Expect Cowher to get emotional with the rest of his players today in Cincinnati in what is expected to be his last game as Pittsburgh Steelers coach.
Cowher's house in Fox Chapel is empty, and his friends are telling reporters to expect the man to leave town soon. Cowher did tell reporters at his last press conference to expect a quick decision, and it seemingly changed the question from if to when.
"If it is his last game, it will be a dog-gone shame," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. "What he has done is unparalleled."
Nobody's pushing Cowher out the door. That much is certain. He admitted to thinking about retirement prior to the 2005 season, but then coached the Steelers to the title. But he came back this season and met with difficulty at every turn. His team is 7-8 and can spare him a fourth losing season in his 15 in Pittsburgh, but the players, at least in the middle of the week, weren't considering Cowher's departure in their motivation.
"That's not the motivation anyone's using because they haven't come up and said nothing like that to us in the locker room," said Joey Porter. "We've heard none of that. Our motivation is to go out there and finish strong. We started off 2-6, so it'd be good to finish 6-2, finish 8-8, save face a little bit. We're not where we wanted to be but it is what it is. If finishing 8-8 is all we can do, that's what we want to do."
"We as players don't get caught up and wonder if he is or isn't going to be here," said Hines Ward. "We've just got to go out and play and if he decides to leave that's his right. Nobody's twisting his arm and saying he's got to stay in coaching. He's been here 15 years. Let's appreciate that a coach in this business can stay at one organization that long rather than wondering if the Steelers are doomed. Let's just go out and play this game and see what happens."
In his 15 years, Cowher, 49, has compiled a 148-90-1 record with a 12-9 record in the playoffs. He coached the Steelers into two Super Bowls and won one. He ranks second to Chuck Noll in championships, but is first on the team's all-time winning percentage list with an overall percentage of .618.
Speculation about his departure began soon after the Super Bowl when he and his wife bought a house in Raleigh, North Carolina. His wife and daughter moved into the home and it appears all but certain that Cowher will join them after meeting with his players Monday after the Bengals game.
The preliminary list of potential replacements includes current assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. A list of outside candidates might include NFL assistants Ron Rivera (Bears defensive coordinator), Mike Singletary (49ers assistant head coach), Jim Schwartz (Titans defensive coordinator), Cam Cameron (Chargers offensive coordinator) and Gregg Williams (Redskins assistant head coach). The name out of the college ranks most often floated is Upper St. Clair native Kirk Ferentz, who's coached Iowa the last eight years.
Of course, as Cowher says, there's no use "reflecting on next year" before finishing the current one. On Sunday afternoon, the Steelers will not only be looking to exact revenge from the Bengals for a 28-20 loss at Heinz Field earlier this season, they'll be looking to keep the Bengals out of the playoffs. The Bengals need to beat the Steelers and hope for either a Jets loss or a Broncos loss with a Chiefs win.
"Since we're going home, what better way to do it than to bring Cincinnati with us?" said Ward. "But it's really not about that. It's more about us finishing the year off strong. After starting the year off 2-6, getting an opportunity to finish the year off 6-2 speaks volumes about our team, because we could've thrown in the towel halfway in the season. The way we fought back and fought hard, that's what we're playing for now is pride. And to finish 6-2 gives us something to build on going into next season. That's what we're really playing for now."
As the clock ticks down, and the Steelers begin to realize the end is near for their coach, they'll realize they're playing for so much more.