It was hard enough that Bill Cowher was replacing a Steelers legend and one of the greatest coaches in NFL history. Or that he was taking over a franchise with four Super Bowl trophies that had made the playoffs just once in the previous seven seasons.
As a rookie head coach, he had more immediate hurdles to overcome. Learning his players. Getting them to believe what he was preaching. And working with 10 members of his coaching staff with whom he had never worked before.
“Anytime there’s change, there’s resistance, and you’re going to get that,” Cowher said. “The thing you have to do is pick your battles. You can’t walk in and be a dictator and say trust me. It takes time. You need to create a harmonious situation, and losing can make it difficult to do that.”
The transition from Chuck Noll, architect of the Super Bowl dynasty of the 1970s, to Cowher was made easier when the Steelers went 11-5 and gained the No. 1 AFC playoff seed in 1992 under their rookie head coach.
While some of the other greatest head coaches in NFL history struggled in their first opportunity as an NFL head coach, Cowher enjoyed nearly unprecedented success. He became only the second coach in NFL history to make the postseason his first six years on the job – Paul Brown was the other – and went on to win eight division titles and make 10 playoff appearances in his 15 years with the Steelers.
“Winning gives you credibility when you’re a first-time head coach,” Cowher said. “You’re trying to sell what your beliefs are and with each loss the challenge becomes greater. Sometimes when you lose, people tend to draw a line in the sand. When I came in, they were in the playoffs just one time in seven years. It wasn’t a harmonious locker room.”
Cowher was part of a rookie head-coaching class in 1992 that might be among the best in recent NFL history.
Not only did Cowher go 11-5 and gain the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but Dennis Green in Minnesota and Bobby Ross in San Diego also posted division-winning 11-5 records. Mike Holmgren went 9-7 with the Green Bay Packers and, even though he didn’t make the playoffs that season, the Packers went on to have a winning record in each of Holmgren’s seven years in Green Bay.
Cincinnati’s David Shula was the only one of the five rookie coaches in 1992 to have a losing record (5-11). He lasted 4 1/2 seasons as the Bengals head coach after posting a 19-52 record and never winning more than seven games in a season.
Cowher (2005) and Holmgren (1996) went on to win a Super Bowl. Ross made it there in 1994 but lost to the San Francisco 49ers. Green took the Vikings to the NFC title game in 1998, but lost to the Atlanta Falcons.
“That first year, you realize some of the players you have and what their strengths are don’t fit with your philosophy,” Cowher was saying the other day. “You have to adapt. You have to identify what you have. You have to be flexible enough to be able to listen and be a great listener.”
It is something many rookie head coaches are not able to do, or even overcome. That has been evident in the 10 years since Mike Tomlin replaced Cowher as Steelers coach.
Tough road to playoffs
It is not easy being a rookie head coach in the NFL, not with a success rate of making the playoffs in your first season less than 25 percent.
But Tomlin, like Cowher, made the transition look seamless, even though it never is.
Since Tomlin was hired in 2007, 44 coaches have landed jobs for the first time to lead an NFL franchise. Of those, only 10 coaches made it to the postseason in their rookie season, a 22.7 percent success rate. Tomlin is one, going 10-6 and making it to the playoffs as a wild-card team in 2007.
In that time, only one rookie coach – Jim Caldwell with the Indianapolis Colts in 2009 – made it to the Super Bowl.
Denver’s Gary Kubiak became the first coach to win a Super Bowl in his first season with a new team in 2015, but Kubiak had been a head coach before with the Houston Texans from 2006-2013. He was not a rookie head coach.
Tomlin was the only coach among the five rookies in 2007 to make the postseason. A year later, three of the four rookie coaches – Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, Atlanta’s Mike Smith and Miami’s Tony Sparano – took their teams to the playoffs. Harbaugh even led the Ravens to the 2008 AFC championship where they lost to the Steelers. The only rookie coach to not go 11-5 and make the postseason that year was Jim Zorn with the Washington Redskins (8-8).
But, recently, it has become increasingly difficult. Only one of the past 13 rookie head coaches since 2013 have made the playoffs in their first season, and that was Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly, who led the Eagles to a 10-6 record and the NFC East title in 2013.
As of right now, his successor in Philadelphia – Doug Pederson – looks like the only rookie coach in the Class of 2016 who could make the playoffs. The Eagles are 3-1, a half-game behind the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East. He is the only coach among the four rookies with a winning record.
None of the four rookie head coaches in 2014 or three in 2015 made the playoffs in their first season. That is what Adam Gase, the rookie head coach of the Miami Dolphins, is up against.
The Dolphins are 2-4 after defeating the Steelers on Sunday. They are last in the league in rush defense, 31st in rush offense and have had problems protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
It was the second time in four games that the Steelers faced one of the league’s four rookie head coaches.
“For our coaching staff, what we’re really trying to establish is how we like to do things,” Gase said during a conference call last week. “Any time there’s change it takes a second to get used to, to the way we want to practice, to the tempo we want to set, the way we want to prepare for games and the way we’d like to execute.
“We’re going through some tough patches here and there where we’re not quite getting things done the way we’d like to get them done. Sometimes there’s a little bit of a learning curve as far as the play-callers on offense and defense and what some of our guys excel at and some of things our guys struggle at.”
Growing into job
Just because rookie coaches don’t have success immediately doesn’t mean they aren’t good coaches. Or they won’t eventually have success.
Noll, of course, was 1-13 as a rookie coach in 1969, and everyone knows what happened after that. Marv Levy was 4-12 in 1978 when he was a rookie head coach in Kansas City, but eventually took the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s. In 1979, Bill Walsh took over the San Francisco as a rookie head coach and went 2-14. Two years later, he won the first of three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s.
Three coaches with Steelers connections didn’t make the playoffs their rookie season, but did so one year later.
Former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was 8-8 in his first season in Arizona in 2007, but made it to the Super Bowl the following season when the Cardinals lost to the Steelers in Tampa, Fla. Current offensive coordinator Todd Haley was 4-12 as a rookie head coach in Kansas City in 2009, but won the AFC West title a year later with a 10-6 record. Former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians missed the playoffs his first season in Arizona in 2013 despite a 10-6 record, but he went 11-5 in 2014 and 13-3 last season, leading the Cardinals to the postseason each year.
While that was Arians’ first official job as head coach, he did step in and coach the Indianapolis Colts for 12 games when head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. The Colts were 9-3 under Arians and finished 11-5.
“For me, it was extreme because we were in the Super Bowl and the most important thing is to have a staff,” said Haley, who was Arizona’s offensive coordinator when the Cardinals lost on Santonio Holmes’ touchdown catch in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XLIII. “So the Super Bowl is over, we lose on the last drive and I get a call (from Kansas City) and you’re making decisions (about a staff) but you’re way behind the eight-ball. Having a staff, that’s the toughest thing.”
It’s not as easy as Cowher and Tomlin have made it look.