Talk about a no-win situation. Only a select few individuals walking the planet at any one time know what a disparaging feeling a certain set of circumstances can create. The knowledge that no matter what you do or accomplish, you will never be anything more than second best in the end.
Take the NBA for example. There have been unbelievable, once-in-a-lifetime superstars like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James who have been contenders for the title of Greatest of All Time, but in the end they are pretenders for the throne. They all take a backseat to Michael Jordan, the GOAT, plain and simple. For clarity, remember Jordan never failed to capitalize on a NBA Championship opportunity. In the immortal words of the late AL Davis, "Just win baby!"
This could have been the moto for Steelers legendary head coach Chuck Noll. It's exactly what he did — four Super Bowl appearances resulting in four Lombardi Trophies. Noll batted a thousand; it doesn't get any better than that. Only one man, Patriots mastermind Bill Belichick, has won more Super Bowls, but he definitely isn't batting a thousand. Strange how when the greatest NFL head coaches of all time discussions periodically arise, Coach Noll's name isn't higher on the list.
We Steelers fans know the truth, and Coach Noll will always hold the top spot in our hearts. But this got me thinking, who presently holds the runner up spot for greatest head coach in Steelers franchise history? One of the most incredible stats in all of sports is the fact there are really only two candidates to choose from, considering how the Steelers have only had three head coaches in the past fifty years.
The two accomplished men battling it out for runner up are Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. While there can be no debate concerning who holds the top spot, there are a plethora of discerning opinions concerning second place. Passionate arguments can be made for Team Cowher and for Team Tomlin, and both sides have merit.
Both men lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl title, but they both lost one as well. It makes sense actually, because as great as both coaches are, they have their share of frustrating deficiencies.
Some members of Team Tomlin will stake their claim on the fact Tomlin has never endured a losing season. Prior to last season, I would have had to play devil's advocate and remind them Tomlin has always had Ben Roethlisberger, the future Hall of Fame quarterback, at his disposal. However, last season completely changed the narrative.
Last season was Tomlin's finest hour. Faced with the reality of trying to stay competitive with a talent-deficient offense, especially at the quarterback position after the season-ending loss of Big Ben, Tomlin rallied the troops in a most impressive fashion. Long lauded as a player motivator, a cheerleader type if you will, Tomlin displayed leadership qualities that were previously not seen. Hard times often reveal an individual's true character, simply because you have no choice — sink or swim; fight or flight. Last year's Steelers fought to an 8-8 record, particularly impressive when you consider they were without their top two offensive players from the season prior. Tomlin deserves to be given credit when credit is due. Great job by Coach Tomlin.
Members of the Cowher camp will point out Cowher only had the services of Roethlisberger for the final few seasons of his coaching career, a career which changed trajectory after the tragic passing of his wife. He lead the Steelers to the cusp of greatness on multiple occasions, only to come up short due to the lack of a championship caliber signal caller.
He impressively guided the Steelers to the Super Bowl in 1995 with a game manager at QB, without the services of the incomparable Rod Woodson after the superstar was lost for the year in the season opener due to a knee injury, resulting in Cowher moving his star safety to Woodson's cornerback position out of desperation. Carnell Lake, the star safety turned cornerback, would be named to the Pro Bowl after playing corner for over half of the season. The Steelers lost the Super Bowl in 1995, but it shouldn't take away from everything Cowher and company accomplished that season. Cowher even starting off the second half of the Super Bowl with a successful onside kick in a brazen attempt to gain momentum and start a comeback. Similar to Tomlin's perseverance through less-than-optimal circumstances last season, the '95 season could be considered Cowher's masterpiece.
Even their regular-season winning percentage is similar. Cowher walked away with a .623 percentage, and Tomlin presently sits at .645, leading by the smallest of margins. One can only wonder what Cowher would have been able to accomplish with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm in the early stages of Cowher's head coaching career. Cowher's early teams were built on a power running game and a dominant defense. Quarterback was most definitely their Achilles Heel.
There is no clear cut winner in this debate at the moment, but Tomlin can take the upper hand with another Super Bowl title. This would give him two Lombardi Trophies, and a clear cut advantage as the second-best head coach in Steelers history, but there is no time to waste. Ben Roethlisberger isn't getting any younger, and the Steelers are all in on a win now mindset.
Once Ben has finally hung up the cleats, Tomlin may finally get a taste of what Cowher endured pre-Ben Roethlisberger. This might offer us the best opportunity to finally settle the debate.
Regardless, one thing is for sure, the Steelers have been blessed with a legacy of great head coaches beyond compare.