This is the last place you’d expect Bill Cowher to pick for lunch: August, a fancy Upper East Side spot with a marble-topped bar, $495 bottles of Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande on the wine list and a French-speaking hostess up front. This is not to say that Bill Cowher isn’t or can’t be fancy, but well, it’s Bill Cowher. Surely, he’d rather go to the Burger Heaven right across the street. There are lavender sprigs in mason jars on the tables, for goodness’ sake.
He says he’s been here before, likes the food, the atmosphere. Likes talking with the head chef, Josh Eden. “It’s a nice place to have in the neighborhood,” he says as he settles into a booth in the back corner.
OK, but maybe it has a good burger. There’s one on the menu, along with a turkey club and a Reuben. All of those are perfectly fine selections for an ex-football coach from western Pennsylvania. Instead, he orders the Caesar salad. With chicken. No croutons.
“You should’ve seen me earlier,” Cowher says with a laugh. “My wife likes hot yoga. So at 10 o’clock, we have a woman who comes to our apartment and it’s just awesome. I do yoga for about an hour, a lot of stretching, which is really good. Because after my SoulCycle class on Mondays, I need it.”
Monday afternoons also consist of a walk downtown to Grace’s Marketplace, where he buys a bunch of fruit (watermelon and cantaloupe, usually) for the week. Cowher is not doing these things because he’s having a midlife crisis or trying to while away his days of semi-retirement. He is not trying to prove some larger point about how your life opens up when you’re not surrounded by football 24/7. No, Bill Cowher is doing these things because he likes doing them.
And because he can.
“It’s like living in a fishbowl,” he says of his previous life as an NFL head coach. “Honestly, it’s what it is. I look at what I have now, and it’s living normal. I guess the biggest difference from coaching to now is that I can be out here – in this restaurant – and no one is going to bother us. I can walk up and down New York, go shopping, go to Food Emporium, Grace’s. I get my cart out and I enjoy shopping. I like walking around and doing things here. There’s normality.”
Officially, January 5, 2007 is the day that Bill Cowher decided to step down as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. After an 8-8 season and no trip to the playoffs – for only the fifth time in his 15-year tenure – Cowher called it quits.
To understand how monumental of a day that was for the NFL, the city of Pittsburgh and the Steelers franchise, realize this: Cowher’s exit meant the team would have to begin a head-coaching search for only the second time since man landed on the moon.
There were thoughts that Cowher was trying to get a bigger contract. Or that he had become complacent after finally winning it all. Or that he would move on to a bigger market outside of the Steel City. None of those things were true. In fact, the decision to finally leave coaching was something that began in Cowher’s mind long before the 2006 season or the Super Bowl-winning run that preceded it.
He started doing the one thing others had warned him about: He stopped enjoying the moments.
“I didn’t really like where I was going with myself,” he admits now. “I’d walk around a lot with my head down. Wouldn’t make eye contact. I felt like a little bit of a prisoner. You’d go into hotels and you don’t go down to the lobby because you’d get recognized. It’s just not a good place to be.”
This is not to say that he has any disdain for Pittsburgh, the Steelers or their fans. Hardly. (“I had the best job in the National Football League,” he adamantly says.) Rather, he became a prisoner of his own success. When he took over for the legendary Chuck Noll in 1992, Cowher was just 34. Yes, he was a kid from across the Ohio River in Crafton, who grew up idolizing the great Steelers teams of the 1970s. But Noll was Noll, winner of four Super Bowl titles, so little was expected of the defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, even if he was a native son.
The Steelers had fallen off in Noll’s final decade at the helm, winning one playoff game after 1984 and zero division titles. The bar was low for Cowher, with most figuring that if he failed, getting rid of him would be easy and cheap. Instead, Cowher was a breath of fresh air.
“He’s not over there,” defensive end Brentson Buckner told the New York Times in 1994 about Cowher’s coaching style. “He’s over here. Looking you in the eye. You start to exert yourself more. You start to overachieve.”
