Wednesday, January 3, 2007 Updated: January 6, 11:49 AM ET
Pride of Pittsburgh: Cowher leaves a legacy of stability
By John Clayton ESPN.com
The Steelers are entering a strange, new era, but the knowledge gained during the tenures of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher put them in a pretty strong position.
Noll turned the Steelers' fortunes in 1969. Before then, they were perennial losers. Art Rooney was a benevolent owner, but the team endured losing season after losing season. They played tough defense but suffered on the scoreboard. With Art's son Dan getting more involved in the late 1960s, he took a chance on one of Don Shula's best and brightest assistants: Chuck Noll. Noll won 209 games, including four Super Bowls, and made the Steelers a franchise to admire.
Finding someone to follow Noll was tough, but the Rooneys knew what worked. They hired a 35-year-old Bill Cowher in 1992 and watched him grow into the job. It helped that he was a Pittsburgh native. He knew the town. He knew the type of football that would go over well with fans and generate excitement.
Most important, Cowher bridged a gap for the Steelers which will help the team's new coach. Steelers fans compared the early Cowher teams to the Steel Curtain, which was an impossible comparison. Four-time Super Bowl champions are the exception, not the rule. By establishing an identity of on-the-field success combined with a physical personality, the Steelers have a persona that can translate to the next coach.
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Cowher turned unreal expectations of the past into realistic expectations for each season. He taught Steelers fans to accept contending teams instead of believing every year was going to be legendary.
That's why assistant head coach Russ Grimm and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt are two of the most viable candidates to be Cowher's replacement. Like Cowher and Noll, they were assistant coaches with great résumés who understand what it takes to be a winner in Pittsburgh.
Grimm is all Pittsburgh. He went to Pitt and was a star blocker. He went to the Redskins and was the leader of the Hogs, one of the most memorable offensive lines in NFL history. For years, he's been considered one of the top offensive line coaches in football. When Steelers fans worried whether Jeff Hartings could make the conversion from guard to center, Grimm settled him down after a slow start, then watched him develop into a Pro Bowler.
Grimm is the lunchpail type of coach who is no-nonsense. The Bears considered him for a head coaching job. Grimm showed up for his interview wearing a sweater instead of a suit. If a job opens in Cleveland in the next couple of years, he'll be a candidate there if he's not a head coach already. If the Steelers hire Grimm, expect them to be a power running team that plays hard on defense. That's Steelers football.
Whisenhunt can be a good sell as Steelers coach because he brings the updated offensive mind. He knows how to call 30 to 40 running plays, but what makes him so attractive is his relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is the most talented Steelers quarterback since Terry Bradshaw. He has the arm and he has the toughness to be a great one for a long time.
The Steelers' offense took a little bit of a hit this year because of the retirement of power back Jerome Bettis and the turnovers by Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger convinced Whisenhunt he was ready to carry more of the offense on his shoulders. Together, Whisenhunt and Roethlisberger will probably iron out some of the kinks, and the Steelers will become one of the more dangerous deep passing teams in the NFL.
Like Cowher, though, Grimm and Whisenhunt offer the perspective of former players who have risen to the top of the coaching circles. Grimm is 47. Whisenhunt is 44. They are young enough to relate to the players and understand the feel of the locker room. Cowher had that feel.
Steelers ownership will have to worry about competition. Whisenhunt figures to be one of the main candidates for the Falcons' coaching job. He's an Atlanta native and his plans for Michael Vick could net him an offer. Grimm is on the lists of a few other teams looking for a head coach.
By having Cowher's announcement Friday, the Steelers can try to scramble together interviews with a couple of the playoff coaches, such as Ron Rivera of the Bears and Cam Cameron of the Chargers. The Steelers found a bright young coach in Cowher. They might find another in the playoffs. They could also look at Mike Mularkey, the former Bills coach who was Whisenhunt's predecessor as the Steelers' offensive coordinator.
The Steelers' tradition has great appeal. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has been one of the secret dream candidates of most of the teams looking for coaches in the past few years. Ferentz has made it clear to most: he will only come into the NFL for the right job. Word has gotten back to the Steelers he might be interested, but don't expect him to be a candidate. Still, the former Pittsburgh native might be an option because the chance to be the Steelers' coach is one of the few offers that could get him into the NFL.
It's more than likely the Steelers will hire a current NFL assistant. It worked with Noll. It worked with Cowher.
Why mess with more than three decades of success?
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.