Pittsburgh and Buffalo are incredibly similar cities in the Rust Belt of America's northeast region. The similarities in their storied football histories pretty much end there. The Steelers have won the most Super Bowls in NFL history. The Bills have lost all four they've played. But in recent years, the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers have developed some very close ties thanks to some shifting personnel.
When Bills owner Ralph Wilson fired John Butler following the 2000 season, he did not promote from within or hire someone with organizational ties. Wilson hired former Steelers Director of Football Operations Tom Donahoe, ostensibly the team's General Manager, to fill the GM post in Buffalo. He gave Donahoe the most power anyone in the organization has ever had when he named him team president, a title only Wilson himself had ever held.
Wilson gave Donahoe the keys to the franchise and the team did not fare well during his tenure, going 31-49 with only one winning season. | Eric Lesh breaks down Donahoe's failures
While with the Bills, Donahoe was able to lure several former Steelers coaches to Buffalo. In 2003, Dick LeBeau joined the staff as assistant head coach and defensive adviser. While he stayed for only one season before rejoining the Steelers as defensive coordinator, he made a huge imprint on Buffalo, helping the Bills jump to number two in the defensive rankings.
When the Bills were looking for a head coach in 2004, Donahoe hired Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. Mularkey went 14-18 with the Bills before resigning after Donahoe was fired. Mularkey is the coach that brought the Bills closest to the playoffs, when in 2004 the team was one win away but fell to the Steelers in Week 17.
Since the firing of Donahoe following the 2005 season, the Bills have continued to look to the Steelers organization for guidance. And who wouldn't? In four years since Buffalo fired Donahoe, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls despite having two different head coaches and playing in a relatively small market.
When the Bills were seeking a new head coach following the 2009 season, many speculated that former Steelers Super Bowl winner Bill Cowher would be the perfect man for the job. Fans went so far as to put up billboards saying, "We want this guy" with a picture of the coach. The team met with Cowher but ultimately did not hire the coach. Instead Cowher recommended his former offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey.
Gailey was with the Steelers from 1994-1997 as wide receivers coach and later offensive coordinator. The team made the playoffs both years despite starting Mike Tomcazk and Kordell Stewart at quarterback, whose best seasons were with Gailey as coordinator. When Gailey was hired by the Cowboys to take over their head coaching job, the Steelers missed the playoffs and the offense was in turmoil.
In February of this year, Buffalo once again went to Pittsburgh to shore up their front office when they hired assistant general manager Doug Whaley. In Whaley's 12 years with the Steelers, Pittsburgh advanced to the playoffs seven times and captured two Super Bowl titles in three championship game appearances.
One of Whaley's moves since coming in as assistant general manager was to claim former Steelers guard Kraig Urbik off waivers. Urbik may get the start this week if the injured Eric Wood can't go. He's likely to see time spelling Wood at the very least.
It's not just a one-way street, either. When Buffalo's coaching staff was let go earlier this year, offensive line coach Sean Kugler found work as Pittsburgh's new offensive line coach. Former Bills tackle Jonathan Scott followed coach Kugler there and is starting at left tackle for them this week.
The Bills have hoped that hiring successful people from a successful organization like the Steelers would bring them similar success. It hasn't happened yet, but there is still hope that Gailey and Whaley can help deliver for a Bills fan base like they delivered for Steelers nation.