Steelers coach Bill Cowher is once again striking his best Patton-esque pose this season: rough and gruff ... yet beloved by his players. Probably that's precisely because Cowher balances his toughness with a willingness to take the punches for them, right on that prominent chin.
I began to appreciate how directly Cowher addresses mistakes after the gift game to the Bengals. Although a huge special-teams gaffe by return man Ricardo Colclough was a prominent factor in the Steelers' loss, Cowher took the blame at his post-game press conference. He did the same for the boneheaded "celebration" penalties meted out to safety Mike Logan and running back Verron Haynes.
Of course, Cowher probably ripped all three players new ones ... but he did so in private. Patton might have slapped Colclough if he had a chance, but he'd probably approve of Cowher's forthrightness.
Contrariwise, I was watching a recent Sunday Night Football broadcast when a coach left his quarterback to dangle in the wind with the national media. OK, it was the Seahawks' Mike Holmgren, who told sideline reporter Andrea Kramer that two costly interceptions by QB Matt Hasselbeck were "on Matt." Even color man John Madden suggested that pressure from the fourth-ranked Bears defense might be a mitigating factor.
Maybe Hasselbeck responds to the stick and not the carrot. Even a very public stick. On the other hand, the Walrus could have egg all over his face if he misreads the psyche of his key player. Were I a wealthy young super-athlete, I'd want my coach to get my back in public, even when I fouled up badly.
Different players respond to different coaching styles -- which is what makes a coach's job so complicated. "We know that the classic fire-and-brimstone approach isn't useful to about one-third of the guys on any given team," contends Adam Naylor, Ed.D., of the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center.
So how do you motivate all the players at the same time? Cowher may be up against the most demanding task of his whole career. He faces the toughest division in the NFL, and he has to push the right psychological buttons to prove that last year wasn't a fluke. Holmgren, meanwhile -- although he's battling in a much weaker division -- faces the hurdle of the Super Bowl-loser jinx without last year's league MVP.
Coaching styles vary widely as well, of course -- from the highly successful Bellichik-bot mode to the highly combustible Bill Parcells. But while Cowher and Holmgren differ greatly, their success rates are similar: Cowher holds a lifetime record of 142-85-1 with one team; Holmgren has forged a 147-81 record with two teams. Between them they hold two Super Bowl rings, and three more Super Bowl appearances. Neither coach is on the hot seat, but each is under tremendous internal pressure.
What all the good coaches have in common is an understanding that they are really just facilitators.
"Ultimately, a head coach can provide the opportunity for a unified team or locker room; they can put pieces in place for that to happen," Naylor says. But while they can put the pieces in place, he adds, they must also realize that the players have to be accountable to one another. For proof, look no further than the debacle that Naylor's beloved Eagles faced while dealing with the always-difficult Terrell Owens.
Anybody who watches games knows who to put the blame on, of course. But how a coach handles things makes a difference.
"All successful leaders say that it's up to them," says Naylor. "In everyday life, we pass the buck, because it's good for our ego. Athletes learn that's probably a bad idea." The key to leadership is not just admitting responsibility, but claiming it. And when a coach takes the hit, it allows his team leaders to step up and claim their share of the blame as well.
All things considered, I'd rather work for a guy like Cowher, who allowed me to take the initiative to take my lumps. Plus there would always be the opportunity for a little harmless affection on the sidelines. Patton never allowed one of his soldiers to kiss him in public, of course. But we didn't have the media coverage then that we do now.