He won 11 games and the division his first season. After losing in the Wild-Card game in year two, Cowher’s Steelers would go 44-20 over the next four seasons, winning the division each year, making it to the AFC Championship game three times and advancing to Super Bowl XXX in 1995.
Cowher was already achieving legend status in Pittsburgh. Which meant that everything he did – or didn’t do – was publicly scrutinized. Especially when he went three straight seasons without a playoff appearance from 1998-2000.
“It got to the point in Pittsburgh sometimes where, if we won, I’d get gas during the day. And if we lost, I’d get gas at night, because I just didn’t want to hear it, you know?” Cowher says. “During the day, if you won, people would say, ‘Hey, good job!’ But if you lost, everyone had an opinion. So you’re getting gas and someone shouts, ‘Hey coach, you should’ve been doing this or running that!’ So I would get gas late at night on my way home from work. I knew a couple of places, way out, where no one would be. You’d just get out, pull your hat down and pump.”
As he entered his second decade with the Steelers, the job – and its pitfalls – began to consume him.
He and his wife, Kaye, had always tried to establish a sense of normalcy for their three daughters. Neighbors, friends, parents of their daughter’s classmates, they knew that when they saw him out, he was just “Bill,” not “Coach Cowher.” He could still attend each of his daughters’ basketball games and enjoy the customary Friday night family dinner at the Pittsburgh Field Club, where they belonged. But as Cowher became an icon, stepping out of the “bubble” became increasingly more difficult.
“You’d want to take your kids shopping at the mall and they’d say, ‘Nah dad, do you mind if mom takes us?'” Cowher says. “They didn’t want to go through the recognition thing. And I was always that guy who was involved with their kids, so it was like, ‘Wow.’ In those last few years, that was one of the things that really started to bother me. Because they were getting older and I wanted to do things with them and I couldn’t. I became a distraction.”
When the Steelers made their unlikely postseason run in 2005, culminating with a win in Super Bowl XL, Cowher felt a tremendous weight lifted. At only 48, his coaching career could officially be considered a success.
It was then that he started thinking about walking away from it all.
“I didn’t mind the hours, but I didn’t like the lifestyle,” he says. “I won a championship and I just felt like I got to the point where I couldn’t go anywhere. You get recognized now, but it’s not the same as when you’re coaching. When you’re coaching, it’s in the moment. Now, it’s kind of what you did.”
On a recent Sunday morning, the cameras and boom mics move into position in Studio 43 inside the CBS Broadcast Center on Manhattan’s West Side. There is just under an hour to go before the network’s pregame show, The NFL Today goes live on the air and the cast and crew are doing another walk-through of the program’s A-block.
“It’s Week 5 in the NFL!” booms host James Brown from one section of the set. “We have some great matchups for you here on CBS! There’s the undefeated Bengals taking on the Seahawks. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers take on the Rams. And Rex Ryan and the Bills travel to the Houston Oilers!”
Brown winces and laughs. The Houston Oilers haven’t been a franchise since 1996.
“Where did that come from?” he says, as the crew razzes him.
Everyone resets, to start the opening again. Right before the director cuts to Brown, Cowher – dressed in a sleek charcoal suit – stands across the set, ready to receive the handoff from Brown. On instinct, he seems to snap back into coaching mode.
“Come on J.B.! You got this!” Cowher barks. “One of the best in the biz! Come on now!”
This is where Cowher gets his coaching fix these days. He is in his ninth season as a member of the show’s studio panel of analysts, along with Boomer Esiason, Tony Gonzalez and Bart Scott. He’s in his second season as an on-site studio analyst for CBS and NFL Network’s collaborative effort for Thursday Night Football. The latter gives him an extra boost of the game by allowing him to travel each week, and be around teams, players and coaches.
