Friday, January 05, 2007

Say It Ain't So!

After 15 very successful years, Bill Cowher has officially resigned as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. While most of the experts, and even his own players, expected this to happen, I still held out hope that this moment would not come at this time. In his press conference, Cowher said he was leaving to spend more time with his family. For someone who displayed great emotion throughout his coaching career, Cowher didn't display a whole lot of emotion during his press conference.

Bill Cowher is one of the great coaches in NFL history. Overall his record was 161-99-1, for a .619 winning percentage (higher than Tom Landry, Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, and his predecessor Chuck Noll). In 15 years his teams made the playoffs 10 times, won 8 division titles, appeared in 6 AFC championship games, played in 2 Super Bowls, and won Super Bowl XL. During his tenure Cowher averaged 10 regular season wins per season; since 1992, the Steelers have more regular season wins (149) than any other NFL team.

Here are some interesting tidbits about Cowher's coaching career. Cowher won both his first game (defeating the Houston Oilers 29-24 on September 6, 1992) and his last game (defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 23-17 in overtime on December 31, 2006); both were road games. Cowher's first loss came on September 27, 1992, a 17-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers in Brett Favre's first start as the Packers' quarterback. Cowher led the Steelers to the playoffs in his first 6 season; Paul Brown is the only other coach to have done so.

In his press conference Cowher was careful to say that he was resigning rather than retiring, raising speculation that he might return to coaching after the 2007 season. After all, he is only 49 years old. I just can't bring myself to imagine Bill Cowher standing on any other sideline. He wasn't just the coach of the Steelers; he was the face (or the jaw) of the organization. Cowher is a Pittsburgh native and was a Steelers fan long before becoming a player or coach. After working for the Rooney family, I can't imagine that he would ever feel comfortable working for another owner. And throughout the long history of the NFL, few coaches who had great success with one team approached a comparable level of success with subsequent teams.

Where do the Steelers go from here? Early speculation is focused on Steeler assistants Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt, both of whom are being courted by other teams. Following the pattern of Cowher and Noll, the Steelers will probably focus on a pro assistant coach who also played in the NFL. It will be interesting, because the Rooneys don't have a lot of experience hiring head coaches; this is only the third time since 1969 that the Steelers will be hiring a head coach. Of course, that means that they do a pretty good job of hiring head coaches. While Cowher will be missed, I expect that the Steelers will end up doing just fine.

Incidentally, Cowher's departure means that the coach of my other favorite NFL team, Jeff Fisher of the Tennessee Titans, is now the longest tenured NFL head coach with one team, having been the Titans' coach since 1994. If this season is any indication of the future, Fisher will probably surpass Cowher's 15 years with the same team. Given Titans owner Bud Adams' history with his coaches, this would be truly remarkable.

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