Sitting on the front porch at 68 Hawthorne Avenue during summertimes past, you could listen across the hills and valleys of the western reaches of Pittsburgh and sometimes hear the faint din of the distant ballpark. Laird Cowher and his son Billy smiled at each other when they heard that familiar, disembodied roar, realizing that Pops Stargell had once again left the yard at Three Rivers Stadium.
In the autumns, it was football. Always football. One day Billy was prone on the carpet in the second-floor living room, a flowered cushion beneath his chin and his father lying on the couch. They were watching a Steeler game, the old Zenith struggling to maintain its vertical hold. Billy turned to his father and said, "I want to do that."
"What?" his father said. "Fix TVs?"
"No, football," Billy said. "I want to try that."
Three decades later Bill Cowher has just driven the nine miles from the coach's office in Three Rivers to the suburb of Crafton. He takes a left onto Hawthorne, parks in front of the sixth house on the right and strides up the stairs two at a time. He takes no notice of a copy of Steeler Digest with his face on the cover, that pronounced lantern jaw jutting out from the surface of the coffee table in the living room. He has come home to share with his dad the preparations for the upcoming game against the Cleveland Browns that, once won, will give his Steelers the AFC Central Division title and a third playoff invitation in his three years as coach. "I still remember registering him for Pop Warner when he was 10 years old," Laird says. "Now that same boy is back home coaching the hometown team that I've lived and died for my whole life. What a fairy tale."
On the night of Jan. 21, 1992, nine hours after it was announced that Cowher, then 34, would replace the legendary Chuck Noll as the Steelers' coach, Cowher sat alone in a Pittsburgh hotel room and phoned his wife, Kaye, in a panic. "I don't know what I've gotten into," said Cowher. "If every day is like this day, I don't know if I can do this." Kaye, a former player in the Women's Professional Basketball League, understood the challenge ahead and talked her husband down.
As it turns out, the Steelers were a bit anxious as well. After all, one of Cowher's players, guard Tunch Ilkin, was only four months his junior. Steeler counsel Art Rooney II's initial reaction to Cowher's candidacy was: "We're not going to interview this guy who's only 34 years old, are we?" But Steeler brass needed only to look back at Noll's career for reassurance. Like Noll, Cowher had played several undistinguished seasons in the NFL, then taken an assistant coach's job at age 28. Noll had been hired as Steeler coach in 1969 at the age of 37. Of course, that is where the similarities ended. "Right from the start Coach Cowher pumped a new energy into us," safety Carnell Lake remembers. "Most coaches are 'Hello, how are you, go about your business' kind of guys. But Cowher talked to us, encouraged us."
"I'm young enough to have played in this league with Marino and Montana, and I think my players relate to that," Cowher explains. "Also, I was never a gifted athlete. After every practice at every training camp, I knew I could be on the road home. That helps you identify with players' fears."
In one of his first acts as Pittsburgh coach, Cowher invited his veteran players to sit in first class on the team plane while he, his assistant coaches and even Steeler president Dan Rooney sat in economy. He asked that a bubble be built over the practice facility so that his players would not have to contend with inclement weather. One day he bagged workouts and took the whole team to see Speed.
He has also displayed an unusual flexibility during games. In his coaching debut, at Houston in '92, with his team down 14-0, Cowher called a fake punt that led to a touchdown, and the Steelers rallied to upset the Oilers. Later that season, in the second half against Detroit, cornerback Rod Woodson asked if the defense could be more aggressive. Cowher paused and then barked, "Well, blitz then." The Steelers did and came from behind for another win.