He didn’t give birth to Steelers Nation. The man who fathered Steelers Nation was Chuck Noll, who raised a corpse of a franchise to unmatched success with four Super Bowl championships over a six-season span and in the process restored a sense of pride into a populace beaten down by the loss of the steel industry and the accompanying body-blow to the region’s economy.
What Bill Cowher did was breathe life back into Steelers Nation.
Following a legend, and a beloved legend in the case of Chuck Noll, is the most difficult task in the profession Cowher chose as his life’s work, and while no coach can or should be expected to duplicate Chuck Noll’s accomplishments, what can be said about Bill Cowher is that in terms of the love affair between the team and its fan base, he left things in better shape than they were when he arrived.
Cowher arrived in January 1992, and the shine of the 1970s had been dimmed by only three playoff seasons and two postseason wins in the 12 years before he was hired. But soon after the hiring of the boy who was born and raised in Crafton, which was about a 12-minute drive from Three Rivers Stadium, the resuscitation of Steelers Nation was underway.
That process was juiced by the 1992 regular season opener, which sent the Steelers to the Astrodome for a game against the defending AFC Central Division champion Houston Oilers, who were quarterbacked by Warren Moon, a Pro Bowl selection in 1991 who had led the NFL in attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns that season. With the Steelers losing, 14-0, in the first quarter, Cowher boldly ordered a fake punt that jump-started his team to a 29-24 upset victory in which the defense intercepted Moon five times.
The Steelers went on to sweep the home-and-home series with the Oilers and unseat them as AFC Central Division champions, which meant an NFL playoff game in Pittsburgh for the first time since the strike-shortened season of 1982. It proved to be just the start.
“First thing I’d like to do is just say congratulations to my fellow enshrinees, and all the gold jackets on this stage tonight,” began Cowher from the podium in Canton. “It’s an honor to go in with each and every one of you. Your individual careers and journeys are remarkable and inspiring. But what a weekend for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is unbelievable to me to go into the Hall of Fame on the same weekend with two guys you drafted – Troy Polamalu and Alan Faneca. Also, Donnie Shell and the late, great Bill Nunn. With the Pittsburgh Steelers on this stage, with the gold jackets on this stage, you guys set the standard and created the culture. It’s our job to keep it going.”
That’s what Bill Cowher did. He kept it going. In a different way than Chuck Noll, but in an effective way all the same.
Indeed, Cowher added a Lombardi Trophy to the franchise’s previous collection of four, and what he also accomplished was to complete his own revitalization project by bringing back home playoff games, and all the electricity those provided, to the city of Pittsburgh.
In his 15 years as the Steelers’ coach, Cowher’s teams won eight division titles and made the playoffs 10 times total. Those 10 postseason berths included 19 AFC Playoff Games, with 13 of those 19 played at Three Rivers Stadium or Heinz Field. Pittsburgh is a different place when its beloved Steelers are in the playoffs, and when those playoff games are at home, there is an electricity that permeates the region.
During the team’s run to that fifth Super Bowl championship in franchise history, an employee in a local bakery that had been in business for over 50 years acknowledged the revenue generated by Steelers fans who were spending consistently on sandwich and sausage rolls for the watch-parties springing up all over the region as the team made its way through the AFC Playoffs with back-to-back-to-back road games on the way to Super Bowl XL prevented the business from having to close its doors.
“I came to Pittsburgh (as the coach of the Steelers) at the age of 34,” said Cowher. “I knew of the tradition and the expectation of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I grew up there, so I knew what Chuck Noll and his 1970s Steelers did in revitalizing the Pittsburgh area, but what I didn’t know was how to work on the inside. Who were the Rooneys? Well, in my 15 years as a head coach, I grew in every aspect of my life. There was a visionary leader, who never missed a teaching moment and inspired those around him. The Rooney family core values were always about family, community, and just do the right thing. Isn’t that what this Hall of Fame family is all about?”
Family was a recurring theme during Cowher’s time at the podium, because as he said, “When you’re together for 15 years, a team becomes your family.
“The game is about the players, and for all you guys who have played for me, I want to thank you for all your sacrifice, commitment, and trust. As a coach you ask people to trust, so what is trust? Trust is something as a coach, you have to earn. Trust is unconditional. But trust can be powerful. To each every one of you in whatever role you played, I want you to know you never went unappreciated. You are a reflection of our culture.”
By the time the 2005 season arrived, Bill Cowher had earned the trust of his players because of the way he approached his business and the decisions he made along the way. The 2003 season was not a successful one for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Cowher never threw in the towel. He played each game to win, even when it had become clear a losing record was inevitable. He never wasted regular season games on planning for a future that might not include some of the players on the current team, and that approach showed them he wouldn’t give up on them. His approach built a trust, and so when he demanded certain individuals make sacrifices for the good of the group, they knew his intentions were only about doing what he saw as necessary for them to be winners now.
And it all came together at Ford Field during the climax of the 2005 NFL season.
“One of the great parts of the Bill Cowher story is that he grew up in Western Pennsylvania,” said Steelers President Art Rooney II. “He has that set of values – full of grit and toughness. He brought that to his coaching. We knew it was going to be a difficult job to replace Coach Noll, and when the list (of candidates) was finally put together, Bill was the youngest person on the list.
“It was a great moment and really special to see Bill holding that (Lombardi) trophy, that’s for sure. For Bill to hand that trophy to my father, that’s certainly something I’ll never forget. It’s the highest honor for somebody in football to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Bill entered the league at the lowest possible rung of the ladder. He was an undrafted free agent, a longshot, I guess you could call him, to make a team and wound up sticking with the Eagles. He became a special teams player, and from that beginning to go on to have the kind of success he had and to now be inducted into the Hall of Fame, it’s just a great story. I’m just so happy for him and I know our whole family is happy for him.”
There was one more story to tell, and Cowher handled that one himself.
“In 2005, it was prior to our historic run as the first sixth seed to ever win a championship,” said Cowher. “That Monday Dan Rooney came to see me and he gave me these: rosary beads. I said, ‘Dan, I’m not Catholic.’ Dan said to me without missing a beat, ‘Coach, it doesn’t matter. Every little bit helps.’ Well, Dan, I still have (those rosary beads) today. To those who unfortunately are not with us: My parents, Laird and Dorothy; my wife, Kaye; Marty Schottenheimer; and Dan and Pat Rooney: You are here in spirit. I feel you. I love you and hope you’re as proud of me as I am of you. Thank you, Steelers Nation.”