Bill Cowher was 34 years old when he first earned the head coaching job for the Pittsburgh Steelers, among the youngest coaches in the league. He was 49 when he finally retired a decade and a half later, having won a championship and had a great deal more success along the way—enough to earn him a gold jacket that signifies he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It’s no surprise that, given his relatively young age of retirement and the fact that he was a very successful coach, he was regularly approached by teams looking to bring him back in as their head coach. This is not news, but he recently told Ed Bouchette for The Athletic that he was consistently fielding offers from teams for nearly a decade. While he listened, he never seriously considered coming back.
“I talked to some owners because I didn’t want to seem aloof”, Bouchette quotes him as saying. “Every time I went through the process it never got very far. I wanted to go through the process of just talking to people to see ‘do I really want to do this?’”.
“I knew what it would entail but I go back to the same thing: I had the best job in football and I was in another part of life”, he continued. “And life is about transition. I didn’t need that to define me. Did I think I was walking away from a Hall of Fame career? I did. But as I transitioned to my new career in broadcasting, the new life I had, I didn’t need to go back to validate anything”.
Cowher won 149 games over his 15-year career, coming up just one game shy of 150. But he also won 12 games in the postseason, among the most in NFL history, reaching the conference finals six times and the Super Bowl twice, finally winning in 2005, his penultimate season.
His final season was a down year, seeing the Steelers go 8-8 just one year removed from winning it all. It didn’t help that their young quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, crashed a motorcycle in the offseason and then had a burst appendix, leading to what was far and away the worst season of his career.
That’s not why Cowher retired though. He’s discussed that subject across numerous interviews over the course of the past week, and addresses it in his new memoire, Heart of Steel. The reality is that there was nothing left for him to prove, and the fact that he is about to be enshrined is all the evidence one needs of that.
He could have very easily come back, even a decade later, like Jon Gruden did. He might even have had a more successful go at it. But he knows, even if he wanted to coach again bad enough, it would never be what he had in Pittsburgh, which is what he was referencing what he said “I had the best job in football”—a job held by Mike Tomlin for just as long going into 2021.