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Savran: Stewart blossoms into QB of future

Sunday, December 24, 2000

Tough love. Being hard on someone so as to instill the self-discipline necessary to excel. To even set oneself up as a villain, a target for resentment to provide motivation for the pupil to fulfill his potential.

And in the end, the one being loved tough understands that the bad guy was acting in his best interests, merely seeking to bring to the surface what he knew was deep inside. And he comes to appreciate the mean ol' Dad, the mean ol' drill sergeant, the mean ol' football coach, and a bond is forged for a lifetime.

Sounds like a great plot for one of those cheesy movies of the week. On rare occasions, it happens in real life. It may have happened here.

At the end of last season, the Steelers were without a quarterback. Kordell Stewart's membership in the quarterback club had been revoked. There was some doubt as to whether the revocation was temporary or permanent. Many questioned pulling him from his role as a quarterback and the subsequent reassignment to wide receiver. I believe they were right to do the former; not quite so sure about the latter.

As a quarterback, Kordell was like a man stuck in quicksand. The harder he struggled to get out, the faster he sank. The best thing was to get him away from it.

Stripping him of his job was one thing. Stripping him of his job description was another. The psychological effects should have been more carefully calculated. The wound was deep, the scar remains.

But that leads us to where he's at today.

Not only has his status as a quarterback been restored, but this week his status as the Steelers' quarterback of the future was reaffirmed by Bill Cowher! How did we get here from there?

I believe it goes back to that point when Stewart was demoted. Although he accepted his demotion with good grace, he seethed inside.

Further, at the end of last season, Kordell either got the idea 3/4 or was told directly by Cowher 3/4 that it was time to grow up. Time to stop blaming everyone and everything but himself. He had lost the confidence of his coaches, and, more importantly, that of his teammates.

You'll recall that he apologized to the team after his outburst on the sidelines in Tampa two years ago. Apologies may be accepted, but they don't totally erase the transgression that made the apology necessary. That comes through deeds, and his mates were watching him with arched eyebrow.

This, in essence, was Kordell's off-season program. Bemoaning his fate to whomever, whenever, was no longer going to be tolerated. It couldn't have been easy to hear that.

And if, in Kordell's mind, Cowher had become the mean ol' Dad, the mean ol' drill sergeant, the mean ol' football coach, so be it. Whatever the motivation, it's a tribute to Stewart's character and drive to succeed that he has responded and appears to have resurrected his career. Some people mature only when they're forced to.

As for the coach, he took a gamble. Psychologically, he could have lost Stewart forever by issuing such a stark challenge. But clearly, it would be worth sacrificing a bit of a personal relationship to salvage his quarterback.

Repeatedly this season Cowher has said of Kordell, "I like the way he's responded, the way he's handled things." I suspect that's a reference to the gauntlet the coaches and management laid before him. No more kid gloves, no more special dispensations. It has been reported that Stewart still harbors resentment about being benched and banished to wide receiver, and that perhaps his relationship with Cowher has been damaged, or at the very least, altered.

But Cowher had to choose. He'd been widely criticized for the way he'd handled Stewart... first for being too soft on him, then for being too hard on him. Well, if the latter is true, I think it was because of the former.

They certainly weren't getting the desired results by protecting and catering to Kordell's fragile psyche. And because of that, Cowher decided to change tactics. Tough love.

Kordell may not have liked it, but he has responded to it. And if he has set the coach up as the bad guy, the source and target of an anger that pushes him to excel, that's probably OK with the mean ol' football coach. Whatever it takes, as a former mean ol' football coach used to say.


Stan Savran is the co-host of "SportsBeat" on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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