Steelers players in for physical, grueling camp

LATROBE, Pa. -- Forty-five minutes into the initial session of his first training camp as a head coach, Mike Tomlin pressed his fingerprint onto the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers by returning to the past and unwittingly offering homage to the legendary Hall of Fame sideline chief for whom the team's primary practice field was recently christened.

Nah, Tomlin didn't put his players through the dreaded Oklahoma drill, a hallmark of Chuck Noll summer camps. That drill was a onetime ritual here that used to draw boisterous crowds to the far corner of the practice field at St. Vincent College.

But he did call for a "back-on-'backers" blocking session -- with running backs attempting to pass-protect against blitzing linebackers -- that instantly stoked the level of intensity at a Tuesday morning practice that already ranked as one of the most physical workouts in recent franchise history.

And with that drill, acknowledged wide receiver Hines Ward, who had worked his entire nine-year NFL career under one boss, Bill Cowher, the franchise's coaching calendar was officially flipped forward.

While some unsuspecting veterans, who hadn't worked in full pads in the opening practice of any camp under Cowher, appeared poised to pass out, the baton was passed to Tomlin. And his players, even the most grizzled stalwarts who might have been eyeballing the rookie coach with skepticism, were keenly aware of the significance of the moment.

"Basically, that very first contact let us all know that this is Tomlin's team and this is his blueprint," said Ward. "I mean, you can go through the minicamps and all the OTAs and stuff, and think you know what a coach is going to be like. But you don't really know until you get into camp. He didn't leave any doubt about who's in charge. There's a feeling, when you've done things one way for so long and been successful at it, that's like, 'Why should we let go of the old way?' Well, there are no options like that around here. The old way is definitely gone."

Ironically, if the old way is passé here now, old school has been embraced by the first-time NFL head coach with the undeniable throwback mentality.

When wide receiver Cedrick Wilson wandered across the middle of the secondary Tuesday morning and was slammed hard to the ground by free safety Anthony Smith, he leaped up to complain. Screamed Smith, a second-year veteran battling for the starting job, "Hey, it's live here now!"

The response from Tomlin, who has an edge to him that players seem to respect? A quick smile, and then on to presiding over a nine-on-seven drill and a relatively physical team segment that he agreed was meant to set the tone for a camp that includes 15 two-a-days.

Old school, for sure, but sure to be a hit in a city where rock-'em-sock-'em football is as much a birthright as a shot and a beer.

Tomlin, 35, who has six seasons of league tenure on his résumé and only one year at the coordinator level, is only the Steelers' third head coach since Noll was hired in 1969. He will have to be Hall of Fame caliber himself to approach the four Super Bowl wins in six seasons that Noll carved out in the 1970s with one of the greatest collections of talent in football history. Heck, he'll have to be extraordinary to match the one championship that Cowher delivered in his 15 seasons with a franchise steeped in history.

Pittsburgh ownership clearly sees something special, though, in Tomlin.

"I think he's the kind of guy who, when he walks into a meeting room, everyone sits up a little bit straighter," Steelers owner Dan Rooney said.

That figures to play well with hardcore Steelers fans, even those who were admittedly dubious when the Rooney family hired the franchise's first African-American head coach. But more important to the black-and-gold stained fan base is how Tomlin is regarded by his players, some of whom had grown comfortable with but also weary of Cowher.

So far, at least, so good.

"Most guys want a coach who's going to look you in the eye and tell you the truth, you know, no [bull feathers] involved," said cornerback Deshea Townsend, another veteran who played his whole career under Cowher's stewardship. "[Tomlin], he stares right through you. And the man is brutally honest. Plus, he's very detailed, a really smart guy."

Cowher was certainly football savvy. Noll, on the other hand, was a bit of a renaissance man, able to dissect the perfect trap block or discuss a vintage wine, as conversant about subjects as divergent as growing championship roses in his garden and developing backup offensive linemen.

Tomlin is impressively well-spoken, knows his way around books that include a lot more than just X's and O's, and is an effective communicator. Before choosing to matriculate at William and Mary, where he was a good enough wide receiver to draw free-agency interest from a few NFL teams, Tomlin had been accepted at most Ivy League schools. He nearly went to law school instead of into coaching. And he considers himself a man of words, even simple ones.

"I do the crossword, the Sudoku and The Jumble every day in the local paper," he said. "I like words and their impact."

But mostly, as his Tuesday practices validated, Tomlin likes impact. Especially the kind that takes place on a football field, yeah, even in the earliest stages of training camp. It isn't a game for the faint of heart and Tomlin, who is attempting to rally the Steelers back to the levels they achieved by winning Super Bowl XL two years ago, knows just one way to do it.

"I'm not saying coach Tomlin is a violent man, but he knows this is a violent game, and you had better be ready to strap in on every day," said linebacker Clark Haggans. "And from the looks of it so far, he means every day and every play."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.