Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Big Hitters Weigh-In

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is one of the best sports writers anywhere, and is arguably the best writer -- of any kind -- in Pittsburgh. In Sunday's paper Mr. Bouchette adds his two cents on Bill Cowher's status for next season, and for the first time I'm beginning to believe that Mr. Cowher's tenure in Pittsburgh may well be drawing to a close.

"It's time.

That's what Chuck Noll told me when I asked why he was retiring as Steelers coach in December 1991. He shrugged his shoulders and said, 'It's time.'

Now it's Bill Cowher's time. I have the same feeling now as I had near the end of the 1991 season when I believed Noll was ready to hang it up. I think Cowher will "retire" soon after this season ends.

First, here's some history on Noll's retirement, the only end to a head coach's career with the Steelers in the past 37 years.

Noll nearly quit after the 1988 season because Dan Rooney forced him to make changes on his coaching staff after the Steelers went 5-11. He relented, accepted the changes and coached the team to within a whisker of reaching the AFC championship game in 1989. That would be the only season over Noll's final seven that the Steelers made the playoffs because they did not make it in '90 or '91.

This time, Noll realized there would be more changes, particularly in management, and the coach felt it was time for him to step down.

'It would have been great to have had 10 victories and been in the playoffs and have gone all the way, and then said, "Goodbye," but it didn't work out that way,' Noll said at his final news conference.

Cowher must feel the same way, too, although he's had much more success recently than Noll had at the end of his career. Perhaps if he had it to do over, Cowher would have retired next to Jerome Bettis in Detroit.

The circumstances with Cowher are unlike those that drove Noll into retirement. Management isn't demanding change, the coach is. He wants it in the kind of form where he can live in Raleigh, N.C., and work in Pittsburgh. And, likely, he wants more money than the Steelers offered before negotiations ended in August. That may be why his agent has been placing calls to the Rooneys lately.

Cowher or his agent can talk all they want about the coach's living arrangements not detracting from his job. Maybe that's so, but it's also unusual and unnatural, and it's difficult to believe he would continue to work in this town on a full-time basis while his wife and daughter live in Raleigh, N.C. He has made the trip there at least three times during this season and likely will spend much of his offseason there as well. As close as he has been with his daughters, it's hard to believe that he will kiss off his youngest's final three years at home while she attends high school.

Football is a year-round business. It requires a head coach not only to be with his team from August through at least the end of December, but at most other times as well -- in late January, when the weeklong Senior Bowl practices take place; in February when the combine workouts are held and decisions are made on free agents; during March, when free agency begins and preparation for the draft takes place; during April, which is consumed by the draft and the start of voluntary workout sessions, and during May and early June, when the more structured voluntary practices occur.

Steelers coaches traditionally get time off from early or mid-June to late July. Other than that, they're around their club or working players out or attending meetings or watching video of other NFL teams and players. The Steelers may want Cowher to remain their head coach, but they don't want him as a commuter from Raleigh.

Those who work with Cowher say he's different this year, that he does not speak with people in the front office as often as he has in the past. Rooney has spoken with him behind a closed office door a time or two recently, and the guess by others is that those two discussed his future.

Probably the most telling thing lately is that Cowher is discussing his future publicly -- although not with the media in Pittsburgh. He did it with the NFL Network's Cris Collinsworth 10 days ago and he did it again this week with the media in Charlotte.

Whenever anyone has asked him about it here, Cowher would not elaborate other than to say he was taking things 'year to year' and showed aggravation at the questions. But he was more expansive Wednesday when he told the media in Charlotte that he has a decision to make at the end of the year. When the Pittsburgh media asked to talk to him about that, to ask their own questions of him the next day, a Steelers spokesman refused the request.

Collinsworth paraphrased Cowher as telling him his decision is 'not about the money. He just wants to be like an ordinary guy, go somewhere and have a beer and have nobody ask about football.'

There may be no way for him to do that, even if he retires to Raleigh, because he and that famous jaw are so well known now. But if that's how he truly feels, he won't coach much longer, at least not before taking a few years off.

It says here, it's time

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