The title of my article is a bit misleading, as the subject of angst in-between titles really pertains to the fan base of any team. But since this is a Steelers site, I figured I’d get a little click-bait action for my work (“I knew it!” you’re saying right now).
When discussing every fan’s hopes and dreams, what do the wise people always say? “You must enjoy the journey as much or more than the final destination.”
That’s not what it’s like at all, is it?
In case you don’t know, I’m a lifelong Pittsburgher (46 years and counting), and I’ve pretty much seen it all when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating since nobody ever listens to me: Bill Cowher once sucked as a head coach.
Now, in reality, he never actually sucked. He was just “Mike Tomlin” before Tomlin ever knew what such a thing meant. Cowher couldn’t win the big game; he was always out-coached by Bill Belichick; he was a player’s coach who favored veterans over youngsters.
Oh yeah, and Cowher also sucked at clock management.
Any of that sound familiar? Of course, it doesn’t.
I remember 1994-2004, and all those home AFC Championship Game losses. I remember the handling of the Kordell Stewart quarterback situation, and how, by 1999, he wasn’t allowed to attend quarterback meetings. I remember a huge locker room fight breaking out during training camp in 2001 which involved Jason Gildon, a chair he was swinging, and a bunch of people who had to get out of the way. I remember Joey Porter getting shot in the butt in Denver, Colorado just before the start of the 2003 season — an incident that may or may not now be Tomlin’s fault, depending on how much you hate him.
Anyway, the point is, I remember so many things happening both on and off the field involving the Steelers back in those days — the pre-Super Bowl XL Cowher years — and in some form or fashion, they were all cited as contributing factors to them not capturing a fifth Lombardi trophy.
People would call talk shows or write articles in the paper about team discipline and how the “culture” needed to change.
”When will the team leaders in that locker room step up?” they would ask. “Are there even any leaders in that locker room?”
That’s what sports really is all about — going through one angst-filled season after another hoping one day your favorite team will put it all together and make all those unfulfilling years worth it.
I’m sure if Facebook existed during Cowher’s reign as head coach, the posters’ reactions towards him would be a lot different than they are these days, when they often whip out their “Cowhers” while criticizing the team or, usually, coach Tomlin.
As I said earlier, this phenomenon isn’t unique to Steelers fans. The Washington Capitals of the NHL spent years having great regular seasons, only to fall short in the playoffs, usually to the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing the role of the Patriots to their Steelers.
This, of course, frustrated their fan base, people who would often mock their seemingly annual Presidents’ Trophy (the award for most regular-season points) following yet another postseason exit.
The Capitals finally overcame the Penguins on their way to their first Stanley Cup victory in the just-concluded 2017/2018 season, and now all seems right in that little corner of the sports world.
Fans feel validated by success after years of struggle. Alexander Ovechkin, the greatest goal scorer of this generation who never even made it to the Eastern Conference Finals during the first-12 seasons of his NHL career, surely now feels that all those goals were worth it.
What do most athletes say after finally winning their first title? They often don’t call it euphoric — they call it a relief, a monkey off of their back.
For most athletes, these feelings of relief and satisfaction don’t last very long, and why should they? Why keep playing if your ultimate goal isn’t to win the whole bleepin’ thing?
And we know this feeling certainly doesn’t stay with fans for very long. Today’s great moments are tomorrow’s memories. But while memories are nice, it’s those great moments that we’ll always continue to chase.
In Cowher’s penultimate season as head coach in 2005, while many were ready to give up on his team and chalk that year up as another one falling short of the ultimate prize, the Steelers entered the playoffs as the sixth seed in the AFC and never stopped winning until the final whistle of Super Bowl XL.
Suddenly, all those questions were answered and all of the doubts were erased.
The haters turned to lovers.
Cowher left coaching shortly after his biggest achievement, and that’s obviously worked to his benefit, given that so much respect and adulation has been thrown his way during the decade-plus that he’s been gone.
So, will Mike Tomlin and his players, who have been roundly criticized in recent years for not getting the job done by bringing home another title, ever receive the same kind of love and adulation?
Perhaps, but not right now. “Now” is never the time for love and adulation in the sports world. “Now” is when you must answer the bell each day in the face of intense scrutiny.
The only way to truly stop this scrutiny is to win it all — a level of victory which doesn’t come along very often.
But that’s sports: Years of angst and frustration interrupted only temporarily and infrequently by brief moments of joy and euphoria.