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Retrospective: The Cowher vs. Donahoe debate had a clear winner

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Retrospective: The Cowher vs. Donahoe debate had a clear winner

The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1990s are a team that is often forgotten for how good they were because of the multiple AFC Championship Game losses at home and the failure to win Super Bowl XXX.

Two of the key components of that success were directly attributable to Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe and Head Coach Bill Cowher. The combination of Donahoe’s low-key, stay-in-the-background style was the perfect complement to the Cowher’s visible, emotional approach.

By the end of the decade, the working relationship between the two had deteriorated. The inability to break through and win that elusive championship led to a fracture in the front office.

They disagreed over many things, especially who had the greater say–the coaches or the scouts–over player personnel. Cowher felt he didn’t have the necessary players to get over the hump; Donahoe felt the talent was there and it was the coaching that fell short. Cowher did not want Donahoe in the coaches’ meetings because he thought Donahoe was a spy. Donahoe thought Cowher was finished as an NFL Coach.

The situation was untenable and a choice had to be made, one of the two had to go. What was not obvious, at least at the time, was which one would it be?

After the Steelers lost the 1997 AFC Championship Game to the Denver Broncos, Donahoe turned down an offer by the Seattle Seahawks to be their General Manager with rumors to be as much as 5 times his $200,000 salary in Pittsburgh. League wide, and even locally (Ron Rook) Donahoe was generally considered the mastermind behind the team. And there was empirical evidence to back up this claim:

  • Trading for Jerome Bettis
  • Signing free agent Yancey Thigpen
  • Signing Kevin Greene

Bill Cowher was taking the heat from fans, many of whom were calling for him to be fired. It wasn’t just that he failed, but he failed to beat teams in the playoffs at home when the Steelers were simply better. But there were other aspects to consider:

  • The Steelers never found a quarterback that really could complete the team
  • Donahoe let Rod Woodson walk after lowballing him in free agency
  • Donahoe had a weak track record on 1st round picks, truly hitting on only Alan Faneca and Leon Searcy

When it came time to make the decision, Dan Rooney stuck with Bill Cowher. In traditional Steelers fashion, Donahoe “resigned” by not having his contract renewed. After a year of working for ESPN, the Buffalo Bills hired Donahoe to be their General Manager, but the team would go only 31-48 during his 2001-2005 tenure.

The Steelers then promptly hired Kevin Colbert as his replacement as Director of Football Operations. Colbert did more than simply evaluate talent and select players in the NFL Draft. The Steelers were never known as a team that was active as far as making trades on draft day, but Colbert was willing to pull the trigger—and not just moving down in the draft, but being aggressive and moving up.

  • 2001, the Steelers were able to fill two large needs at NT and LB by trading down in the first round to select Casey Hampton while moving up in the second to land DROY Kendrell Bell.
  • 2003, the Steelers moved up for in the first round for the first time in the history of the franchise, selecting Troy Polamalu.
  • 2006, the Steelers move up in the first round to select Santonio Holmes. The Steelers do not win Super Bowls XL or XLIII without those moves.
  • 2009 and 2010, trades led to the Steelers drafting WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, helping them reach Super Bowl XLV.
  • 2019, Colbert traded up for Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick which upgraded the defense to an elite level.

He has been significantly more successful with his first round picks than his predecessor and it’s a contributing factor in that he is the first Steelers General Manager in team history.

Cowher went on to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Donahoe had a very forgettable stint with the Buffalo Bills, though he did win a ring as an advisor to the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles.

Nonetheless, the decision of whom to keep at the time was a highly contested one, but in hindsight it’s like the decision to draft Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf.

Thoughts, comments or memories? Leave a comment below.


PMP; CSM; CSPO and host of the PMI-TB Agile Podcast. A lifelong Steelers fan, I had the chance of a lifetime when I was able to celebrate Super Bowl XLIII with the team. I love talking everything Steelers from the old days to the new and look forward to working with the team to grow this platform to be the premier Steelers site.

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