"Cowher understands the fine line between pushing a player and pissing him off," says cornerback Tim McKyer. "He's the perfect mix of hard and gentle. But just when you think he's a teddy bear, he can turn into a tiger."
No kidding. At a Cowher training camp, drills are run with military precision and meals are mandatory. Missing a lunch can cost you $200. Cowher is wound so tightly that he has been known to get into heated arguments with Dan Rooney in the executive offices. But the coach reserves his most ferocious tirades for players who commit mental mistakes on the field. "When he gets in your face you know the saliva's going to fly," says linebacker Greg Lloyd. "When he gives you that shower you just hope it's raining, so you can't tell if it's rain or spit."
After each game, each practice, Cowher drives straight home to Kaye and their three daughters. He has no radio show. No TV show. He doesn't do ads for Fords or frozen yogurt. He exists inside his two passions, family and football, exclusive of everything else.
He is so focused that one afternoon he was seated next to a woman at a civic luncheon and politely asked, "What is it you do?" The woman responded, "I'm the mayor of Pittsburgh."
The Steelers have always been about faces: the well-worn mug of the late owner, Art Rooney, with a stogie jammed into his mouth; the stoic facade of Noll beneath the black wool cap; the ever-expanding forehead of Terry Bradshaw; Jack Lambert's nose pointing east and west with its ever-present trickle of blood; and the gracious grin of Mean Joe Greene after trading his jersey for a Coke. But until Cowher arrived, no Steeler was ever called Face.
Orthodontists describe Cowher's most distinctive facial feature as a prognathic mandible. In layman's terms, he has the jawbone of a blue whale. The nickname caught on during Cowher's adolescence because his visage frightened other children. "When Bill played for Carlynton High, his face was so intense that our players were scared to death of him," says former South Park High coach Tom Donahoe, now the Steeler director of operations. "He even had some of my coaches intimidated."
During those days Laird took Billy to football games, first at Forbes Field and later at Pitt Stadium, to watch the Steelers of John Henry Johnson and the Pitt Panthers, who featured a scrappy linebacker named Marty Schottenheimer. Billy had hoped to attend Pitt or Penn State, but neither came calling. Then one day Lou Holtz stepped into the Cowher living room, yanked off his cap and asked, "Shall we pray?" He offered Billy a free education at North Carolina State, and the decision was made. On Friday nights Laird and his wife, Dorothy, drove nine hours to cheer on their son, then drove home Saturday night so as not to miss the Steeler kickoff on Sunday afternoon.
An undersized, overachieving linebacker, Cowher led the Wolfpack in tackles in his final two seasons, 1978 and '79. "We thought he was borderline insane when it came to football," teammate Brad Holt once said. "If you looked into his eyes as he walked onto the field, it was like he was leaving the planet. He was the most intense player I've ever seen."
Cowher was not drafted, but in 1980 he hooked up with the Cleveland Browns as a special-teamer and reserve linebacker under Schottenheimer, then the Browns' defensive coordinator. He played five unremarkable seasons with the Browns and the Philadelphia Eagles before a knee injury ended his career in '85. Schottenheimer quickly hired him as his special teams coach. "We used to cover punts with 12 guys," Schottenheimer says. "That's 11 players plus Cowher streaking down the sidelines. It's hard to count how many officials he bowled over."
Cowher's style produced results. In his first season the Browns returned two punts for touchdowns, which was two more than they had had in the previous 17 seasons. They also blocked two punts, which they had not done even once in the past 11 years. And they improved from last to first in kickoff coverage.