When Bill Cowher finally triumphed and secured the Pittsburgh Steelers victory at Super Bowl XL, announcer Bill Hargrove exclaimed “They did it the hard way.” In a nutshell, it was not just the journey of the team in 2005, it was also the tale of Cowher’s coaching legacy in Pittsburgh.
It’s easy to forget that the heavy criticisms thrown at Cowher after his repeated failures to capture that elusive “One for the Thumb” despite bringing the Steelers as close as a coach could possibly do. When he was hired, he faced the daunting task of being the successor to Chuck Noll. He faced external backlash from the media and fans for coming up short in four AFC Championship Games at home. He endured a power struggle with Director of Player Personnel Tom Donahoe that got so bad, Cowher tendered his resignation to Dan Rooney.
Rooney would not accept the resignation and made the (at the time) controversial decision to retain Bill Cowher as coach and part ways with Donahoe. From his first interview, Rooney recognized that Cowher was too special and could not allow him to depart. Cowher had a unique ability to relate to the players and earn both their trust and respect. He had an infectious enthusiasm and never lost the team despite facing adversity and enduring losses that might even break the spirit of another coach.
Bill Cowher’s First Season
When Noll retired, he told his wife that the Steelers were a Super Bowl team, but he was no longer the man to guide them. But when Bill Cowher said he saw “no apparent weaknesses” entering the 1992 season, few took him seriously. He proved the doubters wrong as he led the Steelers to an 11-5 record, securing the AFC Central Division and the #1 seed in the AFC.
To say there were no challenges would not be the same thing. Noll was disengaged in his final years, and it was felt throughout the team. The offense and defense had a divide that continued to grow. Offensive players were so frustrated with Joe Walton that only a last-minute interference by Noll prevented the offense from boycotting the coordinator. The players were not united and were going their own way.
Cowher met with LB Hardy Nickerson to discuss the season and the meeting was over in five minutes. He didn’t want to talk about the Steelers and flatly told Cowher he didn’t want to be there anymore, and would appreciate anything he could do to get him out of there. Cowher got a similar reaction when attempting to meet with FS Thomas Everett, who refused to report to camp and demanded a trade. When Cowher met Chuck Noll for the first time, he was ecstatic. They would be sharing a plane ride as Noll was headed to his Florida home and he was on a scouting trip to evaluate Levon Kirkland. Cowher thought it was a great opportunity to pick Noll’s brain about all things Steelers football. But it didn’t take long for Cowher to realize that Noll’s coaching message would not be one to interfere. He responded with short sentences like “It’s good” to Cowher’s inquiries. Although he was taken aback at first, it made sense. Cowher came to realize that Noll and Rooney felt the same way about the significance of changing coaches with someone new and unfamiliar. It occurred to Cowher that the reason Dan Rooney hired him was because he did not want the status quo anymore.
Adapting and Changing to Win
Cowher was never one for the status quo. He built teams, developed players, and mentored coaches to the point the rest of the league took notice. Owners with bigger pockets purged the Steelers roster and while not as celebrated as other coaches, had an extremely large coaching tree develop under his guidance. Yet Cowher kept finding ways to adapt and win. The year following Super Bowl XXX, his QB Neil O’Donnell and RB Bam Morris would depart, albeit for quite different reasons. Cowher continued to overcome and maximize everything he had from the team. He was not hesitant to change assistant coaches that he felt weren’t moving the team forward. He was once questioned by an assistant coach who wanted to talk about his dismissal and stated, “I knew you were going to do this” while Cowher thought that if he knew there was a problem, why didn’t he do something to correct it? This was after trying to defend himself and basically told Cowher he wasn’t justified in firing him. Cowher admitted to considering changing his mind but stayed true to his original decision. He vowed not to be subtle with the expectations to any of his coaches again.
