Despite success, Steelers' staff stays put
Ben Roethlisberger, coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians were basking in the glow of a come-from-behind win in Super Bowl XLIII when the Steelers quarterback looked ahead for a moment.
As Roethlisberger recently recalled, he turned to Tomlin last February and said of Arians: "Don't let him go anywhere."
As it turned out, no assistant left the Steelers' coaching staff for a better opportunity elsewhere following the 2008 season. The front office also returned intact, which is equally curious considering the sustained success the Steelers have enjoyed.
They are third this decade in winning percentage (.655) behind the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. The Steelers are also the only team aside from the Patriots to win multiple Super Bowls in the 2000s, and they have claimed two of the past four Lombardi Trophies.
Former NFL general manager Charley Casserly heard the highest compliment an organization can receive when he visited teams during the offseason as part of his duties as an NFL analyst.
"There's a team, and I can't think of who it is now, that said they wanted to be the Steelers," said Casserly, who now works for CBS.
Yet as closely as the Steelers have rivaled the success of the Patriots this decade, New England is the team that organizations have regularly tapped when they are attempting to rebuild.
Since 2005, three Patriots assistants — Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennel and Josh McDaniels — have been hired as NFL coaches. Another, Charlie Weiss, got hired as the head coach at Notre Dame, his alma mater.
During that same period, Ken Whisenhunt is the only Steelers assistant who has moved on to a head-coaching job. And in his second season, Whisenhunt led the usually downtrodden Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl, where they nearly upset the Steelers.
High praise from LeBeau
The Cardinals expressed interest in Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler last offseason when they had an opening at defensive coordinator. But Butler, one of three defensive assistant coaches who is in at least his seventh season with the Steelers, never went to Arizona for an interview.
"I know the defensive coaches, and they could do a good job in any position," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who served as head coach for the Bengals from 2000-02 before eventually returning to Pittsburgh. "They could all be not only coordinators but great head coaches."
LeBeau, who turned 72 last Wednesday, concedes that the window has closed as far as his getting another head-coaching job.
Arians, who turns 57 in October, isn't helped by the trend of NFL teams hiring thirty-something head coaches.
Arians did come as close as anyone has to making Temple competitive on a regular basis when he served as the Owls' coach from 1983-88. He also has a wealth of NFL experience, and his resume includes developing a couple of pretty fair quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Roethlisberger.
Arians, however, got fired as the Browns' offensive coordinator in 2003, and he has taken heat for a Steelers running game that ranked just 23rd in the NFL last season. The Steelers rushing for a paltry 36 yards in their 13-10 overtime win over the Tennessee Titans last Thursday didn't help the perception some have of Arians, but Roethlisberger is one of his staunchest defenders.
"He takes way, way too much criticism," Roethlisberger said. "He's much better than people give him credit for. He's a guy that's helped me mature and understand offenses and understand his offense. Just the communication that we have, I really feel like we have been kind of on a different level."
Another successful postseason run by the Steelers this season could help Arians as well as offensive assistants such as Kirby Wilson (running backs) and Randy Fichtner (wide receivers) if they are looking to move up in the coaching ranks.
All three are only in their third season of their current roles with the Steelers.
"This new group, they're going to have opportunities," said former Steelers great and current NFL Network analyst Rod Woodson. "It really depends on if people see the head-coaching qualities in that person. I think with this new crop of coaches, in due time, they'll get their shot."
Under the radar
It remains to be seen if the same holds true for some of the people under director of football operations Kevin Colbert in the Steelers' scouting department.
Colbert's staff has largely stayed together since he joined the organization in 2000.
Under Colbert, the Steelers have not missed on a first-round pick, although the jury is still out on 2008 selection Rashard Mendenhall and 2009 pick Ziggy Hood. While the Steelers have had their share of picks that didn't pan out - that is true of any team - they have drafted well overall.
For example, seven of the nine draft picks the Steelers made last April opened the season on the team. Another, sixth-rounder Sonny Harris, got signed to the Carolina Panthers' 53-man roster after the Steelers tried to sneak the defensive end onto their practice squad.
"Two deep, I don't think anybody's any better," nose tackle Casey Hampton said of the Steelers.
That is high praise for the job the player-personnel staff has done, but it is the Patriot' and Ravens' front offices that have received the attention of other organizations.
Three members of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome's staff have gotten jobs this decade running personnel departments elsewhere: James Harris (Jaguars), Phil Savage (Browns) and George Kokinis (Browns).
Two former Patriots executives, Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff, are general managers in Kansas City and Atlanta, respectively.
Doug Whaley, the graduate of Upper St. Clair High and Pitt, is in his 10th season as the Steelers' pro scouting coordinator, and he is a strong candidate for a general manager job elsewhere in the coming years.
The NFL extended the Rooney Rule to include general manager positions in June, and Fritz Pollard Alliance executive director John Wooten mentioned Whaley when talking about who might benefit from the increased opportunities for the minorities the rule is designed to create.
Success and stability
Theories abound as to why the Steelers' coaching and personnel staffs have not been raided in recent years.
Assistants under Bill Cowher who went on to become head coaches had mixed results at best. Also, the Steelers' template — while effective — is hardly sexy.
They build through the draft, add complementary pieces through free agency and place a premium on re-signing the players they develop.
The Steelers have long run their organization with an understated touch that can even be found on their 2009 media guides. President Art Rooney II scotched any suggestions to make even a small reference to the Steelers' status as world champions on the cover of the guides.
That is part of what Titans coach Jeff Fisher is talking about when he refers to what the Steelers do as the "Pittsburgh Way."
They quietly go about their business, and as a result, their success has not compromised the organization's stability.
At least not yet.
"That's what we're trying to do, keep the good people," Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney said before the team's season opener last Thursday. "We've always tried to do that."
Movin' on up
Assistants who served under Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh didn't always find success elsewhere as head coaches. Here is a look at how they fared.
Dom Capers: Former Steelers defensive coordinator took Carolina to 1996 NFC Championship game but was fired after a 4-12 season in 1998.
Chan Gailey: Former Steelers offensive coordinator lasted just two seasons as the Cowboys' head coach. He posted a 18-14 record in 1998-99 and lost two playoff games.
Jim Haslett: Won a division title his first season as head coach of the Saints in 2000. But the former Steelers defensive coordinator was fired after the Saints missed the playoffs in the final five seasons of his six-year run in New Orleans.
Mike Mularkey: Former Steelers offensive coordinator resigned after just two seasons as the Bills' head coach. He went 14-18 from 2004-05 in Buffalo.
Dick LeBeau: Steelers defensive coordinator went 12-33 in three seasons coaching the Bengals (2000-02).
Marvin Lewis: Former Steelers linebackers coach succeeded LeBeau, a mentor of his, in Cincinnati and is still there. Bengals may have to make significant improvement this season for Lewis, who has a career record of 46-49-1, to keep his job.
Ken Whisenhunt: After an 8-8 rookie season in 2007, Whisenhunt guided the surprising Cardinals to the Super Bowl last season. The former Steelers offensive coordinator has the look of a coaching star.