For 14 years, Tom Donahoe was one of the most respected executives in pro football, well-liked throughout the league in his role as the Pittsburgh Steelers' director of football operations.
It was a dream job for Donahoe, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh and is the grandson of a politician who was once the city's mayor and the governor of Pennsylvania.
But after losing a very public power struggle with Steelers coach Bill Cowher, Donahoe departed and is now the president and general manager of the Buffalo Bills.
Sunday, Donahoe will watch the organization he helped steer to six consecutive playoffs, three AFC title games and a Super Bowl when the Steelers play the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"The game doesn't have to do with me and Bill Cowher, it has to do with the two teams on the field," Donahoe said. "But, obviously, any time you've worked somewhere and were raised in a city, the game has maybe a little extra meaning for you. I'm not going to deny that. But as far as me being a factor in the game, I'm not a factor."
For Donahoe, who started in the Steelers' organization in the 1960s as the team's ball boy, this game has to conjure bittersweet feelings. Donahoe's tenure with the Steelers ended in January 2000 when it was determined that his relationship with Cowher had deteriorated to a point that owners Dan and Art Rooney II felt they had to decide which one must go.
Art Rooney said they searched for solutions, including hiring someone else as a go-between. But the Steelers suffered through a dreadful 6-10 season, and in the end the owners picked Cowher when it was decided it would be more disruptive to get rid of the coach than Donahoe.
Donahoe's departure may have been for economic reasons as much as anything else. Cowher had three years remaining on his contract and would have been owed about $6 million. Donahoe, who didn't even have a contract until three years ago when he turned down a lucrative offer from the Seattle Seahawks, had one year remaining worth about $500,000.
Steelers observers say the Donahoe-Cowher feud was a clash of very strong and differing personalities. There were traces of dissent between the two during the final years of their tenure. After the Steelers lost to the Patriots, 28-3, in the AFC playoffs in January '97, Donahoe said the team came out flat. The next day at his end-of-season news conference, Cowher was asked if he thought the team was flat. He replied tersely, "Ask Tom."
Donahoe had huge input in the drafting of Kordell Stewart, although it always has been presented as a group decision. Stewart and Cowher had an uneven relationship in 1998 and '99, and Cowher benched the struggling quarterback late in the '99 season. It was widely believed that Donahoe was against Stewart's benching.
It was apparent that Donahoe and Cowher could no longer work together. In January of last year, they no longer did.
Yet Donahoe has put his time in Pittsburgh in the past. Many of his family and friends from Pittsburgh will jam into his luxury box at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"Initially, if this game would have occurred a month after I left Pittsburgh it would have been different," he said. "But it's been a long time. I'm a Buffalo Bill. We have our issues we're trying to address. That's where my concentration is. The fans in Pittsburgh were great to me and they were great to my family and they treated us with a lot of respect, and we'll never forget that. We're with the Buffalo Bills now."
Cowher, also a Pittsburgh native, said he, too, wants to bury the past.
"I know that he's a fine man, he's good at what he does," Cowher said. "They're trying to build something in Buffalo just like we're trying to re-establish ourselves down here."
But on Monday, Cowher was asked if Sunday's game meant any more to him. He replied sternly and abruptly, "No."
This wasn't the first time the Steelers have endured problems between management and the coach. In 1986, Dan Rooney fired his brother, Art Rooney Jr., because of a perceived lack of communication between him and coach Chuck Noll. It was Art Rooney Jr. who plucked Donahoe away from the Blesto scouting organization in 1986, and it was Donahoe who helped pick Cowher as the coach to replace Noll in 1992.
Donahoe's knowledge of the organization is seen as one of the benefits this week.
"We've talked to (our) coaches on both sides of the ball about their personnel," Donahoe said. "Hopefully, there's some things we can share with them that could help our team. We need to win a football game no matter who we're playing."
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