Bill Cowher’s New Normal
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.”
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