Jun 022009

Or why I’m entitled to my irrationality

Just as the Penguins have washed off the stench of Bill Cowher’s Carolina-clad betrayal, along comes another character destined for villainy in the eyes of the Pittsburgh sports fan.

Marian Hoser

Last summer, Marian Hossa, the supremely gifted winger who played for the Penguins during the spring’s playoffs, turned down a 7-year, $49 million offer from the Penguins to sign a 1-year, $7.4 million deal with Detroit. Hossa’s stated reason is that he believes he had a better shot at winning a title with the Red Wings than the Penguins.

In the leadup to the Stanley Cup Finals, it has been posited that Penguins fans are being irrational for booing Hossa for leaving. An objective observer would say that Hossa’s decision made perfect sense. He wants a title; he goes out and strengthens the reigning champions while simultaneously weakening one of their main contenders. Some have even gone so far as to say that Hossa should be lauded for taking less to play for a champion rather than making the big money grab. All fine points.

But who says that a fan has to be objective on this particular point? Why am I not entitled to my outrage, to my sense of betrayal? I’m a partisan fan! No other NHL team matters to me but the Pittsburgh Penguins. If you ain’t with Pitt(sburgh), you ain’t it. When someone effectively takes a swipe at my team, as Hossa did in taking less money to cross the aisle to Detroit, I sure as hell am entitled to feel as though that person has earned my enmity.

As with Cowher, I don’t wish Hossa any general ill will. Hell, if somehow he re-signed with the Penguins this offseason, I’d welcome him back to the fold. A true fan needs no ulterior motives to root for his/her team but you can be sure that I would still take a great amount of pleasure if the Penguins came back from two games down to win the cup, thereby forcing Hossa to watch our players skated around with the Cup held aloft their heads.

May 282009

The question of loyalty to a hometown and to its sports teams is one that often comes up in sporting discussions. Some folks shed their loyalties to their hometown and its teams and adopt new teams as they move around the country. Others steadfastly cling to their sporting roots, while possibly picking up a “second” team. In some cases, this choice comes down to a fundamental question of identity.

In choosing to root for the Carolina Hurricanes over his hometown Pittsburgh Penguins, Bill Cowher created a maelstrom. Pittsburghers are, to put it lightly, livid. (As an aside, let’s dispense with any idiotic talk about his right to support whom he wants or that he owes Pittsburgh nothing. DUH!)

So does Cowher see himself, in any part, as a Pittsburgher or a solely a Carolinian? If the former, then he shouldn’t be surprised by the consternation created by his decision. If the latter, then so be it. He’s not one of “ours”.

It is generally believed that many ex-pat Pittsburghers take their sporting loyalties with them when they leave western Pennsylvania. The reason that Steelers fans show up in great numbers at road games is not because we travel well (though we do), it’s because ex-Pittsburghers already live there. And we’ve also converted anyone we can. So when Cowher chose to support the Hurricanes instead of the Penguins, he, in essence, chose Carolina over Pittsburgh as his identity. That one of our own would readily do so is reponsible for the hurt and disappointment that many of us feel.

I don’t particularly care to explain away Cowher’s decision based on his Raleigh business contacts or the possibility of coaching the Carolina Panthers one day. If he still saw himself as a Pittsburgher, he could have begged off taking part in such a public display as he gave during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.


The bottomline is that Cowher isn’t a Pittsburgher anymore, if he ever was. And yes I feel justified in making that statement based on his turncoat sporting allegiance. Perhaps his experiences at NC State and the pressure cooker of coaching the Steelers rendered him less able to embrace this part of his (former) heritage. Sure he had the accent and the roots but in some ways, he always seemed more of a hired hand than someone who embraces his city, like Mario Lemieux or Franco Harris have done.

Of course, I don’t wish Cowher any ill will. Many Steelers fans aren’t from Pittsburgh and so they are under no obligation to root for our other teams. They’re still part of the Steelers Nation. He was a fantastic coach for many, many years and I think Mike Tomlin winning a Superbowl in his second year has blinded some Steelers fans to the difficulty of winning it all. Cowher is welcome to turncoat again and root for the Penguins. But he won’t be doing so as a Pittsburgher.

Apr 072009

A quick list of the Grand Canyon State’s ever growing contingent of Pittsburgh-related coaching connections:

* Cardinals’ coach Ken Whisenhunt served most of his coaching career with the Steelers, ending as Offensive Coordinator.

* Whisenhunt’s top assistant Russ Grimm is from Scottsdale, played his college ball at Pitt and was Bill Cowher’s top assistant/offensive line coach with the Steelers.

* Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Billy Davis got his first start in NFL coaching with the Steelers.

* Arizona State head basketball coach Herb Sendek grew up in Pittsburgh, graduating from Penn Hills High School and Carnegie Mellon University.

* Finally, new University of Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller is from Blackhawk High School and considered one of the best point guards ever to play for Pitt. He also spent some time as an assistant at Pitt.

Is that enough to convince you that Arizona = Pittsburgh West? Oh and there’s also Larry Fitzgerald.

Jan 052007

I remember very little of the pre-Bill Cowher days.  I didn’t start following football in earnest till Chuck Noll’s last year in 1991; seeing the malaise of the team in his final games, thinking on what it must’ve been like in the glory years of the 1970’s before I was born.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I’ve been to at least one Steelers game every year since Cowher took over.  I can’t imagine anyone else roaming the Steelers’ sidelines.  I can’t imagine not seeing that Jaw jutting out, the fire in Coach’s eyes.  As much as Dan Rooney’s silent, steady leadership, Bill Cowher’s tenure taught me the “Steelers Way”, our city’s way – hard work, team work, leadership, intensity, fundamentals with just a little bit of strut thrown in to keep people off balance (after all, it was a WR to WR pass that defined Superbowl XL).

I remember the coaching search after Coach Noll resigned and thinking who was this assistant from Kansas City who could possibly replace the Legend.  I thought the trendy candidate, Mike Holmgren of SF at the time, would’ve been a better hire.  Fifteen years later, I still marvel at the wisdom of the Rooney’s.  Holmgren also won a Superbowl and sooner than Cowher but he could never have shown a 12yr old football neophyte “how we do”.

I hope and pray and trust that the Rooney’s will once again find another Man who embodies “our way”.  It surely won’t be easy to hit the jackpot three times in a row (and this guy would like to see Russ Grimm as the next head coach).

You’re probably thinking that I’m over-eulogizing.  But you can’t know how it is until you’re one of us, one of the Steelers Nation.  I won’t like it one bit if/when Cowher comes back to coaching with a different team.  I’ll hate it when he coaches against his hometown team for the first time.  But Bill Cowher won’t ever be anything but a Pittsburgh Steeler to me.