PITTSBURGH (Jan. 1, 2007) -- The Bill Cowher countdown began for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who may soon be looking for a new coach for only the second time since 1969.
The Steelers, the first Super Bowl winner in four years to miss the playoffs the following season, held their final team meeting with Cowher on Jan. 1. Some players felt it was exactly that -- the last time they will meet with Cowher, who is clearly leaning toward resigning after 15 seasons in Pittsburgh.
"I didn't cry. I almost did, but I didn't," linebacker Joey Porter. "Yeah, it was emotional because that's my guy."
Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca sensed it was Cowher's goodbye, saying it was evident during the Steelers' 23-17 overtime victory Dec. 31 at Cincinnati and again Jan. 1 that Cowher may be moving on.
"I think he's definitely leaning toward calling it a day," Faneca said. "But you never know. He said he's going to step away, let the emotions set and get back to his family and make a decision."
The Steelers don't expect Cowher to make a decision quickly, even though any delay might cause them to fall behind teams such as the Falcons and Cardinals that are already looking for a new coach. There are two possible replacements on Cowher's staff in offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm, each of whom has been a finalist for an NFL head coaching job.
The 49-year-old Cowher, whose tenure with the same team is the longest of any current NFL coach, began weighing retirement shortly after the Steelers won the Super Bowl in February. He is signed through 2007 but, for the first time since being hired in January 1992, could not work out an extension.
Cowher has said several times recently he is not burned out, and there is no indication he would retire if he quits now -- the Steelers themselves anticipate he would be back on an NFL sideline as early as 2008.
Cowher's decision appears tied to family and money. He would like to spend more time at home since his youngest daughter, Lindsay, has only 2 1/2 years of high school remaining. His two oldest daughters, Meagan and Laura, attend Princeton.
The problem: Cowher's wife, Kaye, and Lindsay are now living in a new home Raleigh, N.C., where Cowher attended North Carolina State and the family has many friends. But the Steelers aren't interested in having Cowher significantly reduce his presence in Pittsburgh by constantly shuttling back and forth to North Carolina, where he also owns a summer home.
Another problem: Cowher, for the first time, seems focused on being one of the NFL's highest-paid coaches in his next contract.
Cowher made about $4 million this season, or about half of what Seattle coach Mike Holmgren is making. The Steelers are giving no indication they are willing to pay any coach $8 million a year.
However, there seems little doubt Cowher could make that kind of money should he retire, work next season as an NFL analyst for a TV network, then sign with another team in 2008 or 2009 after all of his daughters have left home.
"Obviously, he knows we love and respect him, and we hope he's going to be here because we all love playing for the guy," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "But we understand he has the freedom to do what he wants and he's going to do what he wants. If he goes, we're going to miss him and move forward."
Porter said, "What people don't understand is when you're the head coach, you deal with all the stressful hours of being the coach. You come to the point, where do you let football be your life, your whole life? He just can't go to a restaurant and have dinner with his family. At some point in time, you do want that back."
The Steelers have never had a coach leave, either by firing or resignation, and go on to coach another team since Bill Austin coached the Redskins in 1970. Austin was the Steelers' coach from 1966-68 before Chuck Noll was hired.
Cowher has a 149-90-1 regular season record and a 12-9 postseason mark since succeeding four-time Super Bowl winner Noll in 1992. The Steelers have won eight division titles, two AFC championships and a Super Bowl while making 10 playoff appearances under Cowher.
Cowher was the NFL Coach of the Year in 1992, after taking over a team that had missed the playoffs for six of the previous seven seasons and leading them to a 11-5 record.
If Cowher leaves, Keisel is certain Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and president Art Rooney II will find an excellent replacement. Dan Rooney's last two hires, Noll and Cowher, couldn't have worked out much better.
"The Rooneys know how to find good coaches," Keisel said. "If he does go, they know how to pick winners and I'm not worried about that at all."
The Steelers will announce a coach's resignation on Jan. 2. Dick Hoak, a Steelers player or assistant coach for all but one season since 1961, is retiring. The only assistant to work for Noll and Cowher, he has been the Steelers running backs or offensive backfield coach since 1972.