First & then: Taking the helm of the Pittsburgh Steelers
September 7, 2007 4:00 AM
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin runs on to Heinz Field for the first time against the Green Bay Packers Aug. 11.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One came in with a steely-eyed, unflappable vision of what needed to be done. The other burst onto the scene banging pots and pans to wake up a slumbering giant.
Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher did not share coaching styles, particularly in their first seasons with the Steelers. Yet each accomplished a great deal over a long time as a head football coach. Noll won four Super Bowls among 209 victories, fifth most in NFL history. Cowher won one Super Bowl among 161 victories, 13th in history.
As Mike Tomlin begins his first season as Steelers head coach at age 35, he brings yet another philosophy and style to a job held by only those two other men the previous 38 seasons. It remains to be determined what those traits are as Tomlin approaches his first real game as coach Sunday in Cleveland.
But as the reserved Noll and flamboyant Cowher showed, there is no patent on the correct way to coach a winner over the long haul in the NFL.
"Between the two, they were completely different," said former assistant coach Dick Hoak, the only man to work for Noll and Cowher in their first seasons on the job. "But there are different ways to do the job and get the job done. It's not all just one way."
Noll, at 37, took over a team that had never won a playoff game and had gone through three coaches and a combined 18-50-3 record in the previous five seasons. He famously told his first group of players at an early meeting that most of them were not good enough to play for him, and they proved him right by starting out 1-13.
Cowher, at 35, took over a team after Noll's retirement with a wealth of good young talent that had underachieved the previous season when they went 7-9. He thought they could win immediately and they did by going 11-5 and getting a bye in the first week of the playoffs.
It is a similar situation to the team that Tomlin coaches in his first season. After winning the Super Bowl 19 months ago, the Steelers underachieved and slipped to 8-8 last season. He inherits a roster that has the kind of talent to compete for a championship.
There were no immediate thoughts of a Super Bowl in their future in January 1969 when the Steelers hired a man who coached the Baltimore Colts defense that lost to Joe Namath and the Jets weeks earlier in the Super Bowl.
Dan and Art Rooney Sr. just wanted someone to break the habit of losing, and Noll would do that, eventually, although not that season. It is ironic that the coach who would bring the Steelers to unprecedented heights began with what remains the team with the most losses in one season in club history.
Yet, Noll never changed. Not after his first team won its first game against Detroit, nor as it lost the next 13.
"Chuck was no different from day one -- maybe he was a little softer in the beginning," said Joe Greene, Noll's first draft choice in 1969 and a special scout for the club today. Greene is the only man who has worked for the team's three most-recent coaches.
"He was just matter of fact -- here's the schedule, here's what I think what makes winning football. You do these things and we have a chance.
"I don't recall him raising his voice, being angry or changing anything. Because that's what I thought, this isn't working, why don't we change! In my own mind, I didn't verbalize it, but I thought it.
"That's the power and the beauty of our being here with Chuck is that he didn't change. He was consistent. I think that's why we were able to build the team that he built during that time because he was consistent. He didn't tell us one thing on Week 1 and then on Week 7 find ourselves doing something different."
Cowher was consistent in a more outwardly way. There was an afternoon in his first training camp in which he stopped practice, gathered his players around them and shouted at them angrily. He coached with emotion and embraced them emphatically as well.
"He was a great motivator," said Rod Woodson, who played his first five seasons under Noll. "Bill was the best motivator I've been around for a coach. He respected everybody but feared nobody. He didn't talk about the other team much; he always talked about how good we were and nothing about the other team. That kept guys' morale up.
"Their philosophies were completely different. Chuck said, I've been doing this a long time, this is the way it will be, period. Bill came in and said, OK, what do you guys like? Both philosophies worked.
"I respected what Bill did because he listened to us more, but Chuck didn't have to listen to us because he won four Super Bowls. But his philosophy and the things he said stuck in my head more because he was teaching me things for later on in life."
One thing Noll and Cowher had in common with Tomlin is they put the players on notice right away that they better perform or they would not last long.
"You have to prove yourself; nobody has a job now," said former tackle Tunch Ilkin, who played under Noll and Cowher and enters his 10th season as part of the Steelers radio broadcast team. "We're all starting new. I think there is a very positive uneasiness. I think it brings out the best in everyone. I think that's a healthy thing for a football team to be a little on edge. I think it works."
