KANSAS CITY, Mo. —The mania began again last Monday, at least officially. The whispers had already been circling.
By the time Todd Haley was fired last week as the Chiefs' coach, social-networking sites already had been buzzing with the team's next set of dream candidates. Fans posted to their Twitter pages that former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher or former Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden should be the only logical choices to lead the Chiefs. Hours after Haley's firing was announced, a Facebook page went live in hopes of luring Cowher to Kansas City.
"Everybody thinks that Gruden and Cowher have got all the answers," said Kevin Harlan, a Kansas City-based sports broadcaster who calls NFL games for CBS. "They're spotless right now; nobody can say anything bad about them."
Cowher has, since leaving the Steelers in January 2007, been a studio analyst for CBS. Gruden, fired by the Buccaneers after the 2008 season, has since been a football analyst for ESPN. Both former coaches, each of whom led their teams to Super Bowl championships, are believed to earn around $1 million per year.
Still, each year, when there are NFL coaching vacancies, fans rush to stake claims on the top names in coaching free agency, deciding on reasons it makes perfect sense for this to be the job to lure them back to coaching.
Cowher, you know, was a young defensive coordinator under Marty Schottenheimer in the early 1990s; why wouldn't he want to return to Kansas City and come full circle? Gruden, of course, would love the opportunity to work with a team with such talents as running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry. And what if the Chiefs trade up to select one of the top quarterbacks in the 2012 draft? Didn't you hear Gruden say on "Monday Night Football" that he'd go anywhere to coach Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III?
CBS and ESPN declined requests this week to interview Cowher and Gruden, leaving only the annual speculation and hope that one or the other will see the Chiefs — or some other team — as the perfect springboard toward another Super Bowl. This isn't the first time, of course. After all, another Cowher-inspired Facebook page still exists from 2009, the last time the Chiefs had a coaching vacancy.
In many fans' opinions, it seems that Cowher or Gruden would be the only satisfactory choice for Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli. And perhaps he'll be able to reach one of them in a way that other executives have not.
"Usually, if they go back, it's because of the competitive part that they miss," said Charley Casserly, a former NFL executive who's now an analyst with CBS Sports and NFL Network. "It's a part of their life that's not being satisfied."
Harlan said it's common for fans — and even owners — to become enamored of commentators who say the right things about a team with problems, or share intelligent insight or angular opinions. In 2001, the Detroit Lions hired Matt Millen, a game analyst and former NFL player with no coaching, business or personnel experience, to be the team's chief executive. The Lions famously flopped under Millen, before he was fired in 2008. He has since returned to broadcasting.
"'Wow, they sound smart. Why doesn't our coach say that stuff?' " Harlan said, imitating the reaction to some analysts' words. "I think people kind of get seduced into thinking these guys are almost smarter than they really are. All they're doing is just watching the game and commentating. But I think a lot of owners are sold on that."
Cowher and Gruden have the resumes and experience to suggest they could again be successful. But the same resume and experience allow them to be choosy — and patient.
Casserly said Cowher has said privately, as well as on-air, that he won't coach in 2012. There is belief in league circles that, the longer Cowher becomes removed from coaching — it has been nearly five years since he stepped down in Pittsburgh — the itch to return isn't as persistent as it once was. Dan Marino, a studio analyst alongside Cowher, said this past week that he doesn't think the former coach will ever return to the sidelines.
"I don't think his mind-set is that he wants to coach again," Marino told thefinsiders.com, a website that covers the Miami Dolphins.
Cowher's life has changed since he last coached. Years after settling into broadcasting, a far less demanding job than coaching, Cowher would still be a young coach at 54. But his wife and college sweetheart, Kaye, died in July 2010 after a struggle with skin cancer. Cowher moved full-time in 2006 to Raleigh, N.C., to be closer to his family, even before the difficult period. Cowher has three daughters, and The New York Times reported last year that Cowher had begun piano lessons.