A Quarterback Away
Cowher managed to win playoff games with five different starting quarterbacks as the Steelers struggled to compliment their trademark physical defense and running game with a quality passing game. He felt that his best team and best chance for a Super Bowl was in 1997, when Kordell Stewart blossomed under the tutelage of Chan Gailey. But quarterback seemed to be the weak spot that Cowher just could not overcome as the three-INT game seemed to become the norm as the Steelers season ended in disappointment. Stewart would never quite be the same again without Gailey and by 2002, it became clear that they could advance no further under “Slash.” Tommy Maddox arose from the unexpected and gave Cowher a weapon he had never seen before with an effective passing game. Cowher was never one to not take a chance and tried to change the Steelers to a passing first team, to disastrous results. But those results bore fruit when it positioned Cowher to draft the first franchise QB of his career: Ben Roethlisberger.
When Roethlisberger was forced into action much sooner than expected, Cowher handled the rookie QBs first season to perfection. They advised without over-coaching, kept it simple as possible, and kept his options to one side of the field. Roethlisberger had a natural gift for improvising, which complimented the instruction of never having more than two reads. They rode that magic all the way to a 15-1 season, where the magic ran out for both rookie and coach in the AFC Championship.
A Champion at Last
When a surprising midseason slump knocked the Steelers to 7-5, Cowher pulled into his hat and pulled out a rabbit. He managed to convince his team the playoffs started that week vs. the Chicago Bears. He challenged each player to evaluate their previous games performances with a grade and then compared their grades with what the coaches evaluation. Watching the film showed the players they weren’t playing to their standard, trying to be the hero, and believing what they had done in the past mattered when it didn’t. So began the Steelers 8-game winning streak towards the Super Bowl.
When the playoffs started, Cowher was ready with the finest coaching of his career. In the first game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Cowher let the clip of T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiping his cleats with the Terrible Towel be his pre-game pep talk. Against the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts, Cowher learned from their previous encounter in the regular season and was prepared with a silent count. The Steelers were firmly in control of the game when Troy Polamalu intercepted Peyton Manning, but the officials made an outrageous call in overturning it. This was perhaps the pivotal moment for Cowher, as he recognized that the longer it was taking to review, it was likely to be reversed. He did not lose his cool or get upset, instead turning towards his defense, and keeping them focused. While the Colts did score, the defense stepped up with major stops on the Colts when it mattered the most, maintaining their composure.
The AFC Championship would be the opposite of any that Cowher had experienced before. This time it was the Steelers defense hounding the opposing QB, forcing four turnovers. Even when a TD run by Jerome Bettis was called back because of a questionable penalty, Roethlisberger threaded the needle to find Hines Ward on the following play to put the Steelers up 24-3 at the half — and it was Roethlisberger that made the difference. This Steelers team was not running their way to the Super Bowl, but it was on the arm of Big Ben that three teams fell. In Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks, the young QB struggled in the big moment, but the Steelers defense would not let the league’s leading offense gain any advantage. Some people called into question some penalties and they may have had a point. But the Steelers had to overcome some questionable calls (and a New England Patriots team that clearly cheated in 2004), to reaching the Super Bowl and Cowher kept his calm. Mike Holmgren could not as he complained to the sideline reporter heading into halftime. Focusing on excuses in a close game proved not to help as the Steelers won the game by 11 points.
Cowher had been the Steelers coach for 15 seasons and had assembled the best team of his tenure when he walked away from the game. Like Noll before him, time had caught up with the head coach who wanted to spend more time with his family. Cowher was more than capable of piling up several more rings with the team he constructed with Kevin Colbert, but it was time. It was a decision that delayed his induction to the Hall of Fame. He made the right choice for himself, enabling him to spend the limited time he would have with his wife Kaye Cowher before her unfortunate passing. He was a family man first and along with his three daughters, they lived by a motto of finishing what you started. That lesson carried on through as his daughters asked if their mother was going to make it and Cowher refused to give up, stating that as long as she is alive, there is hope. He would remain with her, fighting to the very end.
Bill Cowher was a man who finished what he started. He did it as the Steelers coach and with his football legacy, which fittingly “did it the hard way” with his long overdue induction into the Hall of Fame.