NEW CASTLE —
One of the great misconceptions in Pittsburgh sports history is that former Steelers coach Bill Cowher ruled with an iron fist. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A case could be made that Cowher was a soft touch with his players. Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis made just such a case when he talked about wide receiver Plaxico Burress leaving the team to go play for the New York Giants and their very real tough-guy coach, Tom Coughlin.
"I know [Burress] is not a stickler for the rules and Coughlin is all about rules ... Coach Cowher allowed us a lot of flexibility. He never fined us for anything. You came late, you never got fined. You never got reprimanded for anything."
This is relevant this morning because Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has come under fire for not being tough enough with his players. The team is a disappointing 2-3. Penalties are up. One player became a tweeting fool last week, taking on at least some members of the most supportive fan base in sports.
Another player was arrested early Sunday morning after going on a South Side rampage that, if the charges hold up in court, should lead to serious prison time. If I had a dime for every complaint I've heard about Tomlin this week, I'd be a wealthy man.
"The Steelers are undisciplined." "Tomlin is an undisciplined coach." "Tomlin cares more about being the players' friend than their boss." And my favorite: "This kind of stuff didn't happen under Cowher and Chuck Noll."
Nonsense. This kind of stuff happened under Cowher and even the great Hall of Famer Noll.
Remember the 1973 incident involving former Steelers defensive tackle Ernie Holmes? He fired shots at a police helicopter that was pursuing him in a chase on the Ohio Turnpike. Was that Noll's fault? Was he an undisciplined coach?
If Tomlin has made a mistake, it's that he has treated his players as men. Cowher and Noll did the same thing. Unfortunately, the players occasionally act like juveniles or — worse — criminals.
It's tougher to coach today than it was during Cowher's time or especially Noll's time. Character isn't as prized a quality as it used to be. Too often, talent trumps all. Good players get second chances after abhorrent behavior. Great players get third, fourth and even fifth chances.
You hear a lot about the Steelers Way, but it's no different than most teams. The organization stands behind its good players when they screw up. They kept quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after he was accused twice, though never charged, of sexual assault. They gave linebacker James Harrison a six-year, $51.175 million contract after he was involved in a domestic abuse incident. They made kicker Jeff Reed their franchise player and agreed to pay him $2.814 million after he twice was involved with police in alcohol-related incidents.
But heaven help the marginal player who gets in trouble. The Steelers were quick to release wide receiver Cedrick Wilson after a domestic incident at roughly the same time as Harrison's. It easy to take a moral stand with a guy who can't help you win. There's no question the Steelers will stick with serial Twitter violator Rashard Mendenhall. He's a good player.
Mendenhall, who issued offensive tweets in May 2011 showing sympathy for the death of Osama bin Laden, was back on Twitter after the team's loss Thursday night to the Tennessee Titans. He took on critical fans, saying that real fans are supportive of the team.
It's never smart for an athlete to get into a hissing contest with the team's customers. He can't win.
But what Mendenhall did was nothing compared to the headaches caused by rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu Sunday morning. Ta'amu was arrested after allegedly fleeing police while driving drunk, nearly running down three police officers and hitting a number of parking cars, injuring a woman in one.
Ta'amu, who didn't dress for any of the five games, might not be good enough to get out of that mess. I don't blame Tomlin for Ta'amu being a jerk, just as I don't blame Noll for the Holmes incident. Sadly, these things happen to all coaches.
Even tough-guy Coughlin had problems with Burress, who was playing for the Giants when he walked into a Manhattan club in November 2008 with an unlicensed handgun and shot himself in the leg.
Maybe Tomlin could do more to correct the Steelers' penalty problem, but I'm not sure what. I know he preaches all the time about penalties. The thing is, the players don't always get the message. After a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2006, Cowher, angry about his team taking dumb penalties, including an excessive celebration call against running backs Willie Parker and Verron Haynes and a taunting call on safety Mike Logan, said, "That will not happen again. That's on me. Trust me, that will not happen again."
In the next game against the Atlanta Falcons, wide receivers Nate Washington, Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes were penalized for excessive celebration. In the game after that against the Oakland Raiders, linebackers Joey Porter and Larry Foote and safety Anthony Smith were penalized for personal fouls.
"I guess never say never," Cowher said.
If you want to blame Tomlin for something, blame him and general manager Kevin Colbert for not drafting better defensive players of late. Defensive end Cameron Heyward was a No. 1 pick in 2011 but can't get on the field. Linebacker Jason Worilds was a No. 2 pick in '10 but largely has been a disappointment. Defensive end Ziggy Hood was a No. 1 pick in '09 but hasn't made much of an impact since the '10 season.
Blame Tomlin all you want for that 2-3 record. He's a fair target. But know this: He is not an undisciplined coach.
(Ron Cook is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.)