In a league that is defined by constant change in the coaching ranks, Pittsburgh’s Bill Cowher has demonstrated remarkable staying power

On solid ground: in a league that is defined by constant change in the coaching ranks, Pittsburgh’s Bill Cowher has demonstrated remarkable staying power

Ed Bouchette

BILL COWHER ISN’T OLD–IT just seems that way. He’s a stay-at-home type in a league dominated by men in motion. Players move, franchises move, coaches can’t stand still, stadiums go up and come down, owners change, and even the divisions have been jumbled.

Through it all, Cowher has stayed put in Pittsburgh. He is a rock of stability in the NFL coaching fraternity. The 2002 season will be his 11th with the Steelers, the longest current tenure with one team of any NFL coach.

And he’s only 45 years old.

The trick to his staying power? “I work here, for the Steelers,” Cowher answers quickly. “Certainly, it has to be more of a tribute to the owners than it is to coaching.”

The Steelers have been owned by the Rooney family since the team was founded in 1933, and other than Super Bowl titles, the thing the clan cherishes most is stability. Cowher was hired in 1992 to succeed Hall-of-Famer Chuck Noll, who coached the team for 23 years.

That’s 34 years with two coaches. “It is unheard of,” Cowher says. “It starts at the top with [current owner] Dan and [the late team founder] Art Rooney. I look around every year and look at some of the things that are done throughout the league, and I count my blessings that I have an owner who is as stable, consistent, and committed as it is here.”

The NFL isn’t the only league that goes through coaches the way Jerome Bettis plows through defensive linemen. Only three other men in the Big Four sports leagues–the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball–have tenures with the same team longer than Cowher’s.

The dean of them all is Jerry Sloan, who’s coached the NBA’s Utah Jazz for 14 seasons. This is the 13th season Bobby Cox has been managing baseball’s Atlanta Braves, and Rudy Tomjanovich has spent 11 seasons with the NBA’s Houston Rockets.

Gone are the days of a Connie Mack, who managed baseball’s old Philadelphia A’s for 50 consecutive years, or George Halas, coach of the Chicago Bears for 40 years. We may never see another tenure like Noll’s or that of Tom Landry, who coached the Dallas Cowboys for 29 years.

There are current football coaches who have been doing their jobs longer than Cowher, but not with the same team. Dan Reeves has put in 21 years with three teams, Marty Schottenheimer is entering his 17th season (four teams), and this will be Dick Vermeil’s 12th season (three teams). The NFL has turned into a league in which a coach like Tony Dungy can be fired despite perennially leading his team to the playoffs.

Cowher? He just keeps on going in Pittsburgh as the winds of change swirl around him.

“The match between the organization and the head coach has to be significant,” says Floyd Reese, general manager of the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers’ former rivals in the disbanded AFC Central. “What happens so often between the organization and coaches is they can’t decide exactly what it is they want. Consequently, every time there’s a stumbling block, they go the opposite way of what they have. If they have a players coach, they go with a strong disciplinarian, and vice versa. I think that organization [Pittsburgh] is sold on the guy they want.”

In 1992 the Steelers plucked Cowher away from the Kansas City Chiefs, where he was defensive coordinator and hardly a household name–even in Pittsburgh, his native city. Despite the fact that Cowher was just 34, the Steelers hired him to replace the retired Noll. It was a tough act to follow, considering Noll had taken Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl championships.

Cowher certainly made the best of the situation. He went 11-5 his first season and made the playoffs, the first of six straight postseason appearances, a string that tied Paul Brown’s record for the best start for a first-time NFL coach.

Cowher cites that early success as a reason for his longevity. “There’s been a tendency with expansion, with some of the money that owners have paid, that they want immediate results,” Cowher says. “When you don’t get the results they’re looking for, the first people are looking to do is change. I’ve been fortunate that I was able to come to an organization that understands the game, understands there are going to be some down years the longer you’re in one place. And I was fortunate to start winning quickly.”

Those first six seasons helped carry him through the down times of 1998 through 2000. The Steelers slumped to 7-9 in ’98 and then 6-10 in ’99. A showdown brewed between Cowher and Tom Donahoe, the Steelers’ director of football operations, after that ’99 season. Their relationship had deteriorated through the years, and two straight losing seasons added to the tension. It became clear that one or both would have to go. Cowher offered his resignation, but the Steelers instead asked and received the resignation of Donahoe, who has since become president and general manager of the Buffalo Bills.

“Obviously, when I offered my resignation, I knew that there was a chance that would occur,” Cowher says. “I didn’t know. It was a tough period for everybody involved. There were some changes that needed to be made. I wasn’t looking at it from a monetary standpoint. I was looking at it from a standpoint of going someplace where I was wanted, where it was going to be able to work, as you need to do in this business. It’s hard enough in this business with the system, with the competition, if you’re not on the same page on the inside. That just makes it too hard.”

