Staying the course proves best route

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a sport that breathes change, both drastic and instantaneous, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks have been rewarded for their managerial patience.

That these two teams - and particularly their two coaches - will meet in Detroit for the NFL's 40th Super Bowl in two weeks is proof positive that staying the course has merit.

It would have been understandable for the Steelers to dump Bill Cowher after the 1999 season. Eight years into his tenure as Chuck Noll's coaching successor, Cowher seemingly had come full circle.

He had restored the team to playoff prominence with six straight postseason berths and one trip to the Super Bowl. Then the Steelers slipped back to the brink, going 7-9 in 1998 and 6-10 in 1999. The team's fans fretted that Cowher had lost his touch, that his message had grown stale, that the spiral was irreversible.

As dire as Cowher's situation looked at the time, at least he had achieved success in Pittsburgh. In Mike Holmgren's first four seasons in Seattle as coaching czar, the Seahawks went 31-34, including a playoff loss with the team he inherited from Dennis Erickson. If anything, Holmgren's teams were getting worse and what seemed a grand hiring in 1999 was suddenly a reason to fire after the 2002 season.

Of course, both men survived to coach another day, thanks to the franchise-building visions of their owners.

In Pittsburgh, Dan Rooney stood behind Cowher, but fired his director of football operations in the name of front office harmony. In Seattle, Paul Allen shelved Holmgren's autonomy - stripping his executive vice president and general manager titles - but kept him on the sideline.

Holmgren had to survive another crisis last January, when Allen opted to keep him over team president Bob Whitsitt. In the Seattle locker room after Sunday's NFC championship win over the Carolina Panthers, Holmgren made a point to acknowledge Allen's support.

"I thanked him in front of the players ... for being patient with me in a rather volatile business," Holmgren said at his post-game news conference. "To allow your coaches to build something, and to believe in them, you don't always see it as much as I think you should, and he's been great with me."

Earlier Sunday afternoon, Cowher made precisely the same point, addressing his longevity in Pittsburgh. In 14 seasons, Cowher has had just three losing seasons and reached the AFC championship game six times.

"Mr. Rooney is a football guy," he said at his news conference. "He wanted this business and he was very supportive through the three non-playoff years, and I'm very appreciative of that. ... Nothing drives me more than to hopefully be able to hand him the first [Super Bowl] trophy [of the Cowher era]."

It is perhaps not coincidental that when the chips were hitting the wall, the owners in Pittsburgh and Seattle opted to keep their coaches at the expense of an executive.

In Cowher's case, the fall guy became Tom Donahoe, who was forced to resign as director of football operations in January 2000. Cowher and Donahoe reportedly had a strained relationship and barely acknowledged each other in what amounted to a power struggle.

Rooney sided with Cowher, and Donahoe went on to become general manager of the Buffalo Bills, a position from which he was just released. The Steelers replaced Donahoe with Kevin Colbert a month later. Colbert has helped deliver quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu, nose tackle Casey Hampton and tight end Heath Miller, among others, in the draft.

For Holmgren, a conflict with Whitsitt caused him to consider resigning after last year's wild-card loss to the St. Louis Rams. Allen opted to remove Whitsitt last January, and he forced out general manager Bob Ferguson a month later.

The arrival of Tim Ruskell, a respected personnel man with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons, last February as president of football operations triggered other changes.

In short order, the Seahawks swept out players who, it was perceived, did not put the team first, including linebacker Anthony Simmons and defensive ends Chike Okeafor and Antonio Cochran.

Fleshing out his defensive lineup with rookies and free agents, Holmgren's Seahawks coasted to a 13-3 regular season and take a 15-3 record to Detroit.

The Steelers, meanwhile, have gone 30-7 over the past two seasons since promoting Ken Whisenhunt to offensive coordinator and bringing back Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator.

Cowher lost his only Super Bowl after the 1995 season. Holmgren is 1-1 in the title game, having gone with the Green Bay Packers in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. Both men debuted as NFL head coaches in 1992.

Now, having survived their personal crises, they are back at the top, thanks in large part to managerial patience.

ken.murray@baltsun.com

Super Bowl Steelers (14-5) vs. Seahawks (15-3); Feb. 5, 6:30 p.m., chs. 2, 7 Line: Steelers by 4

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