Another difference of the new regime under Tomlin is that he kept virtually the entire defensive staff of Cowher's and two offensive coaches, promoting one of them, Bruce Arians, to his coordinator.
"For these guys, there's enough difference for that uneasiness, but there's enough the same so they're not going through a whole new terminology for the offense and defense," Ilkin noted.
Another man who worked closely with Noll and Cowher is Joe Gordon, the club's former public relations director.
"The bottom line is success and both were successful. That's all that counts," Gordon said. "The major difference is the cupboard was empty when Chuck came in. There was almost a complete overhaul. It was a radical change, a wholesale change."
Noll cleaned out his locker room of players who could not play, but he also got rid of one of his best to make a point to the rest of his team. Wide receiver Roy Jefferson had made the Pro Bowls after the 1968 and '69 seasons, yet Noll traded him before the '70 season to Baltimore.
"Roy was an excellent player. He was just going to test Chuck," Hoak said. "Chuck was going to run the show and he wasn't going to take it from any of the players."
Cowher did something similar. Brentson Buckner wasn't a Pro Bowl player, but he was a good, young defensive lineman for the Steelers of the mid-1990s. He tested Cowher, and Cowher traded him.
Another trait the two men had in common -- that any successful coach must have -- is the ability to keep the players in line. Even at 1-13, Noll "never lost the team," Gordon said.
"Nobody ever lost confidence that he was going to get the job done. They were going in the right direction and he wouldn't compromise, wouldn't trade Terry Bradshaw despite all the offers he received."
The St. Louis Cardinals offered what Gordon recalled as seven players for Bradshaw "and five would have started for us."
"Chuck never considered it. He said all they're going to do is get us to mediocrity and our goal is to win the championship."
Noll and Cowher had tremendous confidence in what they were doing and how they were doing it, even if they expressed it differently.
"Bill made it more an emotional thing and the guys responded to him," Gordon said. "Probably, he was less conservative than Chuck, willing to gamble, because in the early days he had nothing to lose, like that fake punt in Houston."
The Steelers trailed in Houston, 14-0, in Cowher's first game as their coach. The Oilers had won the AFC Central with an 11-5 record the previous season. Cowher ordered a fake punt that made a first down on way to a touchdown and a 29-24 upset victory for the Steelers.
"To me, that was so important to Cowher's future," Gordon said of that victory. "He was able to steal a game like that."
Noll wasn't much of a gambler, and Cowher turned more conservative as the years went on. Each believed that the best way to win was to run and stop the run, especially in a place like Pittsburgh -- there would be no West Coast offense here.
Yet each adapted as well. When the NFL imposed new rules to restrict the physical play of defenses in 1978, Noll opened up his passing game with Bradshaw and won two more Super Bowls. Cowher went more to the pass in '95 under Neil O'Donnell and reached his first Super Bowl. He struck quickly through the air in the 2005 playoffs to get ahead before he turned to the ground game to keep the lead.
"People say the game has changed but the philosophy of football has not changed," Woodson said. "Play tough-nosed defense, stop the run, run the ball, you win. Tough teams win tough games in critical situations. That will never change.
"Bill Cowher went back to what got Chuck Noll his Super Bowl rings, that philosophy again -- running ball in between tackles and playing tough defense."
Tomlin professes to believe in the same things. Like Noll and Cowher, he was raised as a defensive coach in the NFL. Like Noll and Cowher, he starts out at a relatively young age for a head coach. Whether he can win as often as his predecessors is the great unknown and, really, his philosophy will have to develop over time as well.
There are times Tomlin sounds like Noll -- he said recently that if it were easy, anyone could do it, a classic Noll comment. And his tougher training camp was more in line with Noll's philosophy about summer practices. But then Tomlin does stake a claim to Tony Dungy as a mentor, and Dungy says he learned more about football from Noll than anyone.
"It's entirely too early to do that for me," Greene said of the comparisons. "It would have to just happen, I wouldn't be looking for it. But, I don't think anyone would compare with Chuck, his demeanor and the process he went through. Chuck was not like a regular human being from the standpoint -- you know what their fallibilities are and you see them every day.
"You were around Chuck for a long time, what was his?"
He had them, like every coach, but Noll helped create something that at least one predecessor could never live up to -- four Super Bowl victories in four tries.
Now it's Mike Tomlin's turn at the wheel.
Their philosophies were completely different. Chuck said I've been doing this a long time, this is the way it will be, period. Bill came in and said, OK, what do you guys like?