Smizik's analysis: Cowher's exit ... There just might be more to it than family

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In what was his final appearance as coach of the Steelers, Bill Cowher spoke for 27 minutes. He said all the right things, thanked all the right people, conducted himself in a sincere and sometimes touching manner and didn't mispronounce any words. He even thanked the media. For an exit, it was a boffo performance.

Except for this: He never really explained to the complete satisfaction of a skeptical audience why he's leaving. How do you walk away from what many consider the best coaching job in the NFL? Not only did Mr. Cowher have a good team returning, unlike many head coaches, he also has the final say in football decisions and works for supportive, non-meddling bosses who could write the book on operating an NFL franchise. He could have stuck around for another 15 years, if he wanted.

So why did he resign with one year remaining on his contract after failing to come to an agreement on an extension in the spring? He reiterated he is not burned out and is, in fact, far from it. He reiterated it was not about money.

Mr. Cowher would have us believe -- and he might be entirely correct -- that it was all about family. But we're left wondering if that was the only reason for his departure.

He coached superbly and with passion for 15 seasons with the Steelers while his two oldest daughters made their way through elementary school, middle school, high school and went off to college, and while his youngest daughter was into her sophomore year of high school. Why now? Why now when the two oldest daughters are at Princeton and, as is the case with so many college students, might never again live full-time with mom and dad?

This is not to suggest there is anything phony about Mr. Cowher's sentiments. It's been pretty clear over the years that he's as good a dad as he is a coach. And we believe him when he said, "If there's a legacy I'd like to leave, it's my three daughters saying, 'My dad was a good dad.' "

There just might be more to it.

What's the old saying? When they say it's not about the money, it is about the money.

The best way to get money in professional athletics is by becoming a free agent. That's what's ahead for Mr. Cowher. After one or two years sitting at home, he'll get bored and return to coaching. When he does, he'll get the kind of money the Steelers were not going to pay him. The Rooneys are not going to pay a coach what Redskins owner Dan Snyder will in Washington and what Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga will in Miami. That doesn't make the Rooneys cheap. It's the way they do business and they do it a lot better than Mr. Snyder and Mr. Huizenga.

So Mr. Cowher can have the best of both worlds. Get some time with the family, even if 40 percent of the family is away at college, and eventually get the big, big pay day -- the one he wouldn't get with the Steelers.

There's nothing wrong with that. Mr. Cowher and the Steelers walk away from this coaching era owing each other nothing. Mr. Cowher gave the Steelers 15 excellent years, one Super Bowl and almost always a competitive team. The Steelers Nation might have been hatched in the Chuck Noll era, but it came to full life and full force in the Cowher era. The Steelers, in turn, gave Mr. Cowher his chance and made him independently wealthy and nationally famous.

Mr. Cowher might dabble in TV next year or just might spend his time watching his youngest daughter play basketball during the week and his oldest daughters on the weekend. He's a rich guy on a one or two-year vacation. He can do what he wants.

But the itch will come back. His competitive nature won't let him sit out too long. One year might be the maximum. When he does, any job that's open, and a lot that are not, will be available to him. Mr. Cowher has his many critics and they can cook up all kinds of reasons why he's not a good coach. But here's something they can't refute. If every job in the NFL was open, Bill Belichick would be the first pick and Mr. Cowher would be second.

Mr. Cowher made a point yesterday of reminding in a non-boastful style that he did it his way. That's for sure. He made few friends along the way. He kept his distance not only from the media but even from his own assistants. Other than strength coach Chet Fuhrman, his relationship with his assistants was strictly professional. It was not surprising that while he cited by name his secretary, two team doctors and trainer John Norwig for thanks, he never mentioned by name any assistant coach. That's the way he liked it. You couldn't get too close to a man you might have to fire some day.

In replacing Mr. Cowher, the Steelers are in as good as position as possible. They're only a few days behind Arizona and Atlanta, the first teams to make a coaching change, and they have a considerably better situation to offer.

Of course, the Steelers have a more difficult task than the Falcons and Cardinals. They have to replace a considerably better coach.

Mr. Cowher will be missed by this franchise, missed greatly.

Meanwhile, here's something to think about -- if you're a fan of Mr. Cowher or not.

Some time in the future, maybe two years, maybe five, in a game no one with the slightest sense of history or drama will want to miss, Mr. Cowher will come back to Pittsburgh and lead another football team on to Heinz Field.

What a day that will be.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.


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