By Jason Keidel
The bulldog’s jaw. The thin finger of hair that might pass for a mustache. The shards of spit spraying from his mouth in full motivational fury. The thick forearms bulging from his rolled-up sleeves. His restless sideline countenance, pacing like a big cat up and down the chalk. And, of course, the former player. Not a star, but one who lived along the margins, who got a paycheck more by guile than gifts.
If there’s a central casting for football coaches, Bill Cowher is Exhibit A. If he were a mafioso his nickname would be The Jaw (Chin is already taken).
So it’s fitting that Cowher not only became an NFL coach, but also of his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who hired him in January 1992. The Steelers need a new head coach as often as the NFL hires a commissioner, with three men roaming the sideline since 1969. (By contrast, the Cleveland Browns have had nine coaches since 2000.)
And while he was a pup by coaching standards, at 35, Cowher now finds himself celebrating his 60th birthday today — a quarter century since he went from back-office obscurity to a minted member of football’s aristocracy.
No great coaches were great players, but most played pro football just long enough to absorb its rhythms and learn its quirks. Like Don Shula, Tom Landry and Chuck Noll. Others were at least prominent college players. Cowher was a special teams grunt for the Cleveland Browns, under Marty Schottenheimer and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Hard to think of a better coaching education. Cowher then became a coach under Schottenheimer, and followed him to Kansas City, where he became defensive coordinator before migrating to Pittsburgh in ’92. And as a native of football-rich Western Pennsylvania, Cowher was keenly aware of the legacy he was charged with maintaining.
It’s hard to think of larger or more daunting shoes to fill than those of Chuck Noll, who, like many of his legendary peers, likely coached longer than he should have. Similar Landry and Shula, Noll lost his grip on the modern era, or modern player, or both. But Noll still was the progenitor of the Steelers dynasty, leading them literally from the outhouse to the NFL penthouse in the ’70s. Procurer of the four Super Bowl Trophies that surely greeted Cowher at the door upon his hiring.
Cowher was also a resounding success, infusing a suddenly solemn team and town with what the denizens called Cowher Power (pronounced “Cahr Pahr” in the native accent). While the laconic, iconic Noll was stoic to a fault, Cowher coached with the same frothing fervor he demanded from his players. In 15 years, he had the best overall record in the NFL, leading the club to two Super Bowls, finally bagging that elusive ring. He handed Mike Tomlin a robust lineup to continue the fruitful lineage. Two years after Cowher left, the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl, the most of any NFL team, giving them the unique handle of Sixburgh.
Cowher has now been a studio analyst with CBS Sports for a decade, perhaps making him more mainstream in that role than his former one. But he would not be in the studio, or etched in NFL culture, if not for his time in Pittsburgh.
Just as birthdays serve as personal milestones, they can also double as mileposts for the rest of us. Cowher has a unique place in the hearts of Pittsburgh natives, and everyone who bleeds black & gold. Like yours truly, who was just 22 when Cowher was hired, and now, at 47, am also reminded of time, memory and mortality.
At 49, Cowher was still a young man when he resigned as Steelers coach. Thus it became a rite of every January, after the bloodletting of fired NFL coaches, for his name to drop into the spin cycle of rumor. But unlike so many head coaches whose facades of retirement crack at the first big offer, Cowher remained away from the gridiron.
Bill Cowher realized there was a life beyond the football field, that there are six days beyond Sunday, to be filled with family and friends and life. He figured out a way to make a living from the NFL without the inherent burnout and endless nights nodding under the horizontal cone of a projector’s light, dissecting the next opponent. Maybe some forlorn NFL franchise was robbed of his coaching acumen, but in the process he may have taught many more a life lesson.
Happy Birthday, Coach.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.