"If the right situation occurred, I'd consider coaching," he told the Times in August 2010. "But everyone asks, 'What's the right situation?' I don't know. I'm not sitting and looking at any one job."
That hasn't stopped some hopeful fans from believing he was simply waiting out his dream situation. Some believed he was waiting to coach the Carolina Panthers, in his home state, or pursue a high-profile job, such as those with Dallas or Washington. All have had turnover since Cowher stepped away from the game, but none has lured him out of the studio and the low-pressure lifestyle that coaching does not afford.
The years keep passing, and Cowher has remained comfortable outside the NFL coaching bubble. Casserly suggested that Cowher might be enjoying his life outside coaching too much to return to the grind.
"It's a part of their life that they never get a chance to take part of," Casserly said. "And when they do, they realize that there's something else in life (besides) coaching."
That hasn't quieted the buzz around Cowher, though. He was mentioned this week as a target of the Dolphins, who fired coach Tony Sparano the same day Haley was let go.
Though Gruden agreed to a five-year contract extension with ESPN in October, the former Raiders and Bucs coach has been less coy about the possibilities of someday returning to the sideline. Harlan, who does radio play-by-play for Monday night games, said he thinks Gruden might be looking for a ready-made contender (-) most likely with a star quarterback as part of the deal.
The Chiefs lack stability at the NFL's most important and visible position, and without a trade, they're unlikely to draft high enough to select one of the class' top quarterbacks, such as Griffin or Andrew Luck. That could be a turnoff for Gruden — or any other proven coach who might not want to spend years trying to uncover the perfect quarterback.
"You could waste a whole career bringing guys in, drafting guys," Harlan said.
Gruden might therefore be more interested in a job such as Indianapolis, if it fires coach Jim Caldwell, or San Diego if it parts ways with coach Norv Turner. The Colts, at 0-13, are primed for the top draft pick, and barring a trade, could have a healthy Peyton Manning back in the lineup next season. The Chargers have one of the league's most talented quarterbacks in Philip Rivers.
The Chiefs job, like many when there's a coaching change, comes with perhaps more baggage than a star coach would prefer to take on. Haley and Pioli clashed throughout this year, and Haley has indicated that he had little support from management during his nearly three-year tenure. The Chiefs are specific on how they prefer to handle things, and some established coaches might balk at the idea of deferring all personnel decisions to Pioli or being asked to behave a certain way to fit an image, a particular struggle for Haley.
Pioli said this past week that he was "open" to sharing control over football-related decisions but that he would retain final authority. Rich Gannon, a former NFL quarterback who's a CBS game analyst, said fewer coaches these days want the headache of making personnel decisions. And teams aren't willing to pay the monster, guaranteed salaries of a coach with that much power.
"I think they realized the days of paying $7 million or $6 million are over," Gannon said. "If they're not willing to adjust a little bit for their demands, they're not going to get hired."
There's also the matter of expectations. The Cowher-to-Kansas City Facebook page contains a photograph of the coach hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Steelers on the Super Bowl in 2006, and there's little doubt that he'd be expected to win another title with the Chiefs. Anything less would be disappointing, and in today's rapid-fire NFL, it's unclear how long even Cowher or Gruden would get to make good on the expectations.
It's understandable that they might not want that kind of trouble, if there are injuries or if the team doesn't immediately win.
"Maybe there's a little bit of ego involved, too," Harlan said."...You go home from that studio or that game; you don't have to sit and worry about guys hanging out all night, or injuries to a significant player, and I've lost nine in a row. You go home and have a glass of wine and call it a night."
Still, Harlan said he has come to know former coaches in the broadcast booths or studios around the nation. If they have coached before, there's a good chance that, at some point, they'll want to coach again.
"Once a coach, always a coach," he said. "I don't think it ever leaves you. You're always itching to get back, because you think you can turn a situation around. You think, this time I can do it better."