Cowher set to quit as Steelers' coach after 15 seasons

Ready to end the suspense over his future, and prepared to step aside for at least one season, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher will announce at a Friday news conference that he is retiring after 15 seasons with the team.

Operating on a timeline established during a Tuesday morning meeting with Steelers ownership, Cowher was originally set to return to Pittsburgh next Monday to reveal his plans. But after driving to his new home in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, and spending several days with his family there, Cowher apparently decided there was no need to delay a decision that has been one of the NFL's worst kept secrets in recent weeks.

Cowher apprised Steelers owner Dan Rooney on Thursday afternoon that he had made up his mind and saw no sense in delaying an announcement until next week. The Steelers on Thursday night announced the Friday news conference, which is set for 1 p.m. ET. Although the team did not announce a decision, word of Cowher's resignation was delivered to his assistant coaches.

The consensus among high-ranking team officials, and sources around the NFL for several weeks, was that Cowher, 49, would retire to spend more time with his family. In fact, it would have been stunning if Cowher had returned from his North Carolina hiatus and announced he was coming back to the team to fulfill the final year of his current contract.

There has been rampant speculation since last May, when it was revealed that Cowher and his wife had purchased a home in Raleigh that 2006 would be his last season with the team. That speculation was fueled when contract discussions between the Steelers and Cowher's representative failed to produce an extension to his deal.

It's believed the Steelers offered Cowher a two- or three-year extension that would have raised his salary into the $6 million range at the back end of the deal. Cowher is believed to earn about $4 million per year under his existing contract and some feel he will return after a year away from the game, and having recharged his batteries, and sign a more lucrative contract elsewhere.

He has been purposely cryptic about his plans but, in a late-season conference call with Carolina-area media, Cowher acknowledged he would resolve his status for the future shortly after the season ended.

Cowher huddled early Tuesday morning with Dan Rooney and team president Art Rooney II before driving to Raleigh to join his wife and the couple's youngest daughter, who lived there all season. During the Tuesday meeting, Steelers ownership did not attempt to press Cowher for a more expeditious decision on his future, and agreed that he should take some time to deliberate.

What altered the timetable, which called for a decision next week, is unknown. A source on Thursday night said the Steelers did not force Cowher to accelerate his decision-making process for fear the team might lose some of its own potential in-house candidates to other teams.

Within the Steelers' inner circle, it had been widely accepted that a decision would come early next week, and that Cowher would likely walk away from the NFL for at least a year. One organizational source said that he felt Cowher "had one foot out the door" as early as last spring. Cowher has conceded that, after the team's Super Bowl XL victory 11 months ago, he considered retirement.

Once his existing contract with the Steelers expires following the 2007 season, he would be free to seek employment elsewhere. If Cowher exits the game now, many believe he will explore jobs in broadcasting for the 2007 season.

Typical of Pittsburgh management, the Steelers will allow the situation to play out, and will then react accordingly. Even though the Steelers slumped to 8-8 in 2006, the roster remains a talented one, and the club is capable of a quick rebound.

For those reasons, and the stability and support of ownership, the Pittsburgh vacancy will be regarded as the plum job of all the current openings. Steelers management is confident it will find a suitable successor.

In-house candidates almost certainly would include assistant head coach Russ Grimm and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, both of whom are candidates for other current openings around the league as well.

By making his decision known Friday, Cowher gives the Steelers the ability to talk to some of the assistant coaches currently in the playoffs. The NFL gives teams looking for head coaches until Sunday night to set up and conduct interviews with coaches currently in the playoffs. That could put the Steelers in position to talk to Cam Cameron of the Chargers and Ron Rivera of the Bears among other assistants.

In his 15 seasons, Cowher has compiled a 161-99-1, including playoff games. Under his stewardship, the Steelers have won eight division titles, earned 10 playoff berths, advanced to the conference championship game six times, appeared in two Super Bowl games and won one.

Information from ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and The Associated Press was used in this report.