An epilogue for the Jaw
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Bill Cowher did not go out the way he came in. Instead of wearing a three-piece suit as he did in 1992, he wore a multi-colored sweater to his final appearance as Steelers coach. Instead of sounding arrogant like he said he did when he was introduced as Chuck Noll's replacement, he was contrite, relaxed, appreciative, when he walked away.
In the end, though, there was one similarity to the way Mr. Cowher began his career as a National Football League head coach and the way he ended his 15-year reign yesterday.
He was eager and excited. This time, though, to spend more time with his family.
"I'll be honest," Mr. Cowher said. "I'm looking forward to it."
Looking relaxed and sounding like a man comfortable with his decision, Mr. Cowher made official yesterday what has been speculated for weeks, even months: He resigned from the only head-coach position he has ever held and walked into a life of "retirement" in Raleigh, N.C., a lifestyle that is not expected to last much past a year or two.
Mr. Cowher, 49, made the announcement at a news conference at the team's UPMC South Side facility, joined by his wife, Kaye, and flanked by team chairman Dan Rooney and president Art Rooney II. While it signalled the end of the second-most successful coaching stint in franchise history, it also officially began the search to find his replacement.
"I've given this a lot of thought and it's in the best interest of my family and myself at this time," said Mr. Cowher, who was the NFL's longest tenured head coach with one team.
Standing in the room where he held his weekly televised news conference and facing more than 70 members of the media, Mr. Cowher said he will not coach in the National Football League in 2007 and said there was no timetable when, or even if, he will return to the sidelines as a head coach.
"There is no timetable or plan for that," Mr. Cowher said. "The only thing I'm looking forward to is spending time with my family."
But even San Diego Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer, Mr. Cowher's mentor and the person who gave him his coaching start in Cleveland, said yesterday in a phone interview, "Considering his competitiveness, we haven't see the last of The Jaw."
Mr. Cowher went through a checklist of people he wanted to thank, starting with Mr. Schottenheimer and ending with the team's director of football operations, Kevin Colbert, about whom he said, "He gave me my second wind."
But Mr. Cowher, a Crafton native who attended Carlynton High School, saved his most heart-felt thanks for the people in Pittsburgh and Steelers fans across the country.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Bill Cowher, with a replica of the Super Bowl trophy given to him by Dan Rooney, talks about his decision to resign as Steelers coach at a news conference.
Click photo for larger image.
Slideshow: Cowher through the years
Chat transcript: Bill Cowher and the Steelers
Reader forum: What fans think of Cowher, his career, his retirement
Online poll: Rate Bill Cowher's tenure as Steelers head coach
Audio commentary from Bill Cowher's resignation news conference yesterday:
A Crafton boy lives a dream
A thank you to "yinz" Steeler fans
On retiring to be with his family
Steeler pride in Pittsburgh and around the country
How has he changed in the last 15 years?
It's the journey, not the destination
Listen to Bill Cowher's entire press conference
Art Rooney II
The Cowhers and the Rooneys as a Steeler "family"
"You are second to none," Mr. Cowher said, looking into the phalanx of television cameras that rimmed the back of the conference room. "I'm part of you. You can take the people out of Pittsburgh, but you can't take the Pittsburgh out of me. I'm one of you." Then, with a smile, he added, "Y'unz know what I mean."
Mr. Cowher had one year remaining on a contract that paid him between $4.5 million and $4.7 million this season. He leaves behind a legacy that includes 10 playoff appearances, eight division titles, six appearances in the AFC Championship game and -- his biggest prize of all -- a fifth Super Bowl title in franchise history.
"I want to thank Bill for 15 great years," said Art Rooney II. "It's been a great ride. I want to thank Bill and Kaye for having their family be a part of ours."
After Dan Rooney spoke about the coach he hired in 1992 to replace Chuck Noll, who had won four Super Bowls in the 1970s, he turned and presented Mr. Cowher with a miniature replica of the Super Bowl trophy.
"After the Super Bowl you gave me the trophy," the elder Mr. Rooney said. "I wish you will accept this trophy from us for the great contribution you have given us."
