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ON FOOTBALL

Cowher the last word

He fits. That, as much as anything, is why Bill Cowher has lasted. He is the right man in the right town, a hard-nosed guy for a hard-nosed place.

It says much about the nature of his profession, much about the nature of the city where he works, and much about his nature that Cowher is in his 13th year as head man in Pittsburgh, plying a trade in which longevity is not often measured in decades. He is there because he fits, but he stays there because what fits for him wins for his team.

Since Cowher was hired in 1992 at the age of 34 to replace four-time Super Bowl-winning icon Chuck Noll, 115 coaches have come and gone around the NFL but Cowher has remained. He has done it by winning and by surviving some lean rebuilding years and, most of all, by always being something his rival this Sunday admires.

"He's a great coach," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has been hired, fired, hired, resigned, and hired again in the time Cowher has spent in Pittsburgh. "I have tremendous respect for Bill. I think he's the longest-tenured coach in the NFL because he's an outstanding coach. They've had a lot of success."

Some who believe the only game in sports that counts is the final one each season would argue otherwise about Cowher because he never has gone home with the Lombardi Trophy, emblematic of the league championship. He has taken eight of his 12 Steeler teams to the playoffs, four to the AFC Championship Game, and one to the Super Bowl, and in the opinion of people like Belichick, who understand the difficulties of the job they share and the vagaries that surround winning and losing, that makes him a winner. In the opinion of too many fans these days, it makes him a loser.

Cowher doesn't spend much time worrying about anyone's opinion, however. He simply juts his jaw and pushes on, knowing he entered this season 122-84-1, the second-best record in the history of the Steeler organization, and is 5-1 today and atop the AFC North standings, the same place he occupied through most of the time he was battling Belichick's Cleveland Browns twice a year in the mid-1990s.

"It was tough when we were in the same division, with Cleveland and Pittsburgh," Belichick said. "It was a lot tougher on me because he usually won those games. He's done a great job there. I love watching him coach.

"I think he represents the game with his passion for it and his intensity, and as a special teams player he [brought] that kind of mentality, that real blue-collar and tough mentality to the game as a coach. I don't think there is any secret why he has been doing it for a long time. He's very good at it."

What Cowher has been particularly good at has been maintaining not only the success but also the style Noll first brought to the Steelers in 1969. It is the kind of style a place known for steel mines and steel-toed work boots admires.

Steelers football always has been about playing intimidating defense and running the ball down your throat, and Cowher wanted to change none of that. It's what he grew up watching in the Crafton area, just west of Pittsburgh, and it's what he admired during his days as a three-sport star at Carlynton High School before moving on to captain his team at North Carolina State.

After five years as mostly a special teams player in the NFL, Cowher moved into coaching as a special teams assistant to Marty Schottenheimer in Cleveland in 1985. Seven years later he replaced Noll, an unenviable task in a town like Pittsburgh, where loyalty, production, and toughness count.

Cowher understood that and changed little about the way the Steelers played the game, although he did change how they approached it and they won a divsion title his first season, the first of seven he can claim. Only six coaches in the league's history have won that many division titles.

Yet his real stamp on the Steelers may be not that he consistently has won, but how he has won. He's done it the old-fashioned way. The Steeler Way.

"That is what that community is looking for," Belichick said of Cowher's hard-nosed approach. "He is from there, so it all just fits together perfectly. That is his personality. That is what they want. I think that is the mentality of the ownership and the way the team has been run through the years all the way back to the beginning.

"That is the way they play, and they have played very successfully that way. He took over after Coach Noll, and for a long time that was their style of play as well. It's just been a continuation of it. They have been playing like that for close to 30 years. Maybe more than that.

"Bill is the type of coach that, first of all, has a philosophy and you can see that philosophy through the years. A lot of stuff they do defensively is very similar to what we played against when I was in Cleveland. It's the same thing offensively. They use a lot of the same scheme running plays that they ran when Ron Erhardt was the coordinator back there in the early '90s."

At the same time, Belichick said, "they are a team that will take advantage of their personnel and give you new stuff. They picked up that kid [Antwaan] Randle El a couple years ago and they do a lot of things with him that are kind of unconventional. They put him at quarterback. They put him in the slot and do some things that, going back into the '90s when he wasn't there, maybe [weren't] as much a part of what they were doing. So they have adapted their system to the skills of their players and have tried to utilize them effectively. They keep you off-balance with those kind of things.

"That is not the nuts and bolts of what they do, though. They still win and lose with their core stuff. They blitz a lot. They run the ball. They have big, physical receivers, a big quarterback, so they look like they are pretty tough. And they're well-coached."

Well-coached by a guy who has a philosophy that fits his town and his team. A philosophy that has won him a lot of games, although not yet the final one. It is a philosophy that has kept Bill Cowher in a remarkable place the last 13 years for an NFL coach.

It's kept him in the same place. 

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