“I knew I couldn’t just go cold turkey right away,” Cowher says. “I’m not one of those guys. I honestly think that I have to be involved with this game to some extent.”
Which was why, as soon as he stepped down from the Steelers, CBS lunged to bring him on board.
“He had an amazing amount of passion as a coach and a fiery personality, and a lot of that remains,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus says. “That’s part of the reason he’s so good on television; he is so passionate about his love of football and his opinions on football. You want someone in the studio who is very opinionated, but who can back up what his opinions are with the success he’s had in the NFL.”
In addition to studying game tapes at his apartment during the week for the Thursday night games and marquee matchups on Sundays, Cowher is arguably more immersed in football now than during his coaching days. After The NFL Today wraps its live pregame show, Cowher retreats down the corridor to a room with a wall full of 13 televisions showing every 1 p.m. game on both CBS and FOX.
He eats a salad he picked up on his way over to the studio at a table, where there are six more TVs lined up for each of the four studio analysts, plus the network’s league insider, Jason La Canfora, and the show’s editorial consultant, Pat Kirwan – a former coach and front-office man in the NFL.
This is where Cowher is in heaven. Eight games going at once, sitting next to a future Hall of Famer in Gonzalez and a football junkie in Kirwan, pointing out every little detail and arguing about the finer points of the game.
“Look at that! Great tackle!” he says, chewing on a mouthful of lettuce, pointing out a standout special teams play in the Bears-Chiefs game.
“Nothing makes me madder,” he barks, watching Eagles receiver Josh Huff do a somersault into the end zone to celebrate a touchdown.
“Don’t do it Whiz!” he yells at the Titans-Bills game, as his former offensive coordinator and good friend, Tennessee head coach Ken Whisenhunt, contemplates going for it on fourth down or kicking a field goal. “Take the points!”
“It’s proof-positive to me of how good of a coach he is,” Brown says. “When we do the fantasy football segment each week, they’re [the rest of the panel] going and doing more research to come up with something smarter to show him. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve done my homework, too!’ In year one, Tony was still getting the hang of it and saw how prepared coach was with it. He comes here in year two armed with information just to show coach.”
Cowher’s role of coach for the CBS team extends beyond the studio set.
Over the past year, Brown – a former basketball star at Harvard – struggled as he put off getting hip-replacement surgery. Cowher would watch Brown limp through shows and the rigorous travel schedule for the entire 2014 season. Knowing another full schedule, which includes broadcasting Super Bowl 50 in February, lay ahead, Cowher was there as a sounding board to help convince his friend to undergo the procedure.
“He pulled me aside one day before a show and said, ‘J.B., you know what you need to do,'” Brown says. “Simple as that. ‘You know what you have to do. Just do it.'”
In 2007, varsity football coach Ned Gonet was supervising offseason workouts at the Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, North Carolina, when a familiar face stopped by practice to see if he needed any help.
It was Cowher.
He had been retired for less than six months, having moved his family full-time to the area, but needed to be around the game. While his two oldest daughters – Meagan and Lauren – had both graduated from Fox Chapel High School in the Pittsburgh suburbs, his youngest, Lindsay, had recently enrolled at Ravenscroft and was a standout on the school’s basketball team. Looking for an outlet, he approach Gonet with an offer to help draw up some plays.
“It was great to step back and watch him work,” Gonet says. “We were curious to see how he’d be with younger kids, but he was great. Me and my staff just gave him the opportunity to run and do his thing. The way he delivered and talked with the kids, it immediately got their respect.”
Cowher would check in after each game to see how the plays he drew up worked (if they didn’t, he drew up new ones) and to see how the kids played. Occasionally, the two coaches would be in the team’s film room late on weekdays, drawing up new schemes and blitz packages on the dry erase board. Gonet repeatedly told Cowher he was welcome on the sidelines and could help out with in-game instruction.
Cowher declined each time, opting to watch from the stands. To this day, Ravenscroft School is the closest that Cowher has come to returning to the sidelines.
