Steelers' boss mum on plans beyond season

Updated: August 15, 2006, 12:06 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

LATROBE, Pa. -- This is Bill Cowher's final season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He'll try for the semi-rare Super Bowl two-peat, resign, move to his new $2.5 million home in Raleigh, N.C., and then entertain offers from assorted NFL teams and his alma mater, North Carolina State.

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Or not.

Who knows what the longest-serving head coach in the NFL is going to do next? Contract extension or new destination? Back to back or time to pack? Cowher isn't saying, but this much is sure: The owner of the league's best sideline scowl could do a Jerome Bettis and call it quits at season's end. That means the Steelers could be looking for only their third head coach in the last 39 years.

If he does quit, don't count on his players wearing throwback NC State jerseys when they step off the final team charter flight. They did that for Notre Dame's Bettis at the Super Bowl, but Bettis was beloved. Cowher is respected and feared, which isn't such a bad combination. But the Steelers should do something -- wear fake mustaches, spray spit, jut jaws -- to honor their coach. Because like Bettis, he'll be in the Hall of Fame one day (here's hoping the bronze bust features him in full scream).

If you can interpret Bill-speak, it sounds as if Cowher did reassess his Steelers future after the Super Bowl win. But the Q word (quit) "never has really crossed my mind."

No, but Cowher isn't looking beyond this year. His contract ends after the 2007 season, and negotiations to extend the deal are moving about as fast as 325-pound nose tackle Casey Hampton runs the 40.

"I've talked about one year at a time, so [I'm] being honest with people," Cowher said after a recent evening practice at Saint Vincent College. "And I think a lot of people are speculating about that. I honestly was very energized about coming into the season and I just feel that I've got the best job in the National Football League."

Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThere's no doubt Bill Cowher is the man in charge at Steelers' camp.
Maybe he does. He works for one of the few remaining mom-and-pop organizations in the league -- and I mean that in a good way. The Rooney family believes in loyalty and stability, which probably is why Cowher didn't get canned after the Steelers staggered to a 6-10 finish in 2003, their third sub-.500 season in six years. Cowher stayed, but it was the first time he seriously considered his options.

"You're in one place a long time and you start to sit back and wonder if maybe it isn't best for everybody if maybe a change needs to be made," he said.

Cowher has done the improbable, if not the impossible. This will be his 15th season in the same job, for the same franchise, in the same cutthroat NFL whose letters, said former coach Jerry Glanville, stand for Not For Long. Since Cowher replaced the legendary Chuck Noll in 1992, there have been, including interim titles, 134 head coaching changes in the league. Detroit, Washington, Oakland and the New York Jets have made a mind-boggling seven changes apiece in that span.

Cowher's streak is worth honoring for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because it could end soon. Those who know him, cover him, and played for him wouldn't be surprised if Cowher walked away after the playoffs. He has a team capable of making another Super Bowl run, though he'll have to do it without the leadership of Bettis and the helpful underdog/desperation status that fed the Steelers' 2005 season.

I'm slightly surprised Cowher didn't resign. After all, how do you squeeze more drama out of a team that began its 2005 schedule with a mediocre 7-5 start, followed by eight consecutive victories, including an unprecedented four playoff wins on the road? The answer: You don't.

But here Cowher is, trying to pull off the ninth back-to-back championships in Super Bowl history. Luckily, it's been a dull offseason. Bettis retired. Antwaan Randle El signed a free-agent deal with the Washington Redskins. The Steelers visited the White House. Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward vented (and later backtracked) about Cowher. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger came thisclose to spinning in after a motorcycle accident. First-round pick Santonio Holmes got into legal trouble. Barrett Brooks was arrested after a motorcycle chase. And, oh yeah, the Cowher-to-NC State rumors returned.

I was there when Dubya greeted the Steelers during their June ceremony in the East Room. Afterward, I noticed several name tags Velcro'd to the stage floor, including the one placed there by White House staffers to show where the Steelers head coach should stand. It read, Cower.

"It isn't just about winning the championship and I don't think you should be defined by that. I still feel that way, probably even more so after having won the game."
Bill Cowher
"That to me was appropriate," Cowher said, smiling. "We were at the White House. It put everything in perspective. We're just a football team."

Cowher is big on perspective. The Super Bowl win, he said, teaches humility. He is no better or worse coach because the Steelers puffed victory cigars seven months ago at Ford Field.

"It isn't just about winning the championship and I don't think you should be defined by that," he said. "I still feel that way, probably even more so after having won the game."

The interview ends several minutes later. Steelers fans, sometimes four and five deep, scream Cowher's name as he makes his way up the hillside sidewalk from the practice fields. About 10 days ago there were an estimated 20,000 fans for a Saturday practice session. Such is the Steelers mania.

Cowher signs hats, footballs, even the back of a Steelers T-shirt worn by an infant girl. I check my watch: 8:30 p.m. He's still down there when I pull out of the dorm parking lot.

Cowher often says he cherishes the journey more than the destination. To hear him talk, the unlikely ride to a Super Bowl championship was more satisfying than the win itself.

But this season, more than any other for Cowher, will be about destinations. Will he return to familiar Pittsburgh? Will he go elsewhere? Like it or not, this is the question Cowher faces.

Now we wait for the answer.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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