Pittsburghers of the Year: Dynamic Duo

Formidable forces in a double-championship year to remember, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin share joint honors as our Pittsburghers of the Year for 2009.

In 2009, two head coaches led their teams to championships in a city that places as much emphasis on sports as any in the country. That alone would bring acclaim and adulation to any coaching duo.

But what separated Mike Tomlin and Dan Bylsma from your average head coaches was what they had to say about their adopted hometown in the wake of those victories.

“Until you are part of it, you have no idea the depths,” Tomlin said of Steelers Nation just hours after becoming the youngest head coach to ever win a Super Bowl in 2009. “I want to win for them because they are that special.”

And during Pittsburgh’s second, massive victory parade in five months, Bylsma proudly displayed the Stanley Cup for all to see. He then stepped to the mic and let his feelings be known to the sun-baked faithful. “I’ve only been in Pittsburgh for about 4 1/2 months,” he said. “But it was only about two months in that I knew I was ‘from’ Pittsburgh.”

Through a combination of intelligence, good fortune and plenty of hard work, both men have achieved greatness at a relatively young age.

Both are bound together forever in Pittsburghers’ minds as the coaches who helped restore the City of Champions title to its rightful owner.

And they didn’t just win championships for the Pittsburgh region. They became part of us. And for that, Pittsburgh magazine honors coach Tomlin and coach Bylsma as 2009 co-Pittsburghers of the Year.

The ’burgh Welcomes Two New Faces

On the fifth of February 2006, Mike Tomlin was less than 30 days into his first season as an NFL coordinator. That same day, Steelers coach Bill Cowher was joyfully hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Detroit. Less than one year later, Tomlin was named the 16th head coach in Pittsburgh Steelers history, despite being considered a long shot of  epic proportions.

Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt were capable assistant coaches under Cowher, and both were well-liked within the Steelers organization.

So when Cowher announced his retirement, it was assumed that one of them would fill his shoes. Grimm, the assistant head coach (which is normally the stepping-stone to a leading role), believed he was offered and had accepted the head coaching job.

What he could not have known at the time was how much Mike Tomlin had impressed the team’s owners, the Rooney family. “You only get one shot at those opportunities,” Tomlin says. “More than anything, I wanted to present myself and my ideas, and if it happened to be a fit for the organization—then great.”

Oh, it was a fit. Just like the custom-made bling he can flash on the third finger of his right hand.

In February 2008, exactly one year before being hired as interim head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dan Bylsma was watching Marc-Andre Fleury effortlessly stop shots fired at him by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Fleury was returning from an ankle injury and making a rehab start for the Penguins’ minor-league team in Wilkes-Barre. Bylsma was a first-year assistant with the Baby Pens and seemingly light years away from an NHL head coaching job.

But over the offseason, Bylsma was promoted to head coach in Wilkes-Barre and led his team to 35 wins in its first 50 games. Meanwhile, the “Grown Up Pens” were struggling, and Penguins general manager Ray Shero decided a change was necessary. Head Coach Michel Therrien was fired, despite having a year left on his contract, and Bylsma, who was still in his first year as a head coach at any level, was brought in to take his place.

“It’s strange…as coaches, we watch a lot of video, and the head coach is shown quite a bit,” Bylsma says. “When I see myself on camera, I can’t help but shake my head and say, ‘Is that really me?’ It still doesn’t make a ton of sense to me, and I hope it never does.”

Comfortable In Their Own Skins

Successful people in all walks of life usually follow a personal mantra of sorts, and both Bylsma and Tomlin are no different. Actually, they’re exactly the same in one respect—their direct approach.

“I cut to the chase; I don’t beat around the bush,” Tomlin says. “I promise my guys that I’m always going to be fair, but I’m not going to treat people the same—that’s just life. It would be naïve to think that happens in professional sports. I will make individual decisions with the overall group in mind.”

Being up front and honest with their players helped both coaches immediately garner respect from star players they inherited, some of whom were almost the same age as their rookie head coach.

“I hope my players want to be there and they want to come to work, but I also challenge them to be better, to be their best,” Bylsma says.  “I hold them to high expectations, and they know that.”

If both men seem comfortable in their own skin, it’s because they are. No false pretenses, no BS, just sincerity.

“What I’ve been most happy about is that I can go home and say, ‘I was myself,’” Bylsma says. “Through the pressures of coaching a Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or a Billy Guerin, who is exactly my age, I was still ‘myself.’ That’s what I’ve been most pleased with.”

Calm, Cool, Collected Coaches

As similar as both men are when it comes to philosophy and leadership style, they are NOT always alike when it comes to their reactions to big plays throughout games. During tense moments, Tomlin is all business—the epitome of cool, calm and collected. But after a big play, you never know. Sometimes it’s a solitary finger held in the air calmly signaling to go for one; sometimes it’s a headset-losing ‘That’s what I’m talkin’ about.’ ”

“Football is a very fast-paced, emotional game played by those kinds of people,” Tomlin says. “I’m very conscious of what I do and when I do it on game day. I want to provide my team what they need to win. Sometimes it’s emotional; sometimes it’s not. I’ve learned to become very conscious of my game-day demeanor because it has a big impact on the people that work with me.”

