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Continuity after Cowher

Steelers likely will keep coaching job in the family

Posted: Friday January 5, 2007 9:59AM; Updated: Friday January 5, 2007 2:54PM
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Bill Cowher had a 149-90-1 record in 15 seasons with the Steelers.
Bill Cowher had a 149-90-1 record in 15 seasons with the Steelers.
John Biever/SI

It's going to take a while, isn't it? To see the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field and not think of Bill Cowher as the face -- the unmistakable face -- of that storied franchise. The jutting jaw. The flying spit. The look of complete disgust that launched a thousand heart palpitations whenever he aimed it in the direction of his chastised players.

Cowher could make you cower, even when you weren't the object of his scorn, and that visage came to you from the safe distance of a TV screen. He was that recognizable, that familiar. And it's hard right now to picture him in any other setting than the sideline, surrounded by black and gold.

But when the news of his departure from the Steel City fully sets in, and we wrap our brains around the idea that he has coached his last game for Pittsburgh, it's going to become quickly apparent that the future of the Steelers has been right there alongside Cowher for some time now. And that future is either going to look a lot like Cowher, as Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt uncannily does, or it's going to coach a lot like him, as no-nonsense assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm does.

I'm not basing this on anything other than my gut and a little early tea-leaf reading, but my money is on the Steelers having a Grimm future. And by that I mean anything but gloom and doom.

In an organization that values continuity and consistency, and in a city where it has always been important to remember who you are and stick to that identity, Grimm offers the Steelers the most seamless transition to the post-Cowher era. The Rooney family doesn't have to wonder if Grimm would continue the commitment to the power-running game that has been the calling card of Cowher's 15-year tenure, and the connecting strand that has run through nearly all of Pittsburgh's successful teams in the past 30-plus seasons. That style suits Grimm from head to toe.

With Grimm, an old offensive guard who thinks like an offensive guard, what you see is what you get. He's about as fancy as a thumbtack, and about as likely to fall for the next offensive fad as he is to shave his bushy mustache and streak his hair pink. He's as straight forward as a drive block, and almost as subtle.

Grimm's football principles are rock-solid: Winning and an emphasis on running the ball go hand in glove. With Grimm in charge, there wouldn't be any need to refashion the Steelers roster to fit a new system, or wholesale changes on his coaching staff. It would be let's buckle it up and keep on going. I'm fairly sure he'd keep Dick LeBeau in place as the team's defensive coordinator, and keep right on playing the 3-4 defense that Pittsburgh has featured for years.

While Grimm might look like one of those Chicago fans from 'Da Bears skit of Saturday Night Live fame, he's a Pittsburgh guy, through and through. You might think that doesn't matter in this case, but you'd be wrong. It does in that town (How else do you think Dave Wannstedt got the Pitt job?) Grimm was an All-America center at Pitt, and was born in Scottsdale, Pa.

More even than most NFL club owners, the Rooney family is very conscious of what the Steelers mean to their city and the surrounding area. They like a head coach who reflects the image and toughness of their city and their blue-collar fans. Grimm isn't slick or particularly savvy in the way that some head coaching candidates package themselves. But he's a known quantity in Pittsburgh, and that's going to count for an awful lot in this case.

The Steelers know this much too: If they don't hire Grimm as head coach, they stand a decent chance of losing him as their assistant head coach/offensive line coach. He's scheduled to interview in Arizona for the Cardinals' vacant head coaching slot early next week, and he was a very strong runner-up to Lovie Smith in Chicago when the Bears job last opened in early 2004.

Grimm is smart, a good communicator and a natural coach. He'll get his shot at a No. 1 job at some point. If you're Pittsburgh, do you want to roll the dice and wait to see if your smartest move was just to remove the word "assistant'' from Grimm's current title? I think the Rooneys know what they have right there in front of them. Grimm and Whisenhunt are both quality candidates who could pick up where Cowher left off and keep the Steelers near the top of the NFL heap.

In Pittsburgh, the post-Cowher era isn't going to be so different after all.