At 10:58 a.m. yesterday, two minutes early, Bill Cowher sauntered into a makeshift interview room at the Steelers' training camp at Saint Vincent College. Eleven minutes later, he left. It wasn't much of a session.
The coach, never one to expound at depth on topics that might shed some light on his team, was not in one of his better moods. The media, undazzled by the exhibition contest tomorrow against the Minnesota Vikings, also was not on its best game. The questions were slow in coming and lacking much punch.
The performance of Cowher and the media might have had something to do with the fact there wasn't much to ask or answer at this stage of camp.
Besides, the question everyone wanted to ask had been pretty much put off limits by Cowher. Had it been asked, it would have gone something like this:
"Uh, Bill, when we reconvene for the news conference for the second exhibition game of the 2007 season, will you be here?"
Cowher might not be talking about his job status, but it's on the minds of everybody. That's everybody, not just the media, and that includes the players.
What the media and the fans are thinking and saying about Cowher's future will not impact the 2006 season. What the players are thinking -- that's thinking, not saying -- can.
Cowher's status is this: Negotiations to extend his current contract, which runs through the 2007 season, are stalemated and were put on hold this week until after the season. This is highly unusual because Cowher and the Steelers always have come to an agreement on a new deal when the old one had two seasons remaining.
Combine this with the fact Cowher has bought a house in North Carolina and that his wife, a native of that state, and only daughter still at home will be living in it, and there understandably is talk this will be his final season with the Steelers.
Cowher insists he is taking his career one year at a time. Which means this could be his final season. Which means at least in one small corner of his mind, there's a compartment for retirement thoughts.
Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, Cowher's predecessor and a man who won four Super Bowl championships, had a theory about players who were considering retirement.
It went something like this: If you're thinking about retirement, you should retire.
It made a lot of sense then and it makes a lot of sense now, and not just for players. Any job at the highest level of a profession requires intense focus. Thoughts of retirement are bound to interfere with that focus and therefore could interfere with the ability to do the job.
Cowher, though, is a guy with tremendous focus. If anyone can maintain his football concentration with simmering thoughts of retirement in the back of his mind, it is Cowher.
In fact, there's some evidence he did just that last year. There's reason to believe Cowher was thinking of getting out after last season.
The house in North Carolina had been purchased in October. But the team's late run to the Super Bowl altered that plan.
The fact his family is away could aid Cowher's focus. The possibility, for example, of dashing off to watch his daughter play basketball in November or December won't be an option. It's one thing to drive to Fox Chapel High at 7 p.m. and quite another to get to North Carolina.
That's one of the reasons some people find they can do their job better when they are traveling and away from home. In those circumstances, there's nothing to do but the job -- no errands to run, no family responsibilities. Cowher can focus all of his energy on his job.
Even if he can, what about the players?
Cowher does not rule with an iron hand. He treats his players like men and expects them to act responsibly and professionally, and they do. Cowher deserves credit for establishing this atmosphere and fostering the kind of leadership within the team that makes it work.
But the players are not oblivious to what's going on. Just as Jerome Bettis put two and two together and pronounced this week on national television this will be Cowher's final year, so can the current players. If they have those thoughts, it could disrupt the harmony that has helped make this team work.
Barely noticed after the remarks Bettis made were those by his NBC colleague Cris Collinsworth, who accused Cowher of creating a "distraction." Collinsworth said Cowher should make his intentions known now.
Nice in theory, but bad in application.
It's entirely possible Cowher doesn't know what his plans are. He wouldn't be the first person to equivocate over retirement. And if he knows he's going to retire, it makes no sense to publicly state it at this time.
For better or worse, probably worse, Cowher's job status will hover over the Steelers all season.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1468.