Mr. Cowher then hugged Mr. Rooney.
"Coaching in the NFL and winning the Super Bowl have been a lifelong dream for me," Mr. Cowher said. "To realize that in the city where I was born and raised, this Crafton boy lived a dream. You don't know how special that was to me."
The dream, though, took a strange turn during the offseason when Mr. Cowher turned down a contract extension that would have paid him between $6 million and $6.5 million annually in the final years of the deal. After winning the Super Bowl, Mr. Cowher felt he deserved to be among the top, if not the top, paid coaches in the league, a distinction that belongs to Seattle's Mike Holmgren, who will make an estimated $7 million this season and $8 million in 2007.
It became a matter of principle with Mr. Cowher, and the two sides stopped negotiating in August. Yesterday, a close associate of Mr. Cowher said "it didn't have to end this way," referring to his resignation.
Meantime, Art Rooney II said the Steelers have notified offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach/assistant head coach Russ Grimm they are candidates to replace Mr. Cowher. Mr. Rooney said they are the only members of Mr. Cowher's staff who will be considered possible replacements. That means defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a former head coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, is not a candidate.
"Our only goal is to find the best person for the job," Mr. Rooney said. "Our timetable will simply relate to when we feel we have reached that goal."
Only seven coaches in NFL history, including Mr. Noll at 23 years, have had longer coaching stints with one team than Mr. Cowher. But his legacy will extend well beyond his longevity.
Figuratively, and perhaps literally, Mr. Cowher was the face of the Steelers, an animated, passionate coach who once stuffed a photo in an official's shirt and nearly swung at an opposing player when he ran with a blocked field goal past the Steelers bench. His jaw-jutting expressions often included a wrinkled mouth and flying spittle, and his sideline histrionics made him a constant subject of television cameras.
Through it all, he was known as a player's coach, a man who could motivate with his energy but was often softer on the players than the maniacal image he portrayed. He was also a good communicator, priding himself on listening to every complaint but also making sure a player understood his role, even if he didn't like it.
"There is a lot of wear and tear in coaching and finding new ways to teach and motivate becomes harder every season," Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick said. "The fact Bill did it for 15 years is amazing."
Then Mr. Billick added, "His teams played with great physicality and energy. If your team couldn't match that, and most couldn't, his teams would beat you. He's a Hall of Fame coach in my mind."
"He was a great communicator," Mr. Schottenheimer said. "You may not like what he told you, but you knew it came from the heart. That's a key in any meaningful relationship. You need that quality, and that's Bill's strong suit. He's a terrific teacher."
Mr. Cowher, though, was more than a coach who got the most out of his players. One of his greatest strengths was his ability to build a coaching staff, hiring seven assistants who would later go on to become head coaches either in the NFL or college.
The list includes Mr. LeBeau, former Carolina and Houston Coach Dom Capers, Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, former New Orleans Saints Coach Jim Haslett, former Buffalo Bills Coach Mike Mularkey, and former Dallas Cowboys Coach Chan Gailey, who is now head coach at Georgia Tech. Former special teams coach Ron Zook is the head coach at Illinois after formerly being the head coach at the University of Florida.
"I want to thank Bill for all he's done for me," Mr. Lewis said, five days after the Steelers ended the Bengals' season and playoff hopes with a 23-17 overtime victory in Cincinnati. "It has been a privilege to coach with him and against him. I wish all the best for him and his family with whatever the future holds."
The past held plenty of success for Mr. Cowher. When he led the Steelers to six consecutive playoff appearances to start his career, he joined Paul Brown as the only coaches in NFL history to accomplish that feat. His career record of 161-99-1 ranked second only to Mr. Noll's (209-156-1) in franchise history, though his winning percentage of .623 in the regular season, .619 in postseason, are the highest in club history.
"I don't think I'm going to miss it as much as some people think I am going to," Mr. Cowher said. "The only thing I am looking forward to is spending time with my family, and I am really looking forward to that."
Read about Bill Cowher's years as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as written by Post-Gazette sports writers. See the PG Store for details.
First Published January 6, 2007 12:00 am