Amid mounting speculation that he will step aside after a 15th campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers, head coach Bill Cowher acknowledged Wednesday that a decision on his future plans must be made shortly after the conclusion of this season.
"There will be something at the end of the year," Cowher said. "I'll sit back and put a lot of thought into it and make a decision accordingly. Right now, my focus is purely on trying to find a way to win these last three games and see where that takes us."
He will not, Cowher said, keep Steelers ownership waiting too long for a decision.
Cowher's remarks, among the broadest he has articulated in addressing his future, were made during a Wednesday conference call with Charlotte, N.C.-area reporters. The Steelers face the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte on Sunday, and the conference call was part of the standard NFL protocol for pregame coverage.
There has been widespread speculation, since it was revealed in March that Cowher had purchased a $2.5 million home in Raleigh, N.C., that he might retire after the 2006 season. Cowher's wife, Kaye, and the couple's youngest daughter have moved permanently into the home. Cowher has visited them in Raleigh several times during the season.
The topic of his future has been revisited numerous times during the season, and Cowher has mostly responded by saying that his focus for now is on his football team. In the last few seasons, Cowher has said that he now reviews his coaching career a year at a time, revisiting it at the end of each campaign.
Cowher, 49, is under contract through the 2007 season.
Steelers officials have typically extended Cowher's contract when it had two years remaining. There were extension discussions earlier this year but, unlike past springs, they did not culminate in a new deal for Cowher, who has coached the Steelers since 1992. It is likely the subject of an extension will again be broached after this season, but not even high-ranking team officials seem to have a good feel about which way Cowher is leaning.
Some close to the organization have suggested that Cowher has not demonstrated the same passion for his job this year as he did in previous seasons. The Steelers, who won Super Bowl XL only about 10 months ago, are 6-7 with three games remaining and at best a long shot for a wild-card spot.
When it was originally reported that Cowher had purchased the house in Raleigh, some felt that he might want to coach at North Carolina State, his alma mater. But the school, which fired Chuck Amato after a disappointing season, last week hired Boston College's Tom O'Brien as its new coach.
There has also been speculation that Cowher, who is believed to earn about $4 million per year, might take a year off, do some broadcasting and then return to the sideline with a franchise that would pay him more in line with the spiraling salaries in the league. But because he is under contract for another season and his contract will essentially be frozen, Cowher would not be free to sign on with another NFL team.
Cowher did tell the Carolina reporters that he planned to make his home in Raleigh. Asked if the results of this season will have a bearing on the decision about his future, Cowher said they will not.
"It won't be a knee-jerk reaction," Cowher said. "It will be something that is well thought-out."
Counting the playoffs, Cowher has compiled a 159-98-1 record since succeeding Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll in 1992. He has led the Steelers to eight division championships, 10 playoff berths, six AFC title games and two Super Bowl appearances.