KNOXVILLE - Reigning Super Bowl champion head coach Mike Tomlin had never been to the University of Tennessee until Saturday.
The 37-year-old Pittsburgh Steelers' boss seemed excited about his weekend visit, though. He made a mental checklist of sights to see, starting with the Tennessee River.
"When I got off the plane today, I said, 'Man, where's the river? Where do those boats come from on gameday?'" Tomlin said moments after addressing the team Saturday morning. "Some of the things that you hear about in regards to this special place, I look forward to seeing.
"This is my first time in Neyland Stadium, and I'm really excited about it."
Tomlin, a protégé of UT defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, quickly accepted his former boss's request to headline the Volunteers' coaching clinic. He postponed previous Saturday night obligations to spend a full day in Knoxville, including a film breakdown of the afternoon's scrimmage.
"I'm very impressed, and I really expected to be impressed," Tomlin said. "This is the University of Tennessee. I've got a decent understanding of what that's about."
The Vols were equally appreciative. All-Southeastern Conference linebacker Rico McCoy echoed many of his teammates in describing their weekend guest.
"Cool. Really cool," McCoy said.
Tomlin spent the better part of a 15-minute interview gushing over his five years with Monte Kiffin at Tampa Bay.
Kiffin was quite complimentary of his former pupil, too.
"He's such a great motivator," Kiffin said of Tomlin. "He's a players' coach. He was 29 years old when he came to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the University of Cincinnati. He was kind of under the radar. I mean, he definitely was. He was a no-name guy and got the opportunity, and he made the most of it. He's just a great guy. You can talk about winning the Super Bowl and this and that, but he's a great coach. If he didn't win the Super Bowl or they didn't make it to the Super Bowl, he's still a heck of a coach. He's a heck of a person.
"But I will say this: He's drinking the right Kool-Aid, because he's got two Super Bowl rings. ... He's off to a pretty good start."
Tomlin doesn't expect the Kiffins to struggle too much at UT, either. He said the two biggest lessons he learned from Monte - "the hay is never in the barn," and "fundamentals over scheme" - will propel the Vols to Southeastern Conference success.
"Xs and Os are Xs and Os," Tomlin said. "You play with 11. How you get those 11 to play together, and what's the degree of understanding of what you ask them to do - not only as individuals, but collectively - that's the common ties that bind great defenses.
"That's why we played great defense in Pittsburgh, that's why we played great defense in Tampa when I was with Monte, and that's why they're going to play great defense in Knoxville."
Happier with Haynesworth
Former UT defensive tackle star Albert Haynesworth attended Saturday's scrimmage, but that wasn't a surprise. The former Tennessee Titan and newly-signed Washington Redskin still owns a home in Knoxville and spends plenty of time in the area throughout the year.
Monte Kiffin had a quip ready for his Saturday encounter with Haynesworth.
"I just wanted to see if he had a couple of years (of eligibility) left, although I don't know if we could afford him," the coach said.
Haynesworth - a 6-foot-6, 320-pound All-Pro - is football's highest-paid defender. His newest contract features $41 million in guaranteed money and performance incentives that could skyrocket it to $115 million.
"It was great to see him," Monte Kiffin said. "It really was. We haven't won a game here ... but this place, and former players, we're trying to embrace these guys. These guys are awesome. They were here before, and we want to help them feel at home and come by any time they can. It could help us in recruiting."