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'Family way' is how Steelers do business

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher was coming off a 6-10 season in the spring of 2004. He had missed the playoffs in four of his previous six years. He still had two years to go on his contract, so he wasn't in any danger of leaving the team.

Yet Steelers owner Dan Rooney rewarded his coach by adding two more years to his contract and making the extension worth $4 million a year, which put Cowher near the top of the NFL coaching salary list.

So it goes in the Steelers' world, where stability reigns, loyalty is rewarded, the management style is conservative and the wins just keep on coming.

"I really feel that when you're changing coaches, it's almost like you're an expansion team, starting over again," Rooney said.

The wisdom of Rooney's move, which was widely doubted at the time by media and fans in Pittsburgh, has been proven. The Steelers are 30-7 under Cowher since the extension, and their presence in Super Bowl XL underscores their standing as one of the NFL's model franchises.

The Steelers have made it to the playoffs 22 times since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. That's second only to Dallas, which has 23 playoff berths. They have been to six of the past 31 Super Bowls.

The Steelers have had two head coaches in 37 years. Chuck Noll coached 23 years before Cowher's hiring in 1992. There have been 93 NFL coaching changes since. Pittsburgh's regular-season record of 141-82-1 since Cowher was hired is the best in the NFL. This is Cowher's 10th playoff year in 14 seasons, and Pittsburgh has gone to the AFC title game six of the last 12 years.

"I'm very fortunate, to say the least," Cowher said. "I recognize that we're in a performance-now business. . . . It's not very often you stay in the same place 14 years and have your kids grow up in the same school district."

Stability is at the heart of "the Steeler way," and it's a principle handed down from the founder of the franchise, the late Art Rooney. The Steelers were Rooney's life, and he was beloved in the Steel City. He walked to the stadium from his home every day. He was not above cleaning out the ashtrays at the offices. He would occasionally answer the phone and say he was the night watchman.

One Christmas, Steelers stars Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw and their wives stood in the snow outside his home and sang Christmas carols to the Rooney family.

Dan Rooney, Art's son, has been running much of the Steelers operation since the mid-1960s, and is almost equally revered within the organization.

"The biggest thing he passed on, and I hope we continue it, is to treat people right," Rooney said during Super Bowl media day on Tuesday. "We treat our players as people, not just workers. We're concerned for them away from the field and whatever problems they might have. My father always had a relationship with the players, and I've tried to do the same, and so does my son, Art."

Dan Rooney was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000 because of his role as "the Henry Kissinger" of the NFL. He has been a leader in brokering compromises among his NFL partners and between the owners and players over the past 25 years -- deals that have given the NFL pro sports' most successful player-management partnership.

Rooney's successful management style, however, would not produce winning results without a great player personnel department.

The Steelers will start 19 home-grown players against Seattle -- 17 draftees and two undrafted free agents.

Pittsburgh still has five starters drafted by Tom Donahoe, the recently fired Bills executive. That doesn't count Jerome Bettis, whom Donahoe acquired via trade. Three of those Donahoe-era players are Pro Bowlers -- Hines Ward, Joey Porter and Alan Faneca.

When Donahoe lost a power struggle with Cowher in 2000 because the two could not get along, the Rooneys hired Kevin Colbert as their director of football operations. Colbert, a Pittsburgh native, had spent a decade as pro scouting director in Detroit.

Colbert has done a fabulous job. The Steelers have gained 12 starters from their past six drafts. They include young stars Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton and Antwaan Randle El.

In 2003, Colbert traded up 11 spots in the first round and gave up a third-round pick in the process to get Polamalu, who has fit perfectly into the Steelers' zone-blitzing defense.

Good luck is part of the draft process, too. Colbert admits that he would have been happy with quarterbacks Eli Manning or Philip Rivers in the 2004 draft. Roethlisberger was the third quarterback taken, at No. 11 overall

"We didn't know how the quarterback order would unravel," Colbert said. "We would have been happy with any one of them because we felt and still feel they're all going to be very good NFL quarterbacks. When Ben made it to us we were happy. Nobody believed it would pay the instant dividends it did because he was coming out as a junior. Nobody saw this coming, not this quick, not this successful."

The success in the draft allows the Steelers to spend conservatively in free agency. Just three starters are free agents -- defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, center Jeff Hartings and linebacker James Farrior.

"We do lose some players in free agency, but maybe we want to lose some of those," Dan Rooney said. "We go after a few players in free agency, and we introduce them to our way of trying to win with good people working hard."

"The Steeler way is doing things the right way for the right reasons," Colbert said.

"We have a very healthy organization," Cowher said. "It starts at the top. There's no ego involved. We try to get things done as a team."


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