Maybe it is the jaw, that wonderful jutting jaw of Bill Cowher, that keeps everyone from believing him. There is no way around it: This is a jaw that belongs on the sideline of football games. Snow complements it. Mud harmonizes with it. This is a jaw that should thrust out at an official who miscounted how many men were on the field or at a football player who gave up on a play. The jutting jaw does not seem at peace trading television jabs with Boomer Esiason.
This is an article from the Dec. 19, 2011 issue
But this is the thing: Bill Cowher is more than a jaw.
"Coach, it looks like the latest rumors have you going to Penn State," he is told by a friend as he sits in a CBS waiting room watching football games.
"Is that where I'm supposed to be going next?" he asks. "Happy Valley, huh?"
"Yes. Unless you take the Eagles' job."
"The Eagles, you say."
"Of course, there's also the Dolphins' job."
Bill Cowher smiles a little. The jaw, that wonderful jutting jaw of Bill Cowher, tends to magnify every emotion he expresses. Annoyance looks like fury. Anger looks like the wrath of God. And now, as he smiles just a little, the jaw makes him look like a happy man—indeed, the happiest man in the world.
"People don't understand," he says. "I'm not coaching. I'm enjoying life more right now than I ever have."
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.
No, there was no way to imagine any doubt inside that man. There was no way to picture that passion, that jaw anywhere else but on the sideline. So when he stepped down after the 2006 season, at age 49, nobody believed it would last. When he said he looked forward to "spending time with my family," pretty much everybody scoffed. It seemed like one of those typical coaching retirements that last only until the next big offer, about as long as an iPhone battery charge.
Except Cowher did say one thing at the press conference that people might have overlooked: "I don't think I'm going to miss it as much as some people think I'm going to."
Five years later he says this: "I don't miss it enough to go back."
The coach who won't coach is getting all kinds of grief in Week 10 because he has picked the Lions to beat the Bears. McManus's philosophy on pregame shows is to keep things as unscripted as possible, allowing for surprises and spontaneous outrage. Cowher had hinted in rehearsal that he'd pick the Bears because he'd gotten a weather report through his earpiece of 40-mph winds in Chicago. Now he has shifted and picked the Lions.
All around him is mock fury. Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe begins the abuse by asking Cowher about his own weather report. Esiason, the former quarterback, chimes in with a wisecrack about the Lions' passing game. Hall of Famer Dan Marino tosses in a jab of his own.
Then it happens. The jaw emerges. The face contorts. Coach Cowher erupts.
"You don't win games on earpieces!" he snaps. "You don't win games with weather reports! You win games ...
"ON THE FIELD," the guys say with him.
Everybody laughs. They love to get Coach going. They love to see that fury come out of Coach Cowher. That's what they call him on the show, incidentally. Coach. Host James Brown introduces the guys as Dan, Shannon, Boomer and Coach Cowher.
"Coach, what do you think of Tim Tebow?"
"Coach, what is going on with those Texans?"
"Coach, can that New England defense stop anybody?"
And Cowher is flying high, answering those questions, trading barbs, making points. "He just loves football," Brown says. "That pours out of him. He studies so hard for these shows."
McManus: "He has the rare ability to take us inside football without using a lot of confusing terminology. He really loves doing this, and it shows on camera."
Even these guys, though, can't help but wonder how long Cowher will stay out of coaching. Brown talks about how the right opportunity—a stable organization with a good general manager and the chance to win right away—could lure Cowher back. McManus talks about how his heart skips a beat every time he hears a rumor about Cowher leaving, and these rumors pop up once or twice every day. But McManus says, "I know that if he does decide to go, I will hear about it from him, not read it in the newspaper."
Cowher agrees. "Sean knows I'm completely loyal to him and CBS," he says. "I have so much respect for him. I would always come to CBS first. But I'm telling you, I'm not going back to coaching."
Read that last comment again. You know the quote didn't end there, right? The coach who won't coach is too smart, too honest, too practical to leave it there. So he continues: "I mean, maybe someday I'll feel different."
And there you go. If you are a football fan anywhere in America with a lousy team, you already find yourself clinging to those last words, don't you? When is someday? Will someday be in time to turn around the Eagles? The Dolphins? The Browns? Is someday close enough to bring healing to Penn State? When is someday, Coach Cowher?
"Don't make too much of that," he says.
It has to be the jaw, right? People can't help but place that jaw on a football sideline. This fall, when the rumors began to crop up, Cowher said on the air, "I do not plan on coaching next year." For anyone else this might be taken to mean that he does not plan on coaching next year. But because he's Bill Cowher, and because he's so good at coaching, and because he seemed to love it so much, and because of that jaw, the word plan was broken apart and put back together until it actually sounded as if he might coach next year, he just isn't planning it right now. "It's flattering," Cowher says, "but I just don't think people know me very well. I'm a simple guy, but my life was always more than coaching football."
When he stopped coaching, he started learning how to play the piano. He played a lot of tennis—one of his favorite perks at CBS is the access he gets to the U.S. Open. Unlike so many retirees who talk about spending time with family, he actually used his retirement from coaching to spend a lot of his time with his three daughters and especially with his wife, Kaye, who died last year of skin cancer. He does not talk publicly about her painful last months.
And now? He has an apartment in New York City and a house in North Carolina. He often travels to California to see his daughter Meagan, who is married to Los Angeles Kings enforcer Kevin Westgarth. He has Saturday dinners in New York with his daughter Lauren. And he gets back to Carolina frequently to visit his youngest daughter, Lindsay, at Elon University. He is involved in many ventures and charities—Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Family Resources of Pittsburgh, the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation. "I guess I'm not like others, who have regrets about not spending enough time with their families," he says. "I always spent a lot of time with family when I was coaching. I built my schedule around them. But it's still different now. I am free to do things. You're really not free to do things when you are a coach. You live inside a bubble. You spend every minute solving problems."
Former coach Tony Dungy, who works for NBC and is the subject of numerous coaching rumors himself, runs into Cowher now and again in New York, and they talk about things that only former coaches can really understand. "People think the problem is how hard you work or how many hours, but that's not it," Dungy says. "When you're coaching, you know exactly where you are going to be every minute of every day. If you had asked me in June where I would be on November 13 at 3 p.m., I could have told you. That's the hard part. You have your whole life mapped out."
When told of Dungy's comments, Cowher nods. He admits he misses the relationships with players and coaches and the competition, but he loves the ones he's built with Marino, Sharpe, Esiason and Brown. "We really like each other," Cowher says. "We go to dinners. We argue about football, just like on TV." More than that, he loves the freedom to simply live his life, to travel, to golf, to read, to do interesting things. To watch football.
"Look at that," he says while scanning the wall of televisions in the CBS studio that show every football game. "I don't think I could even imagine going back to watching only one game at a time."
Then he says, "If I did go back, I think I would be a better coach because of this experience. I'm just more aware now of what teams are doing, how coaches attack different things...."
He stops and sort of smiles. That jaw makes it look like a big grin. He knows how people will take what he's saying. "I don't miss it enough to go back," he repeats. "I can't predict the future. Maybe someday it will change. But to be quite honest with you, I don't think so."
The coach who won't coach has a little habit he indulges before the pregame show. He will sit in his chair, looking angry, and then shout out to the production people, "Hey, is this on tape?"
And they yell back, "No, Coach, it's live."
This exchange never fails to crack up everyone around him.
Coach Cowher will then break into a huge smile and say, "Oh, really—this is live?" And he will act nervous. But he isn't nervous. The jaw may tell a different story, but the truth is that Bill Cowher likes going live.
Or, to put it another way, he likes living.