Bill Cower resigns, search for new coach begins today

Published 7:49 pm Friday, January 5, 2007

Bill Cowher is walking away from the most stable coaching job in the NFL — leading the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Cowher called owner Dan Rooney on Thursday to tell him of his decision, and the team announced a Friday news conference not long after that. Cowher is expected to be there to say goodbye.

Pittsburgh will immediately begin a search to replace the retiring coach, a person familiar with Cowher’s status said Thursday night, speaking on condition of anonymity because the retirement had not been officially announced.

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The 49-year-old Cowher, one of the NFL’s most recognizable faces and most successful coaches for 15 seasons, has weighed resigning since shortly after his Steelers finally won the Super Bowl in February following numerous near misses.

Cowher has talked of wanting to spend more time with his family, especially now that they are living in a new home in Raleigh, N.C., where he and wife Kaye attended North Carolina State. Cowher’s two oldest daughters are at Princeton and the youngest has only 2 1/2 years of high school remaining, time Cowher apparently doesn’t want to spend time away from her.

While Cowher would be resigning with one season left on his contract, there is no indication he would retire from pro football. He said recently he is not close to being burned out, and still likes coaching and dealing with players.

Cowher, who led the Steelers to the playoffs 10 times, the AFC title game six times and the Super Bowl twice, met with Rooney and team president Art Rooney II on Tuesday and asked for several days to weigh his plans. There was an understanding a decision would be made quickly because the Steelers don’t want any top candidates accepting other jobs before talking to them.

While the Steelers would have given Cowher until next week to make up his mind, he decided not to make them wait and called Dan Rooney on Thursday.

A Steelers head coaching search is one of the NFL’s rarest events. This would be only the second time since 1969, when Hall of Famer Chuck Noll began a 23-season run, they have sought a coach; they haven’t fired one since Bill Austin in 1968. By contrast, the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts have had 15 coaches since then, including interim coaches.

Two strong contenders to replace Cowher — Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm — already are in place and are interviewing with other teams. The team would interview at least one minority candidate, possibly more, and talk with several candidates outside the organization.

The Steelers were willing to give Cowher some time following a disappointing 8-8 season to get away from the team, but felt they couldn’t wait much longer with the Falcons, Cardinals and Dolphins already seeking coaches. The Falcons interviewed Whisenhunt on Thursday, and the Cardinals plan to interview both Whisenhunt and Grimm.

There have been numerous signs pointing to Cowher’s departure, beginning when he told the team last spring he was uncertain of his plans past this season. Contract extension talks last summer did not progress past the preliminary stage.

Also, his season-ending meetings Monday with his players, which often last hours and hours, were much shorter than usual. No players were seen in the Steelers’ complex past mid-afternoon and Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca said it was obvious Cowher looked ready to leave.

The Steelers gave Cowher the option of returning next season and completing his current contract, but that arrangement would probably not satisfy either side.

Cowher, if he coaches again, has signaled he wants to be one of the league’s highest-paid coaches. His current $4 million-plus salary is about half that of Mike Holmgren, whose Seahawks lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl last season. The Steelers have given no indication they are willing to pay any coach an $8 million salary.

The Steelers also wouldn’t welcome a lame-duck coaching situation because it would create a season-long distraction, and ongoing speculation about who Cowher’s successor would be.

Cowher is the NFL’s longest-tenured coach with his current team; Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher, with 13 seasons, is second. Cowher, a former Pittsburgh area high school player, is third among active coaches in regular-season victories with a 149-90-1 record, and fourth overall with a 161-99-1 record counting postseason games.

If he wants to return to a sideline immediately, with another team and at a much higher salary, that team would have to work out compensation with the Steelers because Cowher is under contract for 2007. But several players said this week they were certain that if Cowher didn’t coach the Steelers next season, he would not coach any team.