Breaking up is hard to do, particularly when money is involved. Prior to Bill Cowher's decision to step down as coach of the Steelers, there were rumors he merely wanted a bigger salary. Cowher himself publicly said he wanted to spend more time with his family. We'll find out which one it is soon enough: Word is the Miami Dolphins are willing to pony up mad money to replace Nick Saban.
But for now, we ought to remember Cowher's reign with clear eyes, and put aside speculation about posturing and greed.
After all, Cowher has already put together a first-ballot Hall of Fame résumé. As Sports Illustrated's Peter King pointed out, Cowher has won 149 games in his 15 years as coach of the Steelers. In the same period, Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs has won 145.
But it's more than just record. Cowher is that rare coach who is both competent and entertaining. Elsewhere in the league, it usually seems to be one or the other. On the one hand you get Bill Belichick, whose machine-like proficiency is offset by his wooden personality: His post-game press conferences are as interesting as watching Chia Pets grow. On the other hand you get Denny Green, who hasn't a clue about what to do with his team, but staged one of the most hilarious post-game meltdowns of all time.
We'll all miss coach Cowher's winning record, but I'll also miss him saying things like, "Misery loves company. And we want company."
There have been some missteps. Cowher's strong suit lay in managing personnel and personalities, not schemes and adjustments. But overall, he's handled players beautifully and surrounded himself with top-notch assistants -- the Kevin Gilbride era nothwithstanding.
We all remember Cowher nearly punching a Jacksonville player as he streaked down the sidelines, or shoving a photo of the field into an official's shirt pocket at halftime in the fall of 1995. But I've been thinking over some of my other favorite moments.
For a smashmouth kind of guy, he'd constantly remind us he wasn't afraid of daring play-calling. In his first game as head coach, he called for a momentum-altering fake punt in an upset win against the Houston Oilers. The team went a surprising 11-5 that year. Welcome to the Bill Cowher era.
During Super Bowl XXX, Cowher called another fake punt which worked beautifully. "What did you think of that?" he jokingly asked a side judge afterward.
I'll always respect Cowher for asking Dick LeBeau to come back as his defensive coordinator. With LeBeau's return, the Steelers defense returned to the dominance it lost during the unhappy tenure of Tim Lewis. There's knowing you made a mistake, there's admitting you made a mistake, and there's fixing the mistake. Cowher hit all three with that move.
And I'll admire him for keeping his perspective during the 1994 AFC Championship game versus the San Diego Chargers, the most devastating Steelers loss I've ever witnessed. With time running out on the season, and Neil O'Donnell trying to overcome a four-point deficit, Cowher confabbed with his QB on the sidelines and I swear he said, "Isn't this fun?" He was grinning and enjoying the moment. It took a long time for me to shake that loss, but when I did, I remembered that moment most of all.
But mostly, what I liked most about Cowher was his genuine affection for his players: kissing Kordell Stewart after a long touchdown run, or being kissed by Joey Porter after an interception. It showed even in his last game with the Steelers, when he called rookie tackle Willie Colon to the sidelines after Colon incurred a taunting penalty. When Colon arrived, it was a classic Cowher moment -- chin jutting, spit flying, finger pointed. But then he gave Colon a little affectionate slap on the helmet as he sent him back on the field. I don't know if Colon will make that kind of mistake again, but I suspect he'll always remember coach Cowher.
It may not always have been pretty or perfect, but one thing you have to say about the Bill Cowher era -- it was never boring.
So I hope Cowher comes back to coaching someday. I just hope he does it in the NFC, so we don't have to face him very often.