“I’ve never said, ‘I’ll never go back,'” Cowher says. “Why shut a door you don’t have to? I just don’t want to be the person that says, ‘No. I’m never going to coach again.’ And then five years from now I come back and people say, ‘But you said you weren’t!’ I feel like sometimes when I answer that question, people go, ‘Oh, there he is! He’s waiting for the perfect job!'”
The Bill Cowher Career Wheel spins every offseason, as soon as a coaching vacancy appears. Or in some cases, before. He has been linked to seemingly every team in the NFL, including the Jets (2008), Texans (2010), Eagles (2011), Chargers (2012), Browns (2013), Giants (2014) and Dolphins (2015). Owners have reportedly promised him the world in order to lure him back to a NFL sideline. If you believe the NFL rumor mill, Cowher has been offered millions, total team and roster control, even partial stakes in teams.
He admits that he has spoken to owners or other intermediaries when they have come calling. But beyond that?
“I can honestly say I’ve never, ever gotten into a scenario where we discussed a contract,” Cowher says emphatically. “Everyone says, ‘Well, what if they offer you this or that?’ Let me tell you something: I’m a simple person who lives a simple life. When I was coaching, I wasn’t worried about what I was making. I was worried about winning a championship. If I were to go back, it’d be to win a championship. It’s got nothing to do with money or whatever.”
He pauses for a moment.
“Right now, I really love what I’m doing. More importantly, I love the lifestyle. Having the flexibility it’s given me to do things I couldn’t do for the first 49 years of my life.”
When Cowher was introduced as the Steelers new head coach in 1992, his wife Kaye was by his side. When he stepped down 15 years later, Kaye was by his side. She was there throughout his five ordinary seasons as a linebacker with the Browns and Eagles. Then when he immediately transitioned to the coaching ranks in Cleveland, then to Kansas City and finally to Pittsburgh.
Kaye was the one constant.
They had known each other since they met at North Carolina State, where he was a star on the football team and she was a star on the women’s basketball team, before marrying in 1981. It was another part of the Bill Cowher fairy tale: Hometown boy lands dream job, succeeds legend by creating his own, has three beautiful daughters and marries his college sweetheart.
So while he knew the end was coming for his coaching career in 2005, it was Kaye who helped push to make it happen. To move the family down to Raleigh, where their relationship began, and enjoy Lindsay’s final years of high school. To be a normal family again.
Even when he took the CBS job in February 2007, Cowher would fly up to New York on Saturday, do the show on Sunday and be back home late Sunday night. He and Kaye traveled, made road trips to watch Meagan and Lauren play their games for Princeton’s women’s basketball team, went out to dinner in public again. For the first time in years, they enjoyed themselves. Cowher had hit the jackpot – he retired with enough success to last and enough youth to enjoy the latter half of his life with Kaye. It was all going according to plan, until February 2010 when his wife went in for a routine operation to remove a muscle mass.
Doctors found melanoma. Five months later, Kaye was gone.
In an interview a month after his wife died, Cowher told the New York Times that his wife’s battle was “a very tough thing to go through and to watch.” Less than four years into what was supposed to be the rest of his life, Cowher was alone. His wife was gone, his kids were grown, he had left football and the city that idolized him. What would he do now?
Unexpectedly, he found love again.
He met his second wife shortly after Kaye’s death. He wasn’t looking to date or even marry, but she was different. Veronica Stigeler was going through a divorce, in the same mindset as Cowher. She has a successful music career as Queen V. Cowher loves music, even taking piano lessons after first retiring. “V,” as he calls her, loves football – she’s a huge Jets fan, occasionally wearing her helmet for good luck during games.
It was a perfect match.
“He’s a very special person,” she says while visiting Cowher at the CBS studios. “People don’t even realize it, unless you really know him.”
