´ Steel Curtain Rising: Carolina Cowher

Why Did the Steelers Lose to Tampa

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Carolina Cowher

William Laird Cowher stepped down as Steelers head coach over two years ago, but that hasn’t stopped him from making headlines.

Steel Curtain Rising has been late in responding to this. And for good reason.

Twice I sat down to begin writing something with the idea that I would make sense of it only to stop. The more I thought of it, and the more I wrote, one thing became clear -- I can’t make sense of this.

There are any number of easy explanations, but all of them are wanting, at least to this writer’s eyes.

Bill Cowher is just too difficult to pin down.

Consider:

He arrived in Pittsburgh carrying the moniker of Marty Schottenhiemer’s disciple. Translation: run on first, run on second and, if at all possible, run on third...

  • ...Yet in his first trip to the Super Bowl the five wide receiver set and the phenomenon known as “Slash” characterized his offense.

Beginning with his first game as coach, Cowher succeeded in making the Steelers a contender again. Yet, during those early years, over confidence was his Achilles Heel...

  • ...But by the time he left, his team’s had mastered the “one game at a time” approach.

By the end of both losing seasons of 1998 and 1999 large contingents of his players had quit on him, and quit badly...

  • ...During the 6-10 2003 campaign, Cowher had his players fighting for every blade of grass, down to the final gun in overtime during a meaningless final game.

Cowher broke into the league as a special teams coach, and he was quite proud of that fact...

  • ...Special teams foul ups led directly to playoff losses against Kansas City in 1993 and of course New England in 2001.

During his tenure in Pittsburgh, Cowher came across as the darling of the national media...

  • ...His relationship with the Pittsburgh media was generally tense and often contentious.

Cowher was almost universally loved by his players, and he gave off a giant Teddy Bear aura in the rare glimpses he gave into his relationship with his wife and daughters...

  • ...Non-football players who crossed his path got frosty receptions at best; according to Jim Wexell’s book Steelers Nation, Cowher refused to even acknowledge James Harrison’s parents during a chance encounter in an elevator prior to Super Bowl XL.

The day Cowher stepped down as coach, he reaffirmed his connections to Pittsburgh, reminding everyone that his brothers and parent’s still lived in the city...

  • ...Press reports indicate that the Cowhers couldn't be bothered to have furniture moved from their Fox Chapel House, instead they had it auctioned off.

Although in the late 1990's he openly mused how nice it would be to have the Browns job, early this year Cowher reportedly asked not to be considered for the coaching vacency in Cleveland out of respect for Dan Rooney...

Returning once again to the day Cowher stepped away from the helm, he stated “you can take the boy from Pittsburgh, but you can’t take Pittsburgh from the boy…. Yinz understand what I mean...”

We thought we did.

  • ...Rather than root for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bill Cowher was front and center during game four of the NHL Eastern Conference Semi-finals revving up the Carolina Hurricanes faithful by setting off their Hurricane siren.

Will We Ever Understand Bill Cowher?

Outside of Steelers Nation, The idea of someone shifting sports loyalties is not a foreign concept. Growing up in the Washington DC area, you ran into loads of people who would say stuff like “I grew as a die hard Buffalo Bills fan, but I root for the Redskins now because, well, you know, I can see their game every week.”

Never made sense to me.

I am the only person in my immediate or extended family who wasn’t born nor ever lived in Pittsburgh, and yet my loyalty to the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins has never wavered. (OK, confession the O’s are my American League team, but I would firmly back the Bucos should the two ever meet in the World Series again…. Yeah, like that’s gonna happen….)

Pittsburghers, transplanted or otherwise, are loyal to Pittsburgh teams. It’s as much part of the collective DNA as yinz, pop, jumbo, Iron City, and gum bands.

Not surprisingly, much of Steelers Nation is up in arms over Cowher.

I don’t blame them.

But I do not completely share in their ire.

I have long been a Cowher apologist, defending him through those AFC Championship losses. (although initially I thought Rooneys erred in choosing him over Donahue after the 1999 season.)
But how ever much his latest escapade may rub me the wrong way, I am not ready to condemn the man who won 149 games, clinched two wild card berths, bagged 8 division titles, snagged a Lamar Hunt trophy along the way, and brought home One for the Thumb.

But if that’s true, then it’s also true that I cannot take the part of those who dismiss this whole debate as pointless. Because, as I have depicted above, there’s a lot more to Cowher than meets the eye. There's a complexity to Bill Cowher that too frequently gets lost in all of the fire and brimstone, Chin Out, Spit in Your Face bluster.

