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The coach who won't coach tells a story. It was 2003. The Steelers were playing Dallas in the preseason, and Cowher was talking with Bill Parcells before the game. At the time Parcells was a day from turning 62, and he was coaching his fourth NFL team—he had shuffled in and out of retirement as if it were an airport terminal—and he said to Cowher, "You know something? You start out coaching, and you think it is a big part of your life. And then, after a while, you realize that it is your life."
Cowher shuddered. He was 46 years old. "And I thought, That can't be right," he says. "This is my life? This is all I'm ever going to be? There's got to be more than this."
There was no reason at the time for anyone to suspect those sorts of feelings were bubbling inside of Bill Cowher. More to life? Who looked better on a football field? Who seemed to love it more? He was his own show on the sideline. He raged and hugged and grabbed and shouted with so much spit flying that his players sometimes called a coaching session a Cowher Shower.
"We loved showing Bill Cowher on the sideline," says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. "We had a camera on him all the time."
Beyond the histrionics, he just seemed to fit perfectly as coach of the Steelers. He was as Pittsburgh as a Primanti Bros. sandwich. He grew up in Crafton, just across the river, watching Roberto Clemente throw out runners from rightfield at Forbes Field, watching Penguins defenseman Bryan Watson get in savage fights, watching running back Dick Hoak try to run behind a leaky Steelers line. Cowher had fallen in love with football while watching those Steelers on television with his father, Laird.
See, he understood all of it. He knew this city. He knew the fans didn't just want to win, they wanted to win the Pittsburgh way. He coached teams that seemed to flow from his own manic personality. When Cowher graduated from Carlynton High, he received only two Division I scholarship offers. He went to North Carolina State, played linebacker and led the team in tackles in his junior and senior seasons. When he got out of college, not a single NFL team drafted him ("and those were the days of the 12-round draft," he says happily). Still, he spent five seasons with the Browns and the Eagles, almost entirely because of his willingness to endure pain and run like a madman on special teams.
"You hear about guys who are willing to die on a football field," his old coach Marty Schottenheimer said a few years back. "Bill really would have died on a football field."
He coached that way too, first as a special teams and secondary coach for Schottenheimer in Cleveland, then as a defensive coordinator for Schottenheimer in Kansas City and finally as head coach in Pittsburgh, where in '92 he took over for his hero, Chuck Noll. Cowher was 34. He said, "We will bring back the pride and tradition."
All along he showed a gift for transferring his passion to his players. The Steelers went to the playoffs in each of his first six seasons, and in 1995 they reached the Super Bowl, losing to Dallas. After short downturn, when Cowher seemed to briefly lose some of his fury, he and his Steelers reemerged, reaching the AFC title game three times in five years between 2001 and '05 and beating the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
And they seemed to do it the same way every year. The Cowher way. The Steelers ran the ball. The Steelers stopped the run. The Steelers played tough football, intimidating football, old-fashioned football, and there was Cowher, the hometown kid made good, running up and down the sideline like a madman, showering his players with praise and rage, all while Laird watched from the stands or on television back home.