Ten years ago, Bylsma took a puck to the face while playing for the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the American Hockey League and suffered nerve damage that still affects his smile to this day. But nerve damage has had nothing to do with his stoicism on the Penguins’ bench while the rest of the hockey world swirls around him. It has more to do with nerves of steel.

“People in Pittsburgh grab me off the street all the time and say, ‘I wish you would enjoy it more; you need to smile more,’ and I laugh because that’s just not me.”

For a guy who still calls his head-coaching career “surreal,” Bylsma reacts the opposite of one guy who can’t believe his luck while behind the bench.

It’s not a coincidence. It’s just him.

A Mutual-Admiration Society

Bylsma and Tomlin have become friendly over the past year, partly because of their unique situations as championship head coaches in the best sports city in America, but also because they each have a genuine interest in the other’s sport. Tomlin became a hockey fan when he was coaching the Tampa Buccaneers during Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup run in 2004.

“I got to know some of the players and coaches, and it was really a nice atmosphere,” Tomlin says. “Very rarely do we get the opportunity to just be fans, to be part of the spectacle. I gain an appreciation for what I do by having an opportunity to go and support those guys.”

And just like all other living, breathing Pittsburghers, coach Tomlin and his family watched the Stanley Cup Finals intently, counting down the final seconds of Game 7 together. “I would say we were on the edge of our seats, but that would be cliché,” he explains. “We were standing up, actually…yelling at the TV.”

Bylsma’s interest in Tomlin actually dates back to when Tomlin was hired by Pittsburgh as a 34-year-old head coach. “I remember reading a magazine article about coach Tomlin, and I was intrigued by him and his situation,” Bylsma says. “I photocopied the article and logged it away. I followed his success in his first year and took note of that.”

He especially “took note” when Tomlin became the youngest head coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl. Bylsma watched that game at a party in Mountain Top, Pa., exactly two weeks before coming to Pittsburgh himself.

He was happy for coach Tomlin and the Steelers, but the trophy presentation after the game was another story. “At that point in my career, I had not won a championship,” Bylsma says. “I lost as a player in ’03 to New Jersey, so any time I saw a trophy handed out, it brought back some poor memories.”

Little did he know how close he was to erasing those memories.

Calling Pittsburgh Home

The life of a professional coach is a nomadic one. Assistants in both the NFL and NHL are normally signed to one-year contracts for a reason—they’re often not around for year two. Both Bylsma and Tomlin saw their fair share of U-Hauls before becoming head coaches.

But along the way, Tomlin made sure those U-Hauls were always unpacked—fully. “We went for a stint there where we moved some,” he says. “My wife got into the mentality of ‘Hey, I’m not going to unpack that box.’ But I said, ‘We can’t have that mentality. This is going to be it until we get our next opportunity or mission.’”

As soon as his mission of becoming an NFL head coach was accomplished, the Tomlin family eschewed the suburban sprawl when house-hunting two years ago, opting for the city life. But the man of the house rarely leaves it. “There are a lot of things to do in close proximity to our home. A lot of diversity, a lot of culture,” says Tomlin. “But I don’t get to experience a lot of the things that most Pittsburghers do…. I’m just a homebody. I go to work, then I go home. But it’s been an awesome place to live.”

Because of his meteoric success since coming here, few remember that Bylsma was initially hired as the “interim” head coach. His “interim” status meant that his family would stay back in eastern Pennsylvania while he lived in a hotel downtown. But it didn’t take long for those closest to him to realize they would all be heading westward. Permanently.

“My son was brushing his teeth the morning after my eighth win, and he said to his mom, ‘We’re going to be moving to Pittsburgh, aren’t we?’ My wife said, ‘I don’t know…,’ but he said, ‘Nope, I know it. We’re moving to Pittsburgh.’”

The Bylsma family bought a home in the North Hills, and as you would imagine, the trio has assimilated quite nicely. But coach Bylsma still wonders if his neighbors will ever see him as Mr. Bylsma. “I can’t help but think that they see two separate people,” he says. “It’s tough to shake the fact that I’m an NHL head coach…but I’m still the same guy who likes to golf and fish and blend into the woodwork.”

Shedding Old Perceptions Of The ’burgh

Perception often does not match reality, and that was certainly the case with both coaches’ preconceived notions of Pittsburgh before they moved here. They may not have had those black-and-white images of “Hell With the Lid Off” dancing in their heads, but they were still pleasantly surprised once they established residence.

“Pittsburgh has certainly shed the Steel City, smoky-cloud image I’ve read about,” says Bylsma. “You have a plethora of things here that every big city offers, but at the same time there is a community and family atmosphere that makes it great to raise a family here. It’s a big city but still has that neighborhood feel to it.”

