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Tomlin was a three-year starter as a wide receiver/tight end for the College of William and Mary but never played in the NFL. His coaching career began in 1995 as the wide receiver coach at Virginia Military Institute. He spent the 1996 season as a graduate assistant at the University of Memphis, where he worked with the defensive backs and special teams. Following a brief stint on the University of Tennessee at Martin's coaching staff, Tomlin was hired by Arkansas State University in 1997 to coach its defensive backs. Tomlin stayed there for two seasons, before being hired as defensive backs coach by the University of Cincinnati.
Tomlin was hired as the defensive backs coach for the Tamp Bay Buccaneers in 2001. In 2002 and 2005, the Buccaneers led the NFL in total defense (fewest yards allowed per game)—during Tomlin's tenure, the defense never ranked worse than sixth overall.
Tomlin was selected by Vikings' head coach Brad Childress to be his defensive coordinator in 2006. The following year, Tomlin became the sixteenth Steelers' head coach on January 22, 2007, when he was hired to replace Bill Cowher, who resigned after spending 15 years with the team. Tomlin is the tenth African-American head coach in NFL history and the first in Steelers franchise history. The Steelers finished Tomlin's first season as head coach with the top-ranked defense in the NFL. Tomlin led the Steelers to the 2007 AFC North Division championship and a 10–6 record in his first year as head coach. In addition he became the first Steelers coach to win division titles in his first two seasons.
When the Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the 2008 AFC Championship Game, Mike Tomlin became the youngest NFL Head Coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl. On January 29, 2009, Mike Tomlin was named the 2008 Motorola NFL Coach of the Year. In February of the same year, Tomlin became the youngest head coach to win the Super Bowl when his Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. He signed an extension with the Steelers in 2012.
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