Steelers News

‘You Gotta Run The Football’: Bill Cowher Fondly Recalls Dan Rooney’s Unsolicited Coaching Advice

Dan Rooney

Former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher is often affectionately known as the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust guy, so great seemingly was his commitment to running the football. But while he naturally prized the ground game, he made it clear that that message didn’t come just from him. Indeed, he was the one getting the message, from the late Dan Rooney, former Steelers owner.

“He would come in, you know, ‘You gotta run that football. Don’t forget about running the football’. I’m like, ‘I know’”, he said with a laugh and a smile of endearment, recalling his old boss while reminiscing with former quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on his Footbahlin podcast.

“We’re throwing the ball and he goes, ‘We’re throwing the ball way too much’”, he went on. “I’m like, ‘I know, the game’s kind of going that way, Mr. Rooney’. And he goes, ‘Yeah, but I know about the game’. I’m like, ‘I know you know about the game. I know. We’ll make sure we run the ball’”.

The Steelers finished in the top 10 in rushing in 13 of Cowher’s 15 seasons in Pittsburgh, including eight top-five finishes, among which several saw them rank in the top of the league. The only glaring outlier was the hangover “Tommy Gun” year in 2003, which led to the team drafting Ben Roethlisberger after it gave Tommy Maddox a run. They had the 31st-ranked run game that year, yet in 2002, they were top 10 in both the run and the pass.

While Cowher is known for his run game, he says that that wasn’t his philosophy. The message to run the ball did come directly from ownership, but it’s simply a matter of fact that their teams were often better equipped to run the ball, and that largely only began to change in the 2000s. He didn’t even get to see the full bloom of what Roethlisberger could do.

“Here’s my whole thing, was, throw early to run late”, Cowher said. “I used to have [Plaxico Burress] and Hines [Ward] and they’d be coming in my ear, like, ‘Ben won’t throw the ball’, and I go, ‘Well, talk to Ben! Don’t talk to me! I’m not out there’”.

“He goes, ‘You’re not even calling pass plays’”, he continued. “I go, ‘I’m sorry, look at the score’. I say, ‘You see the clock? There’s a two-possession game. If we get one more minute off the clock, then that’s it. We can dictate how they’re gonna have to call. They’re gonna have to start throwing the football’”.

Cowher more often than not won his share of games, which is of course why he is in the Hall of Fame, but it goes without saying they would have administered a more robust passing attack if they had better options under center than were available to him for most of his time in Pittsburgh.

He didn’t get Roethlisberger until his 13th season, and he finally won his first Super Bowl in year 14. But even that was with a top-five running game and a top-five defense. Roethlisberger did what he needed them to when the Steelers needed him to do it, however, including making a tackle or two at a timely moment.

To Top