Sometimes that's been for good and sometimes its been for ill, but it has always been one of the things that's made him so interesting.

Or at least that is as close to explaining this as I can get. If you’ve got your own take, by all means, please leave a comment.

So, what do you think? Leave a comment. All views are welcome, but please, as this is sparking intense debate in Steelers Nation, we only ask that you be respectful of others who have different opinions.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nope; You pretty much said it all. He is puzzling. I have to wonder, what must it have made him feel like when Tomlin was able to take the (essentially) same Team into the Playoffs his 1st two seasons, and to win it all in only his 2nd. He wanted it badly, and all those AFC Championship losses (aka, Marty), only to get there, have the Cowpokes on the ropes, and O'Donnell throw it away...Then, FINALLY, win it all. See his successor have IMMEDIATE success....THAT's gotta stick him just a bit, wouldn't you think?

KT said...

Anonymous,

Thanks for commenting.

You make an interesting point, and that was one of the things that I thought about too. That Cowher is perhaps a little bothered by the fact that Mike Tomlin won the big one just two years into his tenure.

So yeah, that might be a factor.

In all fairness, Tomlin DID inherit a much more talented team than Cowher did. (The early 1992 and 1993 teams did have talent, but Neil O'Donnel ain't no Roethelisberger, and of the trio of Graham, Stone, and Mills, only Ernie Mills is the only one who would have pushed this receiving corps for playing time.)

Neal Coolong said...

I'm not a Penguins fan. So sue me. I live in the State of Hockey, does that mean I'm somehow a sports bigot because my roots lay in two areas?

I couldn't give a flip if Cowher decides to follow the local team now that he lives in North Carolina. Not to sound like a pansy, but his wife is from Raleigh, and she packed up her life to move with Bill and raise their children. Is it too much to ask that he give a little something back to her community now that he's retired?

While I'm the biggest Tomlin supporter in Steeler Nation, and was his loudest proponent when everyone was screaming for Whiz or Grimm, Cowher developed many of the players we see on the field now. Tomlin has, in many ways, gotten more out of them than Cowher had, but it's not as if James Harrison wouldn't have seen the field unless Tomlin was hired. It's not like Troy Polamalu was a slog with Cowher at the helm. Roethlisberger enjoyed his best season when he was under Arians and not Whisenhunt, but both OCs clearly won with him.

And why should Cowher publically support his former team that's succeeding without him, and therefore, root against his two assistants, whom he supported to replace him? I don't support my former employer. I don't wish them poor luck, but I'd rather the people I work with move on to better things than to succeed with my former employer, why should Cowher be any different?

I agree with you, Keith, Cowher's 92 team wasn't anywhere near Tomlin's 08 team (07 either, for that matter), but let's just simply recognize these are obviously apples and oranges.

KT said...

Neal,

Excellent post! A Well thought out, almost philosophical post, and point by point defense of Cowher.

I will only offer this:

I don't think anyone (at least not me) seeks to imply that if you're a Steelers fan you HAVE to be a Penguins fan.

If you're an actual Pittsburgher (which I am not) perhaps that is a different story.

And Cowher always presented himself as a Pittsburgh guy. I am told (although I have NO way of knowing if this is true,) that he even drank Iron City at his summer home in Bald Head.

So from that perspective, it is a little disingenuous to step down as coach with the credo "you can take the boy from Pittsburgh...."

AS for him declining to root for the Steelers, my guess is it was more in the name of "I am a journalist now, so I have to be unbiased," type deal. You know trying to be professional. (Which is similar to the point you're making.)

I see your point about loyalty to a former employer, but I don't know that it applies here. In part because he's always presented himself as a Pittsburgher. The idea (be it a myth created by fans or not) was that coaching the Steelers was more than a “job” to him. As the main post indicates, sometimes that seemed to be the case (which wouldn’t have been a crime,) other times it did not.

But beyond that, I do not buy the "loyalty to former assistants" idea.

Cowher was never close to his assistants. Perhaps he was not so demanding that he pushed them away as Tom Donahue seemed intent on everyone believing in the late 1990's, but Mike Pristua was on to something when he pointed out that Cowher failed to mention any of his assistants by name when he stepped down.

And I am not sure how much he actually supported Whiz or Grimm. Ron Cook wrote at the time that he was behind the Rooney's decision to interview Chan Gailey, and recommended that they hire him.

I have been a big Cowher defender during tough times and will continue to defend his record as coach.

Neither of these issues really pertains to football, so I'll just say that they rub me the wrong way.