Steeler Staying Power

From Associated Press

Three years ago this weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers were locked in a chaotic power struggle that threatened to tear apart one of the NFL's most successful organizations.

Coach Bill Cowher's team had just collapsed for the second consecutive season, going 6-10 with seven losses in the final eight games. Following three trips to the AFC championship game from 1994-97, the Steelers were 13-19 over the next two seasons.

Cowher, no longer the edgy but always-in-control leader, seemed distracted and confused. Maybe it was because he and director of football operations Tom Donahoe had long since stopped talking, or that some players had grown weary of his jaw-jutting blowups and in-your-face histrionics.

Or maybe it was the persistent rumor that his marriage was in trouble -- one he finally felt compelled to deny during his weekly news conference.

For most NFL owners, who work in an environment where change not only is a constant but a necessity, the decision would have been obvious: The coach must go.

Not in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers change stadiums more often than they do coaches. After a week of public debate over who should go, the Steelers announced Cowher would return but that Donahoe, given equal credit with Cowher for the Steelers' resurgence in the early 1990s, was resigning.

Now, with the Steelers (10-5-1) facing the Cleveland Browns (9-7) in a wild-card playoff game Sunday, President Dan Rooney is more confident than ever that he made the right call.

Since the Steelers retained Cowher, they have gone 32-15-1, made the playoffs twice and won two more division titles. This was their second consecutive double-digit victory this season.

"Stability, I think, is the key," Rooney said, reflecting three years later on perhaps the biggest crisis of his nearly 50 years with the organization. "You have to give a coach or anyone in a position like that a chance to do his job. You can't make a quick judgment or yank them out of the job, because it doesn't really help you. It just puts you back. What we had built with Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, they were able to come on and do the job."

In most NFL cities, it's considered much easier to change the coach than the players when times get tough. In Pittsburgh, they change the players.

The Steelers will take the field with only eight of 23 starters, counting the kicker and punter, remaining from 1999. Many who departed had begun tuning out Cowher in 1999.

"Some of those guys really didn't want to do it Coach Cowher's way, and I think that's why they're not here any more," safety Lee Flowers said.

With seven division titles, Cowher has won more than any coach except Don Shula (11), Noll (9), Bud Grant (9), Tom Landry (9) and Chuck Knox (7). Of that group, three (Shula, Noll and Knox) coached more than 20 years, and only Grant (15) coached fewer than 19 seasons. Cowher has coached 11 seasons.

The Steelers' 109-66-1 regular-season record under Cowher is the AFC's best and ranks behind only the 49ers (117-59) and Packers (116-60) in the NFL. Among active head coaches, only Dan Reeves and Marty Schottenheimer have more victories.

Despite his record, Cowher understands that if he coached for a meddling owner or one with little patience, he might have been gone in 1999.

"I think it's a tribute to ownership," Cowher said of what might be the most secure job in pro sports coaching. "In Dan Rooney, I feel like I'm blessed to work for the best owner in the league. We had a couple of down years where, I think, maybe some other places might have been looking to make a change."

Once players arrive in Pittsburgh, it's they who change, not the coach. Big-name players may have the upper hand in other cities, where coaches have been fired to accommodate a star's wishes, but not in Pittsburgh.

"We don't have guys in here who are too big to get yelled at, who are too big to get screamed at," Flowers said. "Sometimes that's what you need; sometimes you need to treat a grown man like a child. I think that's why we've been successful -- we really believe in Coach Cowher's system."

Those who buy into Cowher often find it financially lucrative. Eager to keep last season's 13-3 team together, the Steelers paid $44.8 million in signing bonuses to 25 players this season, only a year after paying nearly $25 million in bonuses.

Rooney doesn't expect those investments to go bad as long as Cowher is around. Cowher still isn't halfway to matching Noll's 23 seasons on the job, but Rooney can see Cowher coaching in Pittsburgh as long as Noll did.

"Sure, he's young and he's healthy, it's not like he's having problems with it." Rooney said. "He started young, as did Chuck Noll, and that's the key."

Cowher is 45 and would be 57 in 2014, which would be his 23rd season on the job. For comparison's sake, that's four years younger than former NFL coach Rich Brooks, who last week signed a five-year contract to coach Kentucky.

Still, there's one key difference between Noll and Cowher: In his 11th season, Noll was winning his fourth and last Super Bowl.

Cowher has taken the Steelers to four AFC title games and one Super Bowl but has yet to win a league championship.

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