The last loyal team in sports was at it again last week. The Steelers signed coach Bill Cowher, who had two years left on his contract, to an extension through 2007. This is how things are done in Pittsburgh, where there have been two coaches—Chuck Noll and Cowher—since 1969. Imaginative, steely and disciplined, Cowher, 47, was already the longest-tenured coach in the league (all but two NFL teams have made at least three coaching changes since he took over in 1992), and at a time when free agency leaves so many organizations wanting stability, the jut-jawed Pennsylvania native is practically a Pittsburgh landmark.
The Steelers' loyalty feels laudable, emblematic of what sports should be. While many teams keep making quick-fix coaching changes, the Steelers abide by a patient strategy and keep a long-term view. Yet there's one nagging question for Steelers fans: Why now? Why extend the contract of a coach when there is absolutely no internal or external pressure to do so? Cowher has gone to the playoffs in eight of his 12 seasons, but only twice since 1997 Pittsburgh is coming off a 6-10 season and has had losing records in three of the past six. It's not as if the Steelers were in danger of losing him, either. "I could never dream of coaching somewhere else," Cowher said last week.
The team, a family-run business that gets a fraction of the off-the-field revenue made by big-market teams, is committed to paying its coach at least $15 million over four years. Cowher may be worth the investment, but the Steelers took a leap of faith they didn't need to take. Football coaches and general managers say players must prove themselves every year. Why haven't the Steelers held their coach to that standard? "We were very comfortable that Bill Cowher was the right person for the job for an additional number of years," said club president Art Rooney II. "We have a system where players come and go. I think the best way to deal with that is to have coaching stability, and we think the record that our [last] two coaches have had has proved that it is a pretty good way to go about it."
There is, however, a difference between Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher that Rooney didn't mention. After 12 years coaching the Steelers, Noll had won four Super Bowls. Cowher has won none.