After dating for a while, the two were married last year. It’s given Cowher a renewed purpose – something that he thought he would only have with Kaye. Now, he once again feels that his life is complete. He became a grandfather for the first time in May, when Lindsay (who is married to Lakers forward Ryan Kelly) gave birth to a son. Another grandchild is due in April.
V still plays, but has eschewed her former hard-rocking image for a more acoustic tone. She spends a week each month down in Nashville, collaborating with people from all over the musical spectrum. Occasionally, she’ll tag along for one of the Thursday Night Football road trips. Mostly though, she and Cowher try to soak in every bit of time they spend together at their home in Manhattan, where he relocated to full-time four years ago.
Just like he and Kaye used to, Cowher and V make it a point to have dinner every Friday night. Sometimes they’ll stay in and cook, sometimes they’ll dress up and go out someplace fancy.
Friday nights though, always end the same way: With the two of them dancing in their apartment.
“Oh yeah,” Cowher says, with a big smile. “Earth, Wind & Fire. Luther Vandross. Steely Dan. That’s me. Maybe some Billy Joel, too.”
Stage 2 at the Rockwood Music Hall is dimly lit. It’s a warm, early-October night and V is getting ready to play her first live gig in a couple months. The crowd starts to fill in to the small space, and she begins playing. Cowher is here, of course, nestled in the back corner next to the bar, sipping a glass of Stella Artois. He bobs his head as she plays.
It’s an eclectic audience, everyone from her fans to random folks who just stumbled in. There are some of his colleagues from CBS and The NFL Today cast and crew. All of them have become Queen V fans. To Cowher, this is what being a head coach in the NFL would mean giving up: Being around friends and family, supporting his wife, having a good time without being under the white-hot public spotlight.
“I just love doing this,” he says. “Coming here, supporting her. It’s great.”
Cowher enjoys this so much that it’s not unusual to see him at one of her shows, helping set up the stage. Last summer, he even drove the tour van down to a bunch of gigs she was playing in Philadelphia. Got to really know the rest of her band: Joan, Jimi Bones, Wes and Paulie.
“This guy is a trip!” Jimi Bones laughs. “We were hanging out a few weeks ago and he’s trying to convince us that we needed to break out our cover of ‘Broken Wings’, because he loves that song and loves how we do it. I told him, ‘Hey, you’ve got the boss’ ear.'”
Cowher smiles and admits it’s true: he’s got a soft spot for Mr. Mister.
Later, a couple outside of the bar recognize him and asked to pose for a picture. Cowher is more than happy to oblige, even chatting about the Jets with both of them. Then, of course, the question comes.
“Hey! Are you ever going to coach again?”
He smiles and laughs, telling them he enjoys working with CBS and being able to have some more free time with his family. When he goes on the road for Thursday Night Football and meets with coaches for production meetings, he sees old friends and former players. More than once, after everyone has left the room, a coach will close the door and ask Cowher how he’s done it. How he has seemingly been able to have it all as a coach and now have it all in retirement.
“I’ve had a couple of people – prominent coaches – walk into an office, shut the door and say, ‘What’s it like, not coaching?'” Cowher says. “They’re scared. They’re scared not to have that. And I’ll tell them, ‘You know, it’s different. You’re not going to replace coaching. But there’s some normality that’s out there, and that’s also kind of refreshing.’ I think you lose the ability to go have a normal dinner. The ability to go out to a park. Go traveling. Do the things you never did before.”
Cowher is doing that now. Which is why, when he goes to V’s shows, he’ll stand in the back and just take it all in. Knowing that he can do this now and couldn’t in his previous life. As the show comes to a close, she plays an old favorite, “Right or Wrong.”
“This song goes out to you know who,” she says with a wry smile.
Cowher winks back at her.
“This is a life that I never experienced before,” he says as V sings. “I never had this before. I really like it. I sleep now. I don’t have a yellow notepad on my night table anymore. I like the ability to wake up and say, ‘Well, now what are we going to do?'”