Mike Tomlin and Sean McDermott share plenty in common.
Both are strong NFL coach of the year candidates, guiding teams that largely had middling preseason expectations to the verge of playoff entry. Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers and McDermott’s Buffalo Bills begin Week 15 in position to earn AFC wild-card spots.
Both are straight-shooting leaders whose rosters tend to mimic their personalities.
Both are coaching lifers, jumping into their chosen profession right out of college.
And speaking of college, Tomlin and McDermott were teammates at William & Mary in 1993 and ’94. Longtime Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock can’t wait to see his protégés square off for the first time Sunday night at Heinz Field.
“I’m extremely excited,” Laycock, who retired following the 2018 season (his 39th at W&M), told USA TODAY Sports. “This is the first pro game I’ve been to in forever.
“Just think of the significance of it, having two former players as head coaches in the National Football League at the same time. I don’t know if it’s ever happened. (The league has not yet determined whether Sunday will mark the first instance of college teammates coaching against each other in an NFL game.)
“But people don’t come to William & Mary with the idea of being an NFL coach — I don’t think that’s usually in the back of their mind.”
Founded in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1693, William & Mary is the second-oldest institution of higher education in America, trailing only Harvard (founded in 1636). W&M has produced three U.S. presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler) and, more recently, former secretary of defense Robert Gates and former FBI director James Comey.
Though the school hasn’t been a pipeline of NFL players — Tomlin and McDermott were all-conference performers for a perennial Division I-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) powerhouse, but neither played professionally — it does have a rich history of employing and producing accomplished coaches.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Marv Levy was the Tribe’s head man for five years before being succeeded by Lou Holtz in 1969. Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s first assistant gig was here in 1994, when Tomlin and McDermott were playing. LSU assistant Joe Brady is a rising star.
And it’s not only football. Ex-USWNT coach Jill Ellis played soccer at W&M before achieving World Cup glory from the sideline.
Tomlin, 47, and McDermott, 45, have remained very close with Laycock and speak about him with deep reverence.
“I’m sure Sean shares the same mentality about coach Laycock,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “Coach is a blueprint for me and always has been — just his approach to coaching, to teaching, to instructing — the supreme confidence that he has not only in his plan, but the process and the way that he relays that confidence to players and challenges players.
“Man, it’ll be an honor to have him here.”
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Laycock, 71, who’s never attended a Steelers game since Tomlin’s hiring in 2007, will watch Sunday from the coach’s suite but will also have a field pass and looks forward to spending time with two players who starred for his program. Tomlin was a three-year starter at wideout and still holds the school record for yards per catch (20.1). McDermott was a safety who once made 20 tackles against Virginia after being thrust into the lineup as a sophomore. Both were team captains.
“Two very different individuals,” said Laycock. “Both of them obviously very good players, no question.”
Different paths to the top
Laycock was caught off guard by Tomlin’s post-graduation career choice.
“I was surprised when Mike told me he wanted to go into coaching,” he said. “He loved football, he was always enthusiastic about everything — he was the kind of guy who’d come to practice and never have a bad day. He was always upbeat. But I really didn’t know if he understood what coaching was going to entail so far as hours and lack of pay. … But he convinced me.”
Still, Laycock kept very close tabs on Tomlin.
“I’d always double check to see if, ‘Mike, are you still having fun and enjoying yourself?'” he recounted. “He’d say, ‘Coach, I love it.’ That’s what he’d always tell me. That follows through to today.
“He was one of those kind of guys that got along with everybody. Everybody liked him. … He was always himself, not phony. And that’s one of the things I think has allowed him to go as far as he’s gone now. He didn’t try to be something that he’s not. He is who he is, and he’s comfortable in his own skin.”
Tomlin initially oversaw receivers at VMI in 1995, then began climbing the ladder (Memphis, Arkansas State, Cincinnati and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) before his lone year as a defensive coordinator in 2006 for the Minnesota Vikings, who ranked eighth overall and first against the run.
“I knew when Mike became a coordinator in the NFL, I told people, ‘He will be a head coach before long, people will be very impressed with him,'” Laycock remembers of Tomlin, who summarily became the youngest one to win a Super Bowl (at age 36 to cap the 2008 season) and has never had a losing record in 13 years with Pittsburgh.
“Certainly it happened pretty quickly.”
With their win vs the Cardinals today, the Steelers have clinched at worst an 8-8 record this season.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 9, 2019
Conversely, Laycock never had any doubt regarding McDermott’s future.
“Football meant a lot to him, it was very obvious,” said Laycock, who made McDermott a graduate assistant at W&M in 1998. A year later, he was a 25-year-old at the bottom of the professional rung on Andy Reid’s first Philadelphia Eagles staff.
“There wasn’t any question in my mind that he had what it took to be a coach — the work ethic, the intelligence, the ability to get along with people, decision-making, all those things.”
