Standing By Their Man Two coaches in 35 years: Are the Steelers too loyal for their own good?

August 08, 2004

The last loyal team in sports was at it again last week. The
Steelers signed coach Bill Cowher, who had two years left on his
contract, to an extension through 2007. This is how things are
done in Pittsburgh, where there have been two coaches--Chuck Noll
and Cowher--since 1969. Imaginative, steely and disciplined,
Cowher, 47, was already the longest-tenured coach in the league
(all but two NFL teams have made at least three coaching changes
since he took over in 1992), and at a time when free agency
leaves so many organizations wanting stability, the jut-jawed
Pennsylvania native is practically a Pittsburgh landmark.

The Steelers' loyalty feels laudable, emblematic of what sports
should be. While many teams keep making quick-fix coaching
changes, the Steelers abide by a patient strategy and keep a
long-term view. Yet there's one nagging question for Steelers
fans: Why now? Why extend the contract of a coach when there is
absolutely no internal or external pressure to do so? Cowher has
gone to the playoffs in eight of his 12 seasons, but only twice
since 1997. Pittsburgh is coming off a 6-10 season and has had
losing records in three of the past six. It's not as if the
Steelers were in danger of losing him, either. "I could never
dream of coaching somewhere else," Cowher said last week.

The team, a family-run business that gets a fraction of the
off-the-field revenue made by big-market teams, is committed to
paying its coach at least $15 million over four years. Cowher may
be worth the investment, but the Steelers took a leap of faith
they didn't need to take. Football coaches and general managers
say players must prove themselves every year. Why haven't the
Steelers held their coach to that standard? "We were very
comfortable that Bill Cowher was the right person for the job for
an additional number of years," said club president Art Rooney
II. "We have a system where players come and go. I think the best
way to deal with that is to have coaching stability, and we think
the record that our [last] two coaches have had has proved that
it is a pretty good way to go about it."

There is, however, a difference between Chuck Noll and Bill
Cowher that Rooney didn't mention. After 12 years coaching the
Steelers, Noll had won four Super Bowls. Cowher has won
none. --Peter King

COLOR PHOTO: DILIP VISHWANAT/TSN/ICON SMI (COWHER) STEEL THE ONE Cowher (above) and Noll have given Pittsburghunique stability. B/W PHOTO: PHIL SANDLIN/AP (NOLL) [See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)