Cowher and the Steelers climbed out of their funk in 2000. While they missed the playoffs for the third straight time that season, they overcame an 0-3 start to finish 9-7. The Steelers showed their commitment to Cowher and to the concept of stability by extending his contract another three years (through 2005) at an average of $3.4 million annually. He justified it by coaching his team to the best record in the AFC last season (13-3) and reaching the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers were upset at home by the New England Patriots in that title game, 24-17, the third time in four AFC championships held in Pittsburgh the past eight years that they lost. (They reached the Super Bowl in the 1995 season, losing to Dallas.)

Pittsburgh’s failure in championship games is the one blot on Cowher’s resume, which otherwise is superb. His regular-season record is 99-61, a .619 winning percentage that compares favorably to those of some coaches in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Cowher compares his record to that of Sloan, who has never won an NBA championship. “We’re both still looking for that ring,” he says.

Dan Rooney would like nothing more than to add to his franchise’s collection of Vince Lombardi Trophies, but he’s not about to place any blame on his coach. “He’s our kind of guy,” Rooneys says. “He’s a hard worker, he’s enthusiastic, he gets along with everybody. I think he’s motivated the team. He’s brought the team back. He’s done what we’re looking for.”

Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt, another Pittsburgh native and the other finalist to replace Noll in 1992, says Cowher’s longevity on the Steelers is a tribute to the Rooney family. “You see guys getting fired for going to the playoffs,” Wannstedt says. “They had a three-year stretch of rebuilding and no playoffs, and he got a three-year contract extension! You know how unusual that is in today’s NFL? Mr. Rooney knows that Bill is good, and he has confidence in him. He’s not listening to talk radio or the newspapers–he’s making decisions on what he believes is right. And that’s unusual in today’s football world.”

New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett used to be Cowher’s defensive coordinator. He says Cowher’s greatest strength is his ability to get the very most out of his players. “He does a good job with the players, and he understands the way the Steelers organization is run. You have to coach the players. They change every year, and they’re doing a good job of locating the players and getting them, and he’s done a good job of coaching.”

Obviously, Cowher’s remarkable run in Pittsburgh has to end some time. The question is, when? Cowher has deep roots in the community. He and his wife Kaye have three daughters, all of whom are actively involved in local sports. His youngest is in the sixth grade, and he’d like to coach at least until she graduates from high school.

That goal is a definite possibility for Cowher, who somehow has avoided the burnout that has afflicted other coaches. “As long as you still have the fire and the passion for the game, you never really put a timetable on it,” Cowher says. “It’s a cyclical business we’re in. If you can have the support and people can understand what you’re doing, you have the chance to fight through the down times and you won’t stay down as long.”

Football may be a cyclical business, but for Bill Cowher, it’s more like a bicycle. He simply jumps on and keeps riding.

Stand by Your Man?

THE STEELERS HAVE BEEN A ROCK OF head-coaching stability lately, sticking with Bill Cowher since 1992. No current head coach has had a longer tenure with the same team. When it comes to the overall picture, however, the Dolphins lead the way in coaching consistency. Since entering the league in 1966, they have had just four head coaches, which means each coach has lasted an average of 9.3 seasons. Of course, that average is boosted considerably by Don Shula, who paced the sideline for the Dolphins from 1970 through ’95. What follows is the average tenure of head coaches for each team (from the inception of the franchise through 2002). A look across the board reveals that the shelf life of an NFL coach generally is only about three to four seasons. In other words, all the upheaval in the coaching ranks is nothing new. Coaches have lived on the hot seat since the dawn of pro football.

NO. OF AVG.

TEAMS YEARS COACHES TENURE

DOLPHINS 37 4 9.3

COWBOYS 43 5 8.6

JAGUARS 8 1 8.0

BEARS 83 11 7.5

VIKINGS 42 6 7.0

PACKERS 82 13 6.3

GIANTS 78 15 5.2

CHIEFS 43 9 4.8

STEELERS 70 15 4.7

SEAHAWKS 27 6 4.5

BENGALS 35 8 4.4

BROWNS 50 12 4.2

49ERS 53 13 4.1

BRONCOS 43 11 3.9

BUCCANEERS 27 7 3.9

FALCONS 37 10 3.7

BILLS 43 12 3.6

EAGLES 70 20 3.5

LIONS 73 21 3.5

RAVENS 7 2 3.5

CHARGERS 43 13 3.3

RAIDERS 43 13 3.3

RAMS 66 20 3.3

PATRIOTS 43 14 3.1

COLTS 50 17 2.9

JETS 43 15 2.9

OILERS/TITANS 43 15 2.9

REDSKINS 71 28 2.8

SAINTS 36 13 2.8

PANTHERS 8 3 2.7

CARDINALS 83 34 2.4

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group