Jan. 22, 1996
Jan. 22, 1996

Table of Contents
Jan. 22, 1996



The football floated down seductively into the end zone, about
to determine the fate of two proud teams, and Pittsburgh Steeler
coach Bill Cowher's mind began spiraling out of control. He saw
the ball disappear and considered everything that hung in the
balance: a season, a stigma, a legacy. Either Cowher would be
celebrating his newfound status as the youngest coach to take a
team to the Super Bowl or he would be haunted by another
horrific climax in the south end zone at Three Rivers Stadium.
Cowher felt queasy. There were 61,062 fans gasping in unison,
but Cowher heard nothing. A tangle of Indianapolis Colt
receivers and Steeler defenders hit the ground where the ball
came down, but Cowher watched none of that. As he stepped onto
the playing field, his eyes locked 30 yards downfield on the
arms of back judge Tim Millis. The clock expired, time stood
still, and what Cowher saw next seemed to happen in slow motion.

This is an article from the Jan. 22, 1996 issue Original Layout

"All I could look at was the arms," he said later, after the
Steelers had advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time in 16
years with a 20-16 victory over the Colts on Sunday. "Would he
wave them horizontally, or would they go vertically? That was my
life: horizontal or vertical? Then I saw him make that
motion--incomplete pass--and I knew we were there."

At 38, in his fourth season at the helm of his hometown team,
Cowher had achieved the objective of his dreams. Nearly two
hours after the Steelers had won the AFC championship to earn a
Super Bowl XXX date with the Dallas Cowboys, Cowher was still
marveling at the way it had all gone down. The Steelers had been
tested as sternly as they had in last year's AFC title game
against the San Diego Chargers--one that ended in a 17-13 defeat
after Charger linebacker Dennis Gibson deflected a pass by
Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell in that same south end zone.

In the 364 days since, Cowher and his team had overcome
obstacles, including the loss of several key players, and
survived that Hail Mary thrown by Indianapolis quarterback Jim
Harbaugh on the final play of Sunday's game. When Harbaugh's
pass fell incomplete--after rolling off the body and hands of
Colt receiver Aaron Bailey as Bailey was pulled to the
turf--Cowher closed his eyes, raised his face toward the heavens,
then broke into tears. Later, as he relaxed in his office with
his wife, Kaye, and other family members, Cowher was smiling
more broadly than he ever had after a football game. "The
emotions are just overwhelming," he said. "This game typified
our season. We got into a tense situation, it looked bleak for a
while, but we kept fighting. This team has a confidence that
never existed the three prior years, and that's what carried us.
We've been like a championship fighter: We've taken a punch and
gotten knocked down, but then we get up and fight you for 60

Though the Steelers entered the game as 11-point favorites, it
took every ounce of fight they could muster to subdue
Indianapolis, a team that became one of the most stunning
success stories in recent playoff history. After a 9-7 regular
season the Colts upset the Chargers in San Diego and the Chiefs
in Kansas City to get to Pittsburgh, where they matched the
physical Steelers blow-for-blow. Forget that trite Cinderella
tag; these guys were more like Godzilla. Harbaugh preferred a
boxing analogy: "A lot of people expected Peter McNeeley, but
Mike Tyson came roaring out of our locker room."

Unlike the Steelers, who were burdened all week with memories of
last season's failure, the Colts spent the days before the game
feeling downright giddy about their shot at glory. They
maintained that attitude despite the pregame jitters of their
coaches, who by Saturday's walk-through at Three Rivers had
taken on some of the same shifty mannerisms that actor Anthony
Hopkins used in his cinematic portrayal of Richard Nixon. "The
coaches are driving us crazy," cornerback Ray Buchanan said last
Saturday as he lay on his hotel bed watching his alma mater,
Louisville, lose to St. John's in basketball. "They were
snapping at us all through practice, and it's getting on our
nerves. But we're still loose; we know we have nothing to lose."

Indianapolis got gutty performances from defensive tackle Tony
Siragusa; from receiver Sean Dawkins (seven catches, 96 yards),
who played despite a chipped vertebra in his upper back that no
one bothered to include on the pregame injury report; and from
Harbaugh. Captain Comeback became Captain Play-Action, suckering
the aggressive Steelers into overplaying the run on numerous
occasions en route to a 21-for-33, 267-yard passing day.
Harbaugh threw no interceptions and one humongous touchdown, a
47-yarder to Floyd Turner that gave the Colts a 16-13 lead with
8:46 remaining. The play was so hauntingly similar to the Stan
Humphries pass to Tony Martin that gave the Chargers their
winning points in last year's title game that you could almost
see the Pittsburgh players shrivel up on the sidelines.

With nearly 3 1/2 quarters in the book, the Steelers had this to
show for themselves: two Norm Johnson field goals and a bogus
Kordell Stewart touchdown catch. (Stewart caught a five-yard
pass from O'Donnell 13 seconds before halftime after three times
stepping out of the back of the end zone, but game officials
missed the call.) The season was slipping away. "There was so
much tension on the sidelines, it was scary," said Pittsburgh
reserve tackle James Parrish, who has spent time with seven NFL
teams, including Dallas, the San Francisco 49ers and the Colts.
"These guys are haunted by the past, and after that touchdown
pass, it was like the nightmare was being revisited."