After serving as defensive coordinator for the final two seasons of his 12-year hitch in Philly, near where he grew up, McDermott took the same job with the Carolina Panthers in 2011. Six years later, he was given the reins in Buffalo — Tomlin texted that scoop to Laycock — and immediately led the Bills to their first playoff berth in 18 years.
Asked if he’s rooting for a tie game Sunday, Laycock chuckled.
“Let’s see what the playoff situation looks like,” he replied. “I’m pulling for them all the time, that’s for sure.”
It’s also clearly apparent that Tomlin and McDermott pull for each other, maintaining an abiding admiration that’s endured for decades.
“I’ve known Sean McDermott for a long time,” said Tomlin. “Man, that guy is a quality coach.
“Sean’s a class guy in every way, man. Love him, can’t say enough about him. Been the same guy. … I’ve known him since I was probably 20 and he was 18 — he was more mature than I was.”
Asked about Tomlin’s influence, McDermott replied: “What a great example of what it means to do things the right way, both on the field as a captain — the way he led the football team — but off the field as well.
“He’s been a mentor of mine, and I’ve learned from him and watched him as well from afar and what he’s done on the field with the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
W&M players offer unique perspective
Yet perhaps testimonies from William & Mary teammates — roughly 35 are expected Sunday as part of a larger school contingent — cast the most impressive light on Tomlin and McDermott.
“The one thing that strikes me about both of them, people talk about how success and notoriety doesn’t change certain people,” said Charlie White, W&M’s starting center in the mid-1990s.
“But I can’t think of a better example of two people who’ve really risen to extraordinary levels within their profession but truly haven’t changed a bit.”
White’s relationship with both has deepened over the years at alumni events.
“They truly really are still the same guys and still the great teammates they always were,” he added. “Both completely true to their core values. And also, their public personas as coaches are still very, very reflective of what I remember of them as teammates.”
Nearly a quarter century later, White, who will be at Sunday’s game, keenly remembers how Tomlin carried himself.
“He’s always been a charismatic presence — relentlessly positive,” he said. “Always very vocal, always very inclusive in his leadership, the kind of guy who always made everybody feel like they were important to him.
“He has an effect on people.”
Pittsburgh native Terry Hammons lined up at receiver opposite Tomlin. They dubbed themselves “The Bomb Squad” at W&M. The Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers remain very tight.
“It’s always surreal to me, even now 13 years later, that my boy is the head coach of my team,” said Hammons. “It doesn’t get old.”
He notes how unusual it is for a wide receiver to be voted team captain but underscores Tomlin’s unique relatability with people from all walks of life.
“He has a great gift that goes unrecognized,” said Hammons, who believes Tomlin hasn’t received ample credit over the years while meshing so many outsized Steelers personalities and is now being belatedly lauded for crafting an 8-5 record despite rampant injuries to an offense that had already lost Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell in the offseason.
“Being able to get AB to show up and play? He can’t even get on the field with any other coach apparently,” he said. “You have to manage guys as individuals. Bill Belichick got one game out of him.”
Though Tomlin typically projects an intensely serious persona in news conferences, leaning on phrases like “the standard is the standard,” Hammons wants people to know he’s often got a glint in his eye, a great sense of humor percolating behind those shades.
“He flips it on and off, he’s so funny,” he says of Tomlin’s perceived stoicism.
Hammons described a visit to training camp in 2007, Tomlin’s first with Pittsburgh. He recollected his buddy introducing him to owner Dan Rooney — “I wanted to drop to my knees,” laughed Hammons — while watching stars Troy Polamalu, James Farrior and Hines Ward go through their paces.
“Mike immediately turned into a drill sergeant, patrolling the field while practice is going on,” remembered Hammons. “And at one point, he walks by and leans over and says, ‘Hey, T Hamm, you see this whistle right here? If I blow this whistle, the Pittsburgh Steelers will run over here!’ Every once in a while, he’ll just say something off the wall.
“But I have to admit, now I say ‘the standard is the standard’ to my daughter.”
McDermott was (and is) known as “Mac Daddy” by his Tribe teammates, who reminisce about a tough, highly intense teenager. He was a champion wrestler at La Salle College High School outside of Philadelphia but had to earn his scholarship after arriving at William & Mary.
“Like McDermott, I was a walk-on,” said White. “Even though I was older, you notice guys like that and the way they work. He truly is, if not the toughest and hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen, certainly one of them.”
White, admittedly not the biggest fan of pro football, thinks the McDermott-Tomlin matchup carries far more significance aside from its historical rarity.
“I think the further you go down the food chain in football, the closer you get to the true virtues of the sport. And, to me, Tomlin and McDermott are such high-quality people, and they represent everything that is truly good about the sport.
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“It’s made me feel great to have my son be a Steelers and Bills fan. These are the kind of men — the kind of fathers they are, the kind of citizens they are — it’s a real blessing they’re role models.
“They’re such great representatives of William & Mary. It makes me really proud.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis