- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2002

OWINGS MILLS, Md. Since Bill Cowher was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers 10 years ago this month, 69 NFL coaches have lost their jobs. He has been on the job more than two years longer than any of his 31 fellow coaches. All but two of his 17 Pro Bowl players before this season have departed.
But Cowher perseveres, and the 44-year-old firebrand might have done his best work this season. Heading into Sunday's divisional playoff game against Super Bowl defending champion Baltimore at Heinz Field, Cowher has guided the Steelers and long-maligned quarterback Kordell Stewart to an AFC-best 13-3 record despite the club's financially motivated decision to let defensive linchpin Levon Kirkland go during the offseason and the injuries that kept offensive focal point Jerome Bettis out the past six games.
After tying Hall of Famer Paul Brown by making the playoffs in each of his first six NFL seasons, including a Super Bowl loss to Dallas in 1995, Cowher went 7-9 in 1998 and 6-10 in 1999. He benched Stewart, feuded with general manager Tom Donahoe and offered his resignation to owner Dan Rooney. But Donahoe was the one forced out and the Steelers won four of their final five games last year, prompting Rooney to give Cowher a three-year contract extension and setting the stage for the team's best season since 1978.
"I've been fortunate to work for a very supportive owner who has stuck by me through some tough years," Cowher said. "There's a lot of pressure in our business. You don't see people staying in one place over a long period of time. We went through a couple of down years, and we've been trying to re-establish ourselves. A lot of people have questioned how good this team can be. That's what the playoffs will truly answer. We've positioned ourselves where we want to be. Now we have to take advantage of it. Hopefully we're able to make this a special year."
Cowher's Steelers have already done that thanks to the NFL's top-rated defense.
"Bill's a heck of a coach," said Ravens counterpart Brian Billick. "Things started out very well, so the expectations were huge. Then he went through a three-year period where the wolves were at the door. There was a lot of criticism, but he fought through it and he's back on top. To weather that, you have to be very disciplined, very self-confident."
Six of the nine coaches in NFL history with a higher winning percentage than Cowher's .608 and more victories than his 104 are in the Hall of Fame. And among active coaches with at least four years on the job, only Mike Holmgren has been more successful. With his intense style, fierce demeanor and jutting chin, Cowher doesn't seem like a players' coach, but those who have played for him disagree.
"Bill cracks the whip when he has to, but for the most part, he lets his men be men," said Ravens safety Carnell Lake, who played seven seasons for Cowher. "He gives his players respect."
Bettis' six seasons under Cowher are exceeded by just four current Steelers.
"It's great playing for Bill," Bettis said. "He goes to war with his players. He won't get down on you when things aren't going well. That's what you want from a coach, a coach who's going to be honest with you and who'll fight for you at the end of the day."
Cowher fought his way up through the ranks to coach his hometown team. He was cut by Philadelphia as an undrafted rookie out of N.C. State in 1979, but three years later he was Cleveland's special teams captain. When a knee injury ended Cowher's career, Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer made him an assistant. In 1989, Schottenheimer left for Kansas City and named the 32-year-old Cowher as his defensive coordinator. Three strong seasons later, the Steelers hired Cowher to replace four-time Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll.
"Chuck would quote a lot of different things from books," said Ravens safety Rod Woodson, who was a starter five years each for Noll and Cowher. "I don't even know if Bill reads books. He's a blue-collar kind of guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve all the time."
That description is just fine with Cowher.
"The players know that I'm going to tell you how I feel," Cowher said. "What you see is what you get. They may not always like what I tell them, but I think they'll respect it. They know I put my heart and soul into it just like I ask them to."

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