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."
January 9, 1995
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.
"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.
When Schottenheimer moved to Kansas City in '89, Cowher did too, becoming the Chiefs' defensive coordinator. That year the Chiefs had the AFC's top-ranked defense, and from '89 to '91 Cowher's troops recorded more sacks than any other team in the conference.
Finally, in January '92, the phone rang at the Cowher home in Crafton. "Laird, do you still have your Terrible Towel?" asked a breathless Kaye. "You're going to be needing it."
"Two years ago I went to order a ham at the local butcher," Laird Cowher says. "I told the guy, 'Hold that for Cowher.' "
"Cowher?" the butcher said. "Same name as the Steeler coach."
"I know," Laird said. "He's my son."
"Yeah, right," said the butcher, "and I'm President Clinton."
These days Laird can barely remember the time before 68 Hawthorne Avenue became a tourist spot. "Folks come by snapping pictures of our house," he says, rubbing his own prominent mandible. "It makes you wonder how crazy folks have to be to get in the nuthouse."
He then looks across the room at the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who is reveling in his father's modesty, allowing himself a rare moment of satisfaction.
"I'm the only coach in this league who can drive 10 minutes and be in his boyhood home," Bill says. "When I took this job I told myself, I want to be here long enough to go to my 20th high school reunion, and that's coming up this spring. Who knows? I haven't changed too much, maybe my classmates will recognize me."
Don't worry, Coach. In Crafton, folks never forget a Face.