Former Steelers assistant Gailey leading Bills
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The year was 1996 and the Steelers were the defending American Football Conference champions, a team that had lost to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX after making back-to-back appearances in the conference title game.
After a loss in the season opener in Jacksonville, the Steelers had won four consecutive games heading into an Oct. 13 meeting with the Cincinnati Bengals at Three Rivers Stadium, a game Bill Cowher remembers for more than just a 20-10 victory against their division rival.
The Steelers were down to just three healthy receivers -- Charles Johnson, Andre Hastings and Corey Holliday -- because of injuries to Yancey Thigpen and Ernie Mills. But that didn't bother Chan Gailey, the team's offensive coordinator who often liked to use five wide receivers in some of his formations.
"I came into a meeting on Monday night and said we only got three healthy receivers and we were running four and five wides, and we took two tight ends and put together a running plan with one wide receiver on the field," Cowher recalled the other day. "Chan said we'll make the players think this is a great plan and this will be a little different, but we'll have something that won't be predictable and the players will buy into that.
"That's what Chan does -- he makes you feel good about where you are. He accentuates the positive when most people won't be able to find the positive."
Thomas Chandler "Chan" Gailey is doing the same thing in his first season as head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
After an 0-8 start that included three consecutive three-point losses, the Bills might be the most confident, self-assured 2-8 team in the National Football League, especially after they came back from a 28-7 deficit to outscore the Bengals, 42-3, in a stunning 49-31 victory last Sunday.
They might be at the bottom of the AFC East and tied for the second-worst record in the league, but Gailey has them feeling as though they're challenging the New England Patriots and New York Jets for the division title. They're not, of course, but don't tell that to the Bills.
Gailey has taken a team of no-name players such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, Stevie Johnson and Donald Nelson and made them think they are Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed. They don't look in the mirror and see a team that scored only 17 points in the first two games; they look in the mirror and see a unit that has scored 30 against the New England Patriots, 34 against the Baltimore Ravens and 49 against the Bengals.
"He doesn't complain about things he doesn't have," said Cowher, who had Gailey on his staff for four seasons (1994-1997), the final two as offensive coordinator. "He'll take whatever he's given and get people to believe in themselves and believe in the system. He does a great job of taking whatever he has and maximizing those people."
Gailey is one of seven former assistants under Cowher who has gone on to become a head coach in the NFL.
He was hired to coach the Dallas Cowboys in 1998, a year after he helped the Steelers to the third AFC title game in four years. Gailey lasted only two years in Dallas, even though he remains the only Cowboys coach in history to take the team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons.
Today, he gets to face his former team for the first time as a head coach when the Steelers (7-3) play the Bills at 1 p.m. in Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y.
"I had great memories there," Gailey said early the other morning over the phone, just two days removed from the stunning comeback against the Bengals. "We made the playoffs every year and I think we went to the AFC championship three out of four years. The town was great, my kid played at North Allegheny High School and we made some great friends. Anywhere you live and you win, you really, really enjoy it and we enjoyed it."
Even though Gailey was a wide receivers coach his first two seasons on the staff, his input and knowledge were so valuable to Cowher that, during their Super Bowl XXX loss to the Cowboys, the head coach could be heard over sideline microphone asking Gailey, not offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, what he thought the Steelers should do in a certain situation.
Not surprisingly, Erhardt was not retained after the season and Gailey was promoted to offensive coordinator, a move Cowher said he made because he feared losing Gailey.
"I don't know the whole scenario; I just know he called me and told me he wanted to make me coordinator and, shoot, I was more than happy and honored," Gailey said. "I don't know all the ins and out. I don't know all that was going on. But I trusted him and we shook hands. It was good before that, it was good after that."
The Steelers finished 10-6 in 1996, despite losing three of their final four games, and they beat the Indianapolis Colts, 42-14, in a wild-card playoff game before losing on the road to the Patriots, 28-3, in a divisional game.
The following year, with Kordell Stewart at quarterback, the Steelers finished 11-5 and made it to the AFC championship for the third time in four years before losing at home to the Denver Broncos, 24-21.
After the season, the Cowboys hired Gailey as their head coach and Ray Sherman was hired to replace him as offensive coordinator, a move that turned into one of the few disasters of Cowher's tenure. Sherman lasted one year before he was replaced by Kevin Gilbride.
"We weren't afraid to do things back then," Cowher said. "Everyone talks about the wildcat, but back then, when we got Kordell, we had a short-yardage package where we ran the option. We were doing that back in '95 and '96 and we made Kordell a receiver. Chan will take players and he can develop them."
When Cowher resigned as head coach after the 2006 season, he recommended Gailey, who had been head coach at Georgia Tech for six seasons, as his replacement. The Steelers interviewed Gailey, but the job went to Mike Tomlin.
Four years later, the Bills didn't need a recommendation to hire Gailey.
Before he was hired this year as their general manager, Buddy Nix was a national scout for the Bills from 1993-2000 and an assistant GM/director of player personnel for the San Diego Chargers from 2003-07.
But, before that, he coached in college for 26 years, including a two-year stint as defensive coordinator at Livingston University when the NCAA Division II school won the national championship in 1971. His background in Division II made him aware of Gailey, who won the Division II national championship at Troy in 1984.
"It's not that we were close friends, but I kept up with him," Nix said. "He and I came through the path and I knew about him when I took the job with the Bills. I put down criteria I wanted in a head coach and, believe me, he filled them all. He had everything I was looking for."
The Bills talked to several high-profile candidates, including Cowher and Mike Shanahan. Each said they weren't interested. Nix said he didn't need a recommendation from Cowher to hire Gailey, who did not have the name recognition or resume as the other candidates.
"To be honest, and this is just my opinion, I don't think you can hire a guy from an interview and I really don't think you can hire a guy off of what someone else tells you," Nix said. "There are a lot of guys who can coach who can't interview and guys who can interview but can't coach. To me, you better know the guy because you're going to go through some hard times. If you don't know him and you don't know his convictions, you're going to go through some tough times.
"One of hardest things about the job I got is to do what you think is right and not be influenced by fans and media. I had to fight that to start with. It was a no-brainer for me when I hired Chan. He was the best man for job and the best man for us."
That's why Nix is not surprised to see what the Bills have done.
After scoring just 17 points in the first two games, Gailey released quarterback Trent Edwards and inserted Fitzpatrick. Since then, the Bills have averaged 24.5 points per game with Gailey calling the plays and their Harvard-educated quarterback executing his plan with precision. They're even running formations with four wide receivers, something Gailey did with the Steelers.
That's part of the reason the Bills nearly pulled off stunners in three consecutive three-point losses to the Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears -- all division leaders. They followed that with back-to-back victories against the Lions and Bengals, putting together a five-game surge that has the people in Buffalo believing more good fortune is right around the corner.
"He's a guy who was committed to what he believes in," Nix said. "He's a tireless worker and I'm not surprised he has stayed the course. It's easy to jump ship when things go bad. But if you stay with it and believe in what you do, good things happen."
Believing in the positive has never been a problem for Chan Gailey.
First Published November 28, 2010 12:00 am