The best way to judge any part of the country is to ask the region’s locals. Did you make friends while you were there? Were they good people? Long before moving here, Tomlin had a better feel for our fine city, or at least for its residents, based largely on some former teammates at The College of William & Mary.

“I played college ball with a bunch of Western PA guys,” Tomlin says.  “Those guys were very loyal, rooting for the Steelers, of course, and were very proud of where they were from.”

From No-Name To Instant Fame

A year ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a single Pittsburgher who could pick out Dan Bylsma in a lineup. But it didn’t take long until TV crews were tagging along TMZ-style as the coach walked to his favorite lunch spot for a “lucky burrito.” (Before a game in the playoffs, Bylsma would order a burrito for lunch. When the team won, Bylsma established a tradition of having a burrito before every game from then on.)

“It’s been a unique situation for me….,” Bylsma recounts. “It was overwhelming at first because every time I’d go to dinner, without exception, I ended up talking with someone about the team and what was going on. This year…being able to settle into a home and a neighborhood,  I’ve been able to blend in more, be more of a neighbor and a father of my son and not just The Coach.”

Tomlin says his instant fame has affected his immediate family more than himself. “They experience it more on a day-to-day basis from the people that they know coming up and asking about me or talking about me. “I see it when I travel, in airports and things of that nature, but it hasn’t been a burden to me in any way. Really, I’m insulated from it all. The people that I’m around are the people that I work with, and my family, and that’s about it.”

Great Wives Behind Great Men

Mike Tomlin has many skills. Obviously, he can coach football. He can hold court (sometimes reluctantly) in front of a roomful of reporters.  He even knows how to speed-read. But paying the family bills is not his cup of tea.

“I’m probably a typical coach. We live unique lifestyles. My wife handles everything at my house,” Tomlin says. “I haven’t written a check or paid a bill in about 10 years. I don’t know what my power bill is; I don’t know what my cable bill is; I don’t know what my mortgage is. She’s a smart lady, and she handles that business and it really allows me to pour myself into what I do.”

Kiya Tomlin, like many coaches’ wives, is the glue that holds their family of five together, and her husband couldn’t be happier to know that she has his back. “She has my front, too,” Tomlin says of Kiya, a full-time wife and mother. “You don’t get into my position without that kind of support.”

Despite living in seven different cities during the first nine years of her marriage, Mary Beth Bylsma, also a full-time wife and mother, was the first to support her husband’s post-playing career. “When we decided that I was going to be a coach, she was the biggest advocate,” Bylsma says. “She was the one that said, ‘This is what you are going to be good at, so you go do it.’”

In addition to being supportive, Mrs. Bylsma also was clairvoyant. Her husband WAS good at coaching. So good, in fact, that he was summoned from the minors to the majors long before the couple could have ever imagined. The coach still remembers calling his wife to tell her two things the day he was hired in Pittsburgh: “I’m coaching for Pittsburgh in Long Island tomorrow night…and I need clothes.”

As Bylsma recalls, “When I picked up the phone and started to talk, she already knew what was happening. Whether it was the tone of my voice, the timing of the call…she knew I was going to Pittsburgh. And she immediately was making sure that everything was perfect, making sure I had what I needed, making sure that I knew she was 100 percent behind me.”

Investing In Tomorrow’s Pros

Dan Bylsma and Mike Tomlin have lived full lives before the age of 40. But they have not forgotten where they’re from.

Along with his father, Jay, Bylsma has co-written four books aimed at kids, including So You Want to Play in the NHL, which is a guidebook for both young players and their families about how to get the most out of playing youth hockey. He also has operated a hockey camp in Grand Rapids, Mich. (near his hometown of Grand Haven) for 15 years and oversees the Dan Bylsma Foundation, which raises money through sales of his books and speaking engagements. The money goes to both neo-natal research and to families who want their children to play hockey but can’t afford the equipment.

Tomlin also is involved in several charitable organizations, including All Pro Dad, a national support group for men looking to become better fathers, and Every Child Inc., which helps families of special-needs children.

Like Bylsma, he’s also active in youth sports, helping coach kids at the Peninsula All-Star Football Camp in his hometown of Newport News, Va. “The community that I grew up in has a reputation of being a tough one. That’s well-deserved—it is,” Tomlin affirms. “A lot of those kids can’t afford to go away to camps, but they need instruction. And not only in football, but also in life skills and making correct choices. The life lessons that young people learn through this game is what I’m excited about.”

Craig McConnell is a born and bred Pittsburgher. Born at Allegheny General Hospital, bred in Cranberry Township, he’s now a coordinating producer at FSN, where he’s worked since 2001. Before working for FSN, Craig worked as a videographer at WSYX-TV in Columbus and at WTOV-TV in Steubenville. He now lives in Hampton with his wife, Jill, and their two kids, Derek and Leah.

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