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Cowher maintains steel grip in Pittsburgh

WP: After 13 seasons, Steelers coach still burns with passion
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Clipboard in hand and standing alone 30 yards behind his defense, Coach Bill Cowher watched the Pittsburgh Steelers for more than 20 minutes during a practice last week, barely uttering a word. It was a far different look than the intense former linebacker shows crowds on Sundays as he stalks the sidelines, getting in the face of a player after a foolish mistake, bellowing at a striped shirt over a bad call, pumping his fist or embracing one of his players after a big play.

The Washington Redskins likely will see that signature game face when they travel to Pittsburgh on Sunday. Cowher's team, off to its best start since 1978, is riding an eight-game winning streak and is one of two teams in the NFL with 9-1 records.

"When I can't enjoy the wins as much as I agonize over the losses, then I'll know it's time to go," Cowher said. "I can understand why guys like Joe [Gibbs] come back. There's no substitute for this. It's hard to find anything that can satisfy you as much as walking off the field after a win."

Cowher, 47, is in his 13th season as Pittsburgh's coach -- the longest tenure with one team of any coach in the NFL -- and is one of two head coaches the team has had in 36 years. While Chuck Noll and Cowher have been in charge, the Indianapolis Colts have made 16 coaching changes, the San Diego Chargers 14, the New York Jets and New England Patriots 13, and the Arizona Cardinals 12. Since Gibbs left the Redskins after the 1992 season, the team has switched coaches six times, four times in the past three years.

"We think you have to have stability, especially in the system we have now," Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "I think too many owners put too much pressure on some of these guys. The whole idea that you've got to do it quickly makes no sense when you think about it. If the team doesn't win right away, they're ready to make a change, and that doesn't always work."

When the Rooney family settled on Cowher before the 1992 season, he was an obscure 34-year-old defensive coordinator under Marty Schottenheimer in Kansas City. There were two other candidates -- another Pittsburgh native, Dave Wannstedt, and Joe Greene, the Steelers' Hall of Fame defensive lineman. But Cowher impressed owners with his enthusiasm and his precise plan, and they made him the youngest head coach in the team's history.

From the start, he did not disappoint. Cowher joined Hall of Famer Paul Brown as the only coach in league history to take his team to the playoffs in his first six seasons. His only shortcoming has been his failure to win a Super Bowl. He took the Steelers to the Super Bowl after the '95 season, they lost to the Dallas Cowboys.

"I've been very fortunate," Cowher said. "The Rooneys have been extremely supportive, and especially so in tough times. Stability is so important now, especially under this system of free agency. I think players want stability. They want to know that systems aren't going to change, that there's stability and commitment from ownership to make it work, even when it's not going as well as everyone would like."

After the Steelers finished 6-10 in 2003, just his third losing season, there was talk that the Rooneys were prepared to look for a new coach. But the family, including Dan Rooney and his son Arthur II, the team president, concluded that Cowher still was the right man. They began negotiations on a new contract in May, and announced that Cowher would receive a two-year extension that would bind him to the Steelers for four more years, at a salary of about $4 million a season.

"We looked at where we were as a team and as an organization," Arthur Rooney II said at the time. "And we thought about where we were going through the offseason and the draft, and we just felt that rather than wait another year, we were very comfortable that Bill Cowher was the right person. We do feel stability is important in this day and age, particularly at the coaching level, where our overall philosophy can remain consistent year in and year out.

"We have a system now where the players come and go. I think the best way to deal with that is to have coaching stability, and we think the record our two coaches have had over that period of time has proven that it's a pretty good way to go about it."

Cowher had made some significant changes on his own. Shortly after the 2003 season, he fired defensive coordinator Tim Lewis and wide receivers coach Kenny Jackson because he thought both were more concerned about job stability and not fully committed to his program.

He replaced them with veteran Dick LeBeau, a defensive coach on Cowher's first staff in 1992, and Ken Whisehunt, promoted from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator after Mike Mularkey left to coach the Buffalo Bills.

