Smizik: Is it possible we've taken Cowher for granted?

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Some time around 4 o'clock this afternoon, Bill Cowher will walk off the field for perhaps the last time as coach of the Steelers. Too bad a man who has been involved in so many critical games that grabbed at the hearts and minds of the worldwide Steelers Nation might be ending his 15-year tenure in what is a mostly meaningless contest against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Cowher has indicated he will make a decision about his future speedily after the season, which he owes to the Steelers. Although no one has a handle on his thinking, there is reason to believe he will resign and take a brief sabbatical before returning with another team.

Maybe he wants to be with his family for his youngest daughter's final two years of high school. Maybe he feels a need to get away from the game for a year or two. Maybe he doesn't believe the Steelers will pay him enough in a new contract and wants to be available to the highest bidder for the 2008 season or beyond.

Love him or hate him -- and there are plenty on both sides -- there's no denying that Cowher's run with the Steelers has been a major success. He might not have won enough Super Bowls to satisfy the spoiled Steelers fan base, but he has posted a remarkably consistent winning record, which is difficult in this era of parity brought on by the salary cap.

For the record: Cowher is 148-90-1 in the regular season and 12-9 in the playoffs. He's won eight division titles, two American Football Conference championships and one Super Bowl. He has lost four times in the AFC title game and once in the Super Bowl.

The postseason record wasn't good enough for a lot of his detractors, particularly those AFC title game losses at home. But who do you want as your coach: One who is 2-4 in AFC title games or one who is 0-0?

Among his contemporaries, only Bill Belichick of New England stands clearly ahead of Cowher. Cowher's record, if not his reputation, is at least that of Bill Parcells, who has won two Super Bowls. Parcells has 24 more wins and 39 more losses than Cowher in the regular season. He is 11-7 in the postseason. Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos is 138-87 with two Super Bowl victories.

It is surprising, if not amazing, how little respect Cowher gets from a significant portion of the Steelers' fan base. E-mails that have crossed this desk as Cowher considered his future treat him as just another coach. The writers often act as though they're annoyed with Cowher and that if he's thinking about leaving he should definitely move on. It's almost as if in the minds of many, he's just another coach.

He's not. He has been an outstanding coach and he's at least borderline Hall of Fame. Some people seem to believer whoever replaces Cowher will carry on the tradition -- just as Cowher carried on Chuck Noll's tradition.

That's where Cowher's accomplishments are so overlooked. As great a coach as Noll was -- and his greatness, which included four Super Bowl victories, is indisputable -- the Steelers were floundering when he retired after the 1991 season. In Noll's final seven seasons, the Steelers were mediocre. They advanced to the playoffs only once in those seven years and never won more than nine games.

No one had a right to expect what Cowher did with that struggling team. He turned a 7-9 team into an 11-5 team. He turned a franchise that had been in the playoffs once in seven years to one that was in the playoffs for six consecutive years.

Maybe that was his mistake -- too good, too fast. He set the bar too high.

For those who believe Cowher can easily be replaced, here's a list of NFL coaches, by category, who came into the league after Cowher and who appeared to be just the answer, but who definitely were not.

Defensive coordinators: Gregg Williams (17-31 at Buffalo); Buddy Ryan (12-20 at Arizona); Ray Rhodes (38-46-1 at Philadelphia and Green Bay); Jim Haslett (45-51 at New Orleans); Dom Capers (48-80 at Carolina and Houston).

Offensive coordinators: Chris Palmer (5-27 at Cleveland); Lindy Infante (12-21 at Indianapolis); Kevin Gilbride (6-16 at San Diego); June Jones (22-37 at Atlanta and San Diego); Mike White (15-17 at Oakland). Mike Mularkey (14-18 at Buffalo); Bruce Coslet (21-39 at Cincinnati).

College coaches: Florida's Steve Spurrier (12-20 at Washington); Miami's Butch Davis (24-36 at Cleveland); Syracuse's Dick MacPherson (8-24 at New England); Oregon's Rich Brooks (13-19 with the Rams); Miami's Dennis Erickson (40-56 with Seattle and San Francisco). Oregon State's Mike Riley (14-34 with San Diego).

Older NFL assistants in their first head coaching job: Dick LeBeau (12-33 at Cincinnati); Gunther Cunningham (16-16 at Kansas City); Rod Rust (1-15 at New England); Joe Bugel (20-44 at Arizona); Ray Handley (14-18 with the Giants); Richie Petitbon (4-12 at Washington); Dave McGinnis (17-40 with Arizona); Dave Campo (15-33 with Dallas).

Super Bowl winners: Mike Ditka (15-33 at New Orleans); George Seifert (16-32 at Carolina); Tom Flores (14-34 at Seattle); Joe Gibbs (21-26 at Washington).

If you're watching this afternoon, keep an eye on Cowher. If he leaves, it might be a long time before we see someone that good again.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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