Jerome Bettis will soon be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but he was not the only nominee from the Steelers franchise in 2014. Former head coach Bill Cowher was also one of the 113 nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2015.
Though not chosen for this year's class, is there hope that one day Coach Cowher will get the call from the Hall of Fame? My initial instinct was "no," but part of my reason is that Cowher's predecessor was Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll. Compared to Noll, Cowher's record is unremarkable. After all, Noll coached the Steelers to four Super Bowl victories. During the quarter century he spent as coach, he transformed the once-struggling team into a powerhouse on both sides of the ball and established a standard of excellence for the Black and Gold.
Where does that leave Cowher? To channel Mike Tomlin, Cowher is Cowher and Noll was Noll. Bill Cowher does not need to match or surpass the accomplishments of his predecessor to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. Is his record good enough, though?
Years as head coach: 15
Winning percentage: 62.3%
Division titles: Eight (including four consecutive titles from 1994 - 1997)
AFC Championship appearances: 4
AFC Championship victories: 2
Super Bowl appearances: 2
Super Bowl victories: 1
One statistic that is intangible is the smooth transition from the epic Era of Noll to the Cowher years, despite some rough times in the latter half of the 80's and early 90's. Many aspects of the successful transition have to do with the Rooneys and other personnel, but Cowher is also responsible for the Steelers excelling under his leadership, management, and coaching style Cowher was able to continue the tradition of excellence established by Noll even though the team was struggling when he took over.
Second, though he only won one Super Bowl, his Super Bowl appearances were ten years apart. In other words, he coached two entirely different groups of men to that same elite level. Though there are coaches who have led their teams to more Super Bowl appearances and more Super Bowl victories, Cowher's system is the common denominator between these two teams, not a cadre of the same talented players.
Some aspects of Cowher's legacy are less impressive. For example, there were many years where the team fell short, failing to make it to the Super Bowl after very strong seasons, including in 2004 when the Steelers went 15-1. While the Cowher-era Steelers by no means exhibited Bengals-level post-season ineptitude, there were a fair number of disappointments and heartbreaking losses during the playoffs. These included losses in the AFC Championship game in 1994 against the San Diego Chargers at home and the 1997 AFC Championship beatdown at the hands of the Broncos.
How does Cowher match up to other coaches already enshrined in the Hall of Fame?
Cowher can't really match the three-time Super Bowl winning coaches. Joe Gibbs had a lower winning percentage at just under 63%, but some of his worst seasons happened under the mismanagement of owner Dan Synder, who is best known for turning the Redskins into a talent cemetery: where good players go to suck at the game and retire sad. Coaching the Redskins to three Super Bowl victories in his first 11-year stint with the team is a remarkable accomplishment.
Bill Walsh is another three-ring coach inducted in the Hall of Fame, and there are a fair number of two-ring coaches there as well: Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Tom Landry, and Bill Parcells. Meanwhile, Jimmy Johnson who led the Cowboys to two consecutive Super Bowl victories is still waiting on his induction along with fellow two-ring coaches Tom Flores of the Raiders and George Seifert of the 49ers.
Marv Levy was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001. Though he never coached a Super Bowl winning team, he had four consecutive Super Bowl appearances while coaching the Buffalo Bills in 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993. So, a championship ring is not a prerequisite for enshrinement, but four consecutive appearances, even without a win, is unarguably impressive.
Cowher's record as a coach is strong, but it could take more for him to make it into the Hall of Fame. Thankfully, the standard for induction is not Chuch Noll, but since Noll and Cowher are part of the Steelers legacy, it is hard not to compare the two. Nonetheless, Cowher has made a unique impact on the Steelers organization and his accomplishments on a league level are definitely top-tier. Whether or not the voters agree remains to be seen.