Last season Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster sparked an ongoing debate about whether his pregame dancing provided added motivation for opposing teams.
Reading Bill Cowher’s new memoir, Heart and Steel, its clear where the former Steelers head coach stands on this issue.
“Respect may well be the strongest motivational tool for professional athletes,” writes Cowher, which is why he and his staff “compiled the juiciest opponent quotes from the week and [would] stick them in the players’ lockers.”
“I always tried to make each game personal,” writes Cowher, elaborating about his philosophy. “We played just sixteen, so each of them had significance. I wanted to find ways to make sure each individual’s pride was at stake every game….”
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That sometimes included using video clips to make his point. For example, in December 2005 the Steelers lost to the Bengals in Pittsburgh by a score of 38-31. After the game, Cincinnati wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiped his shoes with a Terrible Towel.
“As soon as I saw that clip (which the Bengals tweeted out prior to playing the Steelers in 2020), I thought, I’ll remember that one,” recalls Cowher in the book.
A little more than a month later, the No. 6 seeded Steelers faced the No. 3 seeded Bengals in an AFC Wild Card game in Cincinnati. The night before the game Cowher wrapped up a team meeting by replaying the Houshmandzadeh clip.
“When we win, we win with humility. And if we lose, we lose with grace. That wasn’t humility,” he told his team. “So tomorrow, when you go out there, just think about him wiping his shoes with something that signifies us as a team. And if you have a chance tomorrow, let him know you didn’t appreciate it. That’s it. Good night.”
The clip “did the trick” adds Cowher, recalling how Houshmandzadeh got hit all game long en route to a 31-17 victory, one which sparked the following locker room celebration—a celebration that former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis later tried to turn into a rallying point of his own.
Fast Forward to 2020
Last season Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster provided a steady stream of bulletin board material to Pittsburgh’s opponents, including the Bengals. Prior to a Monday night game in December, Smith-Schuster danced on Cincinnati’s logo, prompting a response from the Bengals that included a monstrous hit on Smith-Schuster, courtesy of safety Vonn Bell.
A week earlier, Buffalo Bills safety Jordan Poyer claimed that Smith-Schuster’s pregame TikTok video gave the Bills “extra fire” on the way to a 26-15 win over Pittsburgh.
Then, most famously, Smith-Schuster made his “Browns is the Browns” comment just prior to January’s Wild Card game between the two teams, which the Steelers went on to lose 48-37.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin tried to discount the notion that Smith-Schuster’s dancing and quotes served as added motivation for Pittsburgh’s opponents, saying, “We’re professionals. I doubt any of those antics or things of that nature are legitimate motivating factors as you step into professional stadiums. But it’s about respect, and so we’ll have a conversation.”
Smith-Schuster Returns on a One-Year Contract
Of course, the Steelers went on to re-sign Smith-Schuster to a one-year deal that keeps him with the team through the 2021 season. He has insisted that he won’t stop being authentic—that he won’t stop being himself—so it ought to be interesting to see if he’s more restrained in terms of his self-promotional activities in 2021, at least in terms of those that have a direct impact on his coaches and teammates.
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