Cowher not universally adored in hometown
Despite a terrific record, Bill Cowher was not universally adored in Pittsburgh, Len Pasquarelli writes.
One would think that The Chin, seemingly hewn from one of the old quarries that once supplied blast furnaces in the Pittsburgh area, would have been sufficient enough to make Bill Cowher unwaveringly popular in his hometown.
After all, does anything scream 'Burgher! like that silhouette?
But it is part of the enigma of Bill Cowher, who Friday made official his long-rumored retirement from the Steelers, that one of the most successful coaches of this era often took it on The Chin from local fans.
Cowher was not universally beloved.
In a city where longtime radio analyst Myron Cope dubbed former coach and four-time Super Bowl champion Chuck Noll "The Emperor Chaz," it was always strange that Cowher never had a nickname that suggested fan adoration.
Oh, sure, he was "The Chin" or, to many close friends and associates, simply "Face." But as the man who most personified the tough-guy image, in a city whose three professional sports franchises all wear black and gold uniforms, Cowher was never a guy Pittsburgh could bring itself to thoroughly embrace.
Born and raised in nearby Crafton, about as blue-collar a neighborhood as one can imagine, Cowher was occasionally treated more like an accidental tourist. As with the guy who wanders into a corner bar in one of Pittsburgh's ethnic enclaves and orders an import beer instead of an Iron City, fans tended to view Cowher a bit cross-eyed. Although he was one of them, they sensed something off-putting in his demeanor. Despite his marriage to the physical, run-first brand of football, even some football purists didn't cozy up to Cowher's style.
By nature, Pittsburghers employ a simple what-you-see-is-what-you-get battery of tests for analyzing a person's character. No pretense permitted. Cowher -- whose players used to fear getting too close because they worried about being hit by flying spittle when the coach got too wound up -- did not seem to be about pretense. But justifiable or not, the locals sensed something ersatz in his nature. It was as if Cowher, his roots notwithstanding, was a counterfeit 'Burgher.
And, as any of you'ns Pittsburgh fans know, there is nothing worse.
Noll, of course, is tough to be measured against. But my godfather, for instance, still reminds me every chance he gets that the Steelers could have hired Mike Holmgren in 1992 instead of Cowher. That's the same Holmgren who owns as many Super Bowl rings, one, as Cowher. The same Holmgren whose Seahawks lost to Cowher and the Steelers in Super Bowl XL 11 months ago.
To be sure, it has been an unusual relationship. And now that it is over -- at least until Cowher returns in 2008 with another team -- it will be interesting to see how he is judged by Pittsburghers.
Nearly as interesting will be to see how Cowher, who takes at least a temporary leave of absence from the NFL with the 14th-most victories in league history, will be viewed by those who gauge a person's place in the history books. How will it play with the Hall of Fame voters who, given Cowher's departure, albeit it probably brief, could be called upon a year from now to consider his merits?
Tough to say. There are plenty of accomplishments, culminating with the Super Bowl victory. Yet, as is the case with how Pittsburgh fans regarded Cowher, there are some caveats, too. Last year, in the run-up week to Super Bowl XL, Pittsburgh newspapers devoted plenty of space to the belief that Cowher was just a Super Bowl win shy of Hall of Fame beatification.
We'll see. The issue of Cowher's Hall worthiness figures to provide plenty of fodder for Pittsburgh sports-talk shows. We figure Cowher deserves his day in Hall of Fame court. But some electors will be hesitant to strongly consider a candidate who is only 49 and figures to return to the NFL in the not-too-distant future. You hate to enshrine someone and then have him come back and perhaps tarnish his legacy in his second NFL incarnation. Can't happen, you say? Just ask the Redskins' "Ordinary" Joe Gibbs, who is six games under .500 the past three seasons, about life the second time around in the league.
There are 13 Super Bowl-era coaches in the Hall of Fame, and Cowher's career .619 winning percentage, including playoff games, is better than eight of them. He owns as many Super Bowl wins as two of them, and one more championship ring than three of them. His winning mark is superior to that of Hall of Fame coaches Weeb Ewbank (.508), Sid Gillman (.547), Hank Stram (.576), Bud Grant (.608), Bill Walsh (.617), Tom Landry (.603) and the man he succeeded, Noll (.572). Since 1992, the year he took over the Steelers, Cowher has crafted the league's third-best regular-season mark.
When John Madden's candidacy was debated last year, one of the best arguments in his favor was that he didn't have a losing record against any of the Hall of Fame coaches he faced. Cowher faced only two Hall of Fame coaches in his career, Marv Levy and Don Shula, and compiled a 6-3 record against them in regular-season and postseason matchups.
It's hardly his fault, though, that there weren't better coaches on the opposite sideline.
But what Cowher is culpable of, many Pittsburghers and outside observers agree, is a failure to win more titles. There are legion Pittsburgh fans who are quick to remind that Cowher lost four AFC Championship Games, all at home, in an otherwise brilliant tenure. As he stood on the podium at Ford Field nearly a year ago and handed owner Dan Rooney the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Cowher said: "Mr. Rooney, I've been waiting a long time to do this."
And a lot of Pittsburghers in attendance in Detroit or watching at home thought: "Yeah, well, we've been waiting a long time for you to do it."
There is no denying that Cowher has been a heckuva coach. Whether he is a Hall of Famer remains to be seen. How his hometown will remember his 15-year tenure remains to be seen, too.
Avarice doesn't play well in Pittsburgh and, for all the good things he did, there is some sense in the city that Cowher's exit is based on greed. Too bad, because those close to him insist that Cowher wants a year off to devote to his family and recharge the batteries. But if those batteries are recharged a year from now courtesy of an $8 million contract and Cowher returns to Pittsburgh as foe rather than friend, The Chin could be a pretty convenient target for those who never embraced him in the first place.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.