The 1994 Steelers had been a fun-loving bunch, as evidenced by
two events that took place the week leading up to last year's
AFC title game--the filming of a Super Bowl rap video and the
throwing of a party that John Belushi and his Animal House
buddies would have loved. The party was hosted by tight end Eric
Green, who after the season signed a free-agent contract with
the Miami Dolphins. Asked last Friday to recall the bash, which
was held at a Pittsburgh nightspot, tackle Leon Searcy offered a
guilty smile. "Unfortunately, I was in the midst of all that
sin, and so were a lot of guys," he said. "I love Eric Green,
but I promise you this: If he threw a party before this game, no
Steeler would be anywhere around it."

This is not surprising, considering that earlier this year the
Steelers became what is believed to be the first professional
sports team to ban pagers and cellular phones from their
practice facility. The move was initiated by two veterans, star
linebacker Greg Lloyd and fullback John L. Williams, in an
effort to save the season: The Steelers were 3-4 and, as
Williams says, "were in danger of getting used to losing." So
out went the cell phones.

There were also more substantive changes that led to
Pittsburgh's subsequent eight-game winning streak. Cowher met
with offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt and told him to get
Stewart, the team's second-round draft pick, into the offensive
mix. While Stewart's presence was energizing the offense during
the second half of the season, the defense was taking fewer
risks. With star cornerback Rod Woodson sidelined by a torn ACL
in his right knee, which he suffered in the season opener,
Cowher and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau took the Blitz out
of Blitzburgh. Cowher also made several position changes, most
notably the one that moved All-Pro safety Carnell Lake to
cornerback. Not only did Lake excel, but the Steelers' other new
starting corner, Willie Williams, also became a standout player.
Woodson returned to practice last week and hopes to play in the
Super Bowl, but it's not as if the Steelers are desperate. On
Sunday, Williams made a spectacular shoestring tackle of
Indianapolis running back Lamont Warren on a third-and-one play
to set up Pittsburgh's winning drive.

The Steelers took over at their own 33 with 3:03 left, and
O'Donnell (25 for 41, 205 yards) helped to erase his image as a
player who gags under pressure. To O'Donnell, the Charger defeat
"was always in front of my face." Against San Diego, his
fourth-and-goal pass from the three never made it to halfback
Barry Foster, prompting the presence of a banner reading 3 MORE
YARDS at Pittsburgh home games this season. With 2:25 to go on
Sunday, O'Donnell faced fourth-and-three from the Indy 47, took
a shotgun snap, stayed in the pocket for what seemed like an
eternity and fired a nine-yard completion to receiver Andre

On the next play O'Donnell said to receiver Ernie Mills, "Come
on, Ernie, let's go." Replied Mills, known to teammates as
E-Thrills because of his penchant for dynamic catches, "Just
give me a chance." The play was 80-Semi-move-Go. The Colts
blitzed, but the Steelers were waiting with their
maximum-protection package, and O'Donnell launched a perfect
pass down the right sideline. Mills had broken free by putting
an up-and-out move on cornerback Ashley Ambrose, and he cradled
the pass while dragging his left foot before going out of bounds
inside the one-yard-line. Two plays later Bam Morris bulled into
the end zone, and Pittsburgh had its winning points.

That drive would have extinguished a typical team, but Harbaugh
seems determined to reinvent himself as a sloppy version of Joe
Montana. If you like football, you simply must love this man.
Scrambling for his life in the final 90 seconds, Harbaugh fired
a fourth-down completion, dislocated the index finger on his
throwing hand, popped it back into place between plays and
eventually got the Colts to the Steeler 29 with six seconds
left. His Hail Mary pass was there for Bailey's taking, but
Steeler defenders Randy Fuller, Myron Bell and Darren Perry
collided with Bailey to help jar the ball loose. Bailey scooped
it up on the first hop and appeared to have scored, but the pass
was called incomplete, a call later confirmed by the replay.

The Steelers savored the moment. Among the more animated players
was long-haired linebacker Kevin Greene, who vows to trim his
flowing blond locks if the Steelers win the Super Bowl. After
leaving the locker room, Greene stood atop a snowbank outside
the stadium and told 1,000 delirious fans, "Let's go out and
kick some ass in the Super Bowl."

Most coaches would cringe at such a bold display of attitude,
but Cowher is no buttoned-down paranoiac. Two hours after the
game, with about 100 hearty fans remaining, Cowher strode to the
same spot where Greene had delivered his exhortation and
one-upped the wild-man pass rusher. Cowher tried to quiet the
fans, but they kept yelling for his autograph. "Hey!" he
screamed, holding out his hands to command their attention. "Let
me tell you something. We're not just gonna go to Arizona; we're
gonna go there and win. And then I promise: I'll come back here
and sign everything and anything."

He turned away from the throng and strode back to his office
like a champion.

COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN The Steelers covered Bailey (80) with a curtain of defenders, but he still almost stole the show. [Aaron Bailey attempting to catch football while surrounded by Pittsburgh Steeler defenders]COLOR PHOTO: KEITH SRAKOCIC/AP [See caption above--Aaron Bailey attempting to catch football while surrounded by Pittsburgh Steeler defenders]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANSMills's balletic fourth-quarter catch set up what proved to be Pittsburgh's winning touchdown. [Ernie Mills catching football]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Captain Comeback resembled Captain Crunch after getting hit by Brentson Buckner (96) and Lloyd. [Brentson Buckner and Greg Lloyd tackling Jim Harbaugh]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO The Colts corralled Morris on this dive from the one, but Bam bulled across for the TD on the next play. [Indianapolis Colt defenders stopping Bam Morris]