
Tomlin recently recounted his journey in conversation with Carl Francis and Vernon Lee, the co-founders of the Hampton Road Youth Foundation. “I had bigtime football playing aspirations, so for a lot of my playing years, I was miserable”, he said, “because it wasn’t unfolding in the ways in which I envisioned it”.
My big brother was an ACC football player, so I had an ACC football player that slept in the other twin bed”, he went on to say. “So for me, even signing with William & Mary was a disappointment for me, and my mom wanted to hit me in the head with a brick. She was trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Man, I got free school, at an awesome institution like that, but I’m mad, because, man, I wanted to go to Duke. I wanted to play at Duke”.
He, of course, went on to William & Mary and had a successful playing career, but not one that would get him drafted into the professional ranks, and that saw him immediately transition into the coaching ranks. There isn’t a year in his life in which football hasn’t been a part of it since a very young age, whether playing or coaching. But moving from one to the other was an emotional challenge.
“Really, you could take a snapshot, and that was really kind of my attitude for a lot of what transpired with me”, he said. “I went on and had a really good experience there, was a captain and so forth, won a lot of games, but just really wanted to play professional football, thought I was capable of playing professional football, and felt like I got slighted in some way because I didn’t”.
I doubt there are many young men who dream of growing up and becoming a great coach. Behind most great coaches is a failed athlete, or at least one who never rose to the top of his profession as an athlete. There are some, sure, like Ron Rivera. There are others, but this is the exception to the rule.
As we talked about yesterday, though, and as has been the case for many great coaches, their playing path laid the foundation for them to become instructors that would take them to the top of their profession.
“Really, in pursuit of playing aspirations, all along, I didn’t realize that I was sharpening my sword for coaching”, Tomlin said. “When you’re a wide receiver, a lot of people have got to do their jobs in an effort for you to do your job. I would never take anybody’s word for it, so I had to gain some global understanding of why I wasn’t getting the ball enough”.
And thus, a coach was born.