Coach Cowher is the man, and not just on the field

January 09, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

Our family was gathered in my mother's home in Pittsburgh for our traditional Christmas Eve celebration and because all four of my mother's daughters married and all of us bore sons, the Steelers game was on television.

On the last play of the last game of the regular season, Steelers wide receiver Yancey Thigpen missed a catch in the corner of the end zone that anyone in my mother's living room could have caught, and it cost the Steelers a victory over Green Bay.

Immediately upon seeing the replay, my dear, fragile mother barked at the television screen, "What's the matter with you, Yancey. You've been catching passes like that all season. God, I hate to see a loss going into the playoffs."

I offer this as an illustration of what it is like to live in Pittsburgh and be a Steelers fan. Anyone in my hometown could offer the same anecdote from their family tree.

The old-timers will tell you that Steelermania existed even before coach Chuck Noll arrived in 1969, drafted Joe Greene and built a dynasty that won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. But the last Super Bowl trophy arrived at the Steelers offices in January 1980, and there has been a bit of a dry spell for the black-and-gold.

All that changed with the arrival of Bill Cowher, Steelers coach and, from what I can tell, '90s guy.

Cowher, who grew up 10 minutes from Three Rivers Stadium and returned to coach the team his father has worshiped each football Sunday for his whole life, has taken the Steelers to the playoffs every year since he was hired in 1992.

And the women in Pittsburgh are crazy for the new coach.

Pittsburgh women have always been astute football fans. I have never been sure if it was nature or nurture. Whether it was something in the water drawn from the three rivers that converge in Pittsburgh to flush clean the steel mills, or a matter of survival in a town where the men wear Steelers jerseys when they dress for dinner out.

In any case, Pittsburgh women can tell you if a pass was catchable or a tackle missed, can spot movement at the line of scrimmage and will tell you that was pass interference, what are those officials, blind? The sad truth is, if you are a woman and don't have an opinion about who the Steelers should draft, you might never marry.

So, when the chilly and stoic Chuck Noll retired -- he was called "The Pope" as a player because he never made a mistake -- and was replaced by the wildly demonstrative Cowher and his jutting, you-wanna-take-it-outside-pal lower jaw, it did not take long for the women to notice.

My sister-in-law's fondest wish is for an autographed picture of Cowher, 38, who used to play professional football and looks as if he could still dress for a game without embarrassing himself.

And my mother behaves in an unseemly girlish fashion when she talks about him. Bill Cowher has a kind of fan support of which fat guys such as Bill Parcells in New England and Dennis Green in Minnesota only dream.

But Pittsburgh women are not silly or superficial. Life in a steel town is not easy, and it is harder still when the mills and mines start to close, as they have around Pittsburgh. These women have not fallen for Cowher because of his looks, because he sneers when he smiles and he spits when he talks. The man is no Pat Riley in Armani suits.

No. Something else about Cowher has pierced the steel-plated hearts of Pittsburgh women.

Cowher is a Pittsburgh guy. From his accent to his work ethic. His idea of a good time is the McDonald's drive-through with his three daughters or a beer on the front porch of his dad's home (which has become a drive-by mecca for fans). This is a guy who does not whine when he loses. He makes no excuses, but sets his massive jaw and determines to work harder.

Pittsburgh women sense: This is a guy who won't do you no wrong.

"He's clean-looking, but he's not handsome. He has the most high-profile job you can have in this town, and yet he appears vulnerable," says Elizabeth. "He's not defensive. He's blunt and honest. Women find that very appealing."

Cowher's emotion outstrips his good sense by such a wide margin that it sparks the protective instincts of women. When he got the Steelers job -- the only job without a union card a Pittsburgh boy would ever consider taking -- he called his wife in a panic and worried about what he had gotten himself into.

"When he loses, you just want to take the guy home and tell him, 'It's OK. You'll do better next week,' " Elizabeth says.

And Cowher has revealed just enough intellectual depth to assure women that he is not a stupid brute.

Television cameras caught him smiling during the final play of a critical game against Houston during his first season. After a pounding four quarters of football, the outcome turned on the last play of the game -- a field-goal attempt.

When asked how he could smile at such a moment, Cowher revealed that the irony -- that such a punishing game would be decided by one player's slim foot -- amused him.

"He's always smiling," said Jill. "It's like he enjoys the game, it is not just a job to him.

"But everything I've read about him says that he is a family man first and a coach second," she said. "I wouldn't be watching every game if it wasn't for him."

The look on Cowher's face as his young daughter handed over a check, the family's gift to a Pittsburgh charity, stole the heart of another Pittsburgh woman.

"It was the most fatherly look. He was so proud of her," Jean said. "That impressed me so much. I thought, what a tremendously fine man he is."

If the Steelers win Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, they will return to the Super Bowl Jan. 28.

That's a Pittsburgh woman for you. We only back winners.

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