LeBeau, a former head coach in Cincinnati, had been an innovative assistant in Pittsburgh, developing the zone blitz and coordinating the "Blitzburgh" defense that helped the Steelers advance to their last Super Bowl appearance. Just as significantly, Cowher decided it was time to go back to old-style Steelers offensive football, pounding the ball on the ground to open up the passing game. The Steelers average more than 160 rushing yards a game, second in the NFL.

"I was as guilty as anyone of getting a little enamored with the wide-open part of the offense," Cowher said of Mularkey's offensive style, which included taking deep shots down the field and a wide variety of gadget plays. "You have one of those games where you don't run it and you start to deviate a little and say let's go ahead and try to throw it. There's been a little more priority [on running the ball]. You have to stay with it, and going into training camp, we wanted to get back to doing that.

"There's also a carryover for the defense. The defensive guys get excited about watching the offense run the football. There's a lot to be said for that."

The major offseason addition was Duce Staley, who arrived via free agency after becoming unhappy with Philadelphia's running-back-by-committee approach. Cowher told him he would be the primary back, and convinced veteran Jerome Bettis to take a pay cut and prolong his career by becoming the short yardage and goal line runner, with occasional spot duty.

Bettis was not thrilled with the demotion but decided to finish his career in Pittsburgh. And when Staley hurt his hamstring last month, Bettis stepped up, gaining at least 100 yards in each of the last three games he has started. Staley also was everything the Steelers had expected, gaining 707 yards in his first seven games, 4.7 yards a carry, and may be available this week against the Redskins. His status will be determined later in the week.

And then there's the new quarterback. Pittsburgh used the 11th overall pick in the draft to take Ben Roethlisberger, who stepped up when Tommy Maddox was injured in the second game of the season and reeled off a rookie record eight straight victories. Cowher may have found a franchise quarterback in the 23-year-old from Miami (Ohio).

"He's very mature for his age," Cowher said. "That's what's surprised me since he's been here. He hasn't missed a minicamp and didn't miss one of the offseason coaching sessions. He's been there since the second day of training camp, so he has a lot of reps and he's prepared himself. He's done a very good job handling everything that's come with it."

Keeping players, such as Roethlisberger, focused and motivated may be what Cowher does best.

"He's critical at times, especially if you make mental errors," said veteran wide receiver Hines Ward. "But he's always preaching [that] if you make a mistake, at least do it at full speed. You have to play this game with emotion. When you make a great play, he'll pound you on the pads. Screw up, and he's right in your face."

"He's a demanding coach," said fullback Dan Kreider, "but he's also the kind of guy who can find positives in any situation. Even when we were 6-10 last year and losing a lot of close games, he challenged us every week. I think it's one of the reasons we've been so successful this year. We corrected the problems, we got healthy, and we play real hard. With him around, that's never really an issue."

Kreider has been with Cowher for five years and sees that the team's record makes little difference in his coach.

"He's exactly the same guy. I've been here for division championships and a losing season, and he doesn't change. If nothing else, he's consistent, and I think he's gotten better in handling stressful situations. Some coaches will get down and take it out on the players. That doesn't happen here.

"We understand he's an emotional guy. He gets fired up on Sundays just like we do. You get yelled at, sure, but he has such a desire to win, and his emotions are running high. We're grown men. We can take it."

Cowher's career seems certain to end where it began, in his home town, where he and his wife, Kaye, have raised their three daughters, but with a contract extension and a team on a roll, that day isn't likely to come soon.

"I don't ever want to lose my passion for the game," he said. "I love competing on Sundays. The losses are still agonizing. That never changes. But I still enjoy doing the work every day. I feel blessed to be doing something I love to do. I've got a great balance in my life right now, and I'm too young to stop. Anyway, they tell me retirement isn't all it's cracked up to be."