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NFL: Donahoe leaves bitterness behind

Wednesday, March 28, 2001

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

PALM DESERT, Calif. -- It was fitting that, as Tom Donahoe checked into the hotel the other day, the first people he came across were Bill Cowher and Art Rooney II.

The last time those three crossed paths, Donahoe's trail turned into a plank that led off the side of the Steelers' ship.

Donahoe's path eventually led to Miami and a temporary consultant's job with the Dolphins, to ESPN's studios in Bristol, Conn., and in January, to Buffalo where the Bills doubled his salary to $1 million and tripled his responsibilities by making him president and general manager.

He actually should thank Cowher, Rooney and Rooney's father, Dan, for firing him last year, paying him $500,000 to spend more time with his wife and children and putting him on a path that ultimately might bring him more satisfaction and rewards.

But he won't.

Both sides remain bitter to some extent about the split that came after the 1999 season, when the Rooneys decided that Cowher and Donahoe no longer could work together and chose to flush Donahoe out.

A year later, Donahoe is at the NFL owners' meetings as Buffalo's top man, back in the league as the undisputed boss of a team that will play in Pittsburgh in August and against the Steelers in Buffalo during the regular season.

But before either of those meetings on the field, came the one on the first day of the NFL meetings. Cowher, Rooney and Donahoe exchanged quick hellos, no one offered a handshake, and that was that. Civil, but not friendly.

"My feelings will always be cordial," said Donahoe, who carries a leather briefcase with the Bills' logo and the initials "TD." "I don't agree totally with what happened. To me, it's water over the dam and everybody needs to move on. They went in one direction and I went in another one. That's just kind of the way things happen sometime in this league."

Said Dan Rooney: "It's good he's back. It's a great opportunity for him. I wish him well."

No split in the Steelers' family caused so much discord other than the day in 1987, when Dan Rooney fired his brother, Art, from his longtime job as personnel director.

Donahoe had been hired as a scout in '86. He rose up through the organization until he became director of football operations in '92 and recommended Cowher as a coaching candidate.

It took eight years for that partnership to unravel, and now Donahoe has a fresh start with more power than ever.

He debated whether he wanted to leave Pittsburgh, his lifelong home, and turned down several opportunities before taking the one in Buffalo.

"It's excellent for the league and for Tom," said Tom Modrak, the Eagles' director of football operations and Donahoe's former right-hand man with the Steelers. "I mean, he's obviously one of the top executives in the league, and for him being back in is great for Buffalo and the league.

"He'll give them continuity and stability."

Donahoe took the job knowing he had unpopular decisions to make. First, he had to hire a coach. He waited until after the Super Bowl in order to talk to Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, the only one to do so.

Nevertheless, he was criticized for not hiring Lewis, an African-American, in favor of Greg Williams, Tennessee's defensive coordinator.

Cleveland, Houston, Kansas City and Washington did not talk to Lewis and escaped the criticism.

"We were determined to higher the best person and we did that," Donahoe said. "We feel time will prove that out. We didn't think it was controversial, but it was reacted to."

Donahoe, Williams and others then decided to get rid of popular quarterback Doug Flutie in favor of Rob Johnson. It was part of a housecleaning that got the Bills $20 million under the salary cap.

All the time, Donahoe has been living in a hotel room near the Bills' offices in Orchard Park, N.Y. His family remains in Mt. Lebanon until after the school year, when they will join him in Buffalo.

"We've been in Pittsburgh all our lives," Donahoe said. "It's some place we'll always consider home, so that was hard. You never want to do anything to hurt your kids. We wrestled with that part of the decision -- is this going to be the best thing for our children?

"When it came down to it, it was probably a personal desire to give this another shot somewhere under different circumstances and with more authority. We felt comfortable enough with the city of Buffalo, the neighborhoods, the school districts, that when we put the whole thing together, we felt it was something we should do."

Donahoe had a chance to join the Dolphins, where his friend Dave Wannstedt is coach. But South Florida did not suit him or his family.

"I like Buffalo a lot. I like the area. It's a blue-collar town. It's similar to Pittsburgh in that respect," he said. "People work hard, people are passionate about football, and that's what you want. They react to everything we do. Sometimes they overreact, but that's what fans do. That's healthy. We want that type of enthusiasm and that type of support."

He and his new coach get along well, although he and Cowher did as well after two months.

"Our personalities have matched better than either one of us could have believed," Williams said. "He's a real grinder as far as work ethic. He's structured. He's a guy who believes you have to treat people the right way and there's a right way and a wrong way to treat people.

"He does a good job of empowering people, of making everyone feel like they have a viable part of the process."

Said Donahoe: "I believe strongly in the head coach we have and the coaching staff we assembled. And, if we give him players, he'll be successful."

It worked that way in Pittsburgh, too. For a while.

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