From the notebook of a sportswriter who has to admit he was taken aback by Bill Cowher being named to the Hall of Fame this weekend:
n Probably even more so than Cowher himself.
n That live clip has Cowher going from stuffing the photo into an official's shirt pocket upon being interrupted, to processing the info as if Bobby April had just suggested a "surprise onside," to figuring it out and pointing first down to wrap up a Super Bowl, to crying and kissing his wife and daughters on the post-game Lombardi platform.
n Just beautiful, much like his career.
n And I think I rode every part of the roller coaster with him. My first year covering the team was 1995. I can't remember much of our dealings that year as I was just getting comfortable with the players, but in Japan the following summer, Cowher saw me out on the street one night near the hotel and made a big deal of how we were both going out to carouse Tokyo. I thought he must've gotten me confused with someone else, but it turned out, as I learned later, that he appreciated how I went about my job.
n Maybe that's why he was so upset with my question during a televised press conference in 1999. The Steelers had just lost three straight to fall to 2-3 and someone asked if he would make changes to perhaps send a message. "I don't send messages that way," Cowher said. My follow-up was "By not making changes, isn't that a message in itself?" And he blew a gasket.
n He didn't just stick that chin out and grimace though. His lips quivered in raw anger and then ripped into me as I sat there and took it.
n I had to leave early to get to a funeral home in Uniontown and learned later that Cowher had popped his head into the small media room at Three Rivers Stadium, and that he probably wanted to apologize. But I wasn't there and he just made a general statement to the rest of the reporters in there about his impatience at times. I thought that was cool.
n Of course, at the funeral home everyone was talking about it and I realized the scope of those televised pressers. I wasn't real happy, and it probably affected the way I treated him the next couple of years.
n Then again, the 6-10 finish that season probably affected the way I treated him, too. And then to start the next season with Kent Graham at QB, eh.
n Cowher of course bounced back in 2001 with an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers lost at home for the third time in four such home games with Cowher. And following a losing season in 2003, Cowher then lost his fourth AFCCG at home following the 2004 season. That's when I remember him sitting down at the podium and glaring at me before he took questions. He was pretty sick of the local media at that point.
n It was also in that 2003-04 era when Cowher seemed to have lost a lot of people in his own building. That was when Steelers Digest was a big deal in the building. It still is, but I heard more feedback then than I remember otherwise. And most of it was challenging me to rip the coach. I couldn't criticize him enough. I was also told not to worry because Dan Rooney liked when his employees were kept on their toes by the media. So much for the organization tamping down criticism, as is often the charge.
n At that point I learned that you didn't need the coach -- or the quarterback, for that matter --- to like you as a critical reporter, because they normally only speak in large groups and wouldn't show pettiness by singling you out. That's when I was in my late 30s/early 40s and thought it was very important for me to show my colleagues and readers that I would rip anyone, that I was a natural journalistic badass.
n Of course, Cowher showed me how wrong I was about his abilities when he came back to win it all in 2005. But the criticism from many of us continued during his lame-duck 2006 when we were all over the lethargy permeating a team from which we already knew he was retiring.
n I remember at the end of the 2006 season when Cowher passed me and a well-known reporter in the hallway, and there was no love lost whatsoever. No acknowledgement, either. He didn't care about us; we couldn't wait until he was gone.
n He was the boss of that building -- as are all Steelers head coaches -- and he came off as more tyrant than energy source, which is how Mike Tomlin rules the building. Cowher was more my-way-or-highway, which is a very natural way for a head coach to act. It helped him bring discipline and order. It also made enemies for no matter how small the matters.
n But when Cowher got his job with CBS, I began to realize how good he is -- as a person, as a speaker, as a motivator, as an all-around football guy. I began to regret my youthful need to prove my badassery as a reporter. It became apparent that I had gotten this guy all wrong, and how he had proved it with his record and his ring. So I had zero relationship with a guy who would probably become a Hall of Famer.
n And then a few years ago, at one of Thomas Tull's movie premieres, for the underrated "Fastball," Cowher surprised me with a "Hi Jim" and an offering of his hand. Since then we've spoken a few times, and each time the fragments of our shattered past are put back into place. I've really come to realize a lot about both of our professions, and use our example every time someone wants me to rip Tomlin for losing a game. There's so much more to running that building than second-half adjustments.
n I also use a long discussion Cowher once gave us, following the infamous tie against Michael Vick's Falcons, as a tutorial for how much goes into late-game time management, about which many of us watching aren't aware. Cowher -- as I'm learning about every coach in every city -- was also a lightning rod of time-management criticism during his career.
n It was like all of the ugly past evaporated as I watched the surprise unfold for him on TV this weekend. He is that real personality we see on TV. He does personify Pittsburgh, the game, and we see every emotion spin through his mind in real time as the stimuli hit him. Same as it ever was.
n I did have the chance to interview Cowher this year before he was inducted into the Steelers' Hall of Honor. I asked him first how it felt to be so honored, and then I threw him up another softball and asked if he would have his speech ready when the Pro Football Hall of Fame came calling. It wasn't that I was expecting it. I was just turning from badass to kissass.
But here was his answer:
"(Laughs) You know what? Whether that ever happens or not, the one thing they can never take away is the special 15 years I had in Pittsburgh -- especially having grown up about three miles from that stadium. My parents were able to see my children grow up. It was a very, very special time and something I will relish the rest of my life."
n Is it too obvious to ask about your greatest moment?
"You can ask it but I'll give the obvious answer: Certainly that Sunday afternoon in Detroit, winning that. I think the one moment I will always remember is being able to hand that trophy to Dan Rooney. That really meant a lot to me. Through all the years, 14 years, of being there, the faith that he had in myself, the support I got from that organization, from top to bottom, and not just as a coach. He made me a better person, the values of family, just the legendary history of that organization, to be able to hand him that trophy that had been sought after for so long, the one for the thumb, to hand that to him, that meant a lot to me and I will always remember that moment."
n Am I out of line asking why you didn't want to go for another one after 2006? You obviously had a young franchise quarterback.
"It just, for whatever reason, it just seemed appropriate for our family at the time, just to take a step back. I had done it for a long time. It totally occupied my life and I just think being able to step down and still have the platform I had at CBS was an opportunity to just sit back and reflect, and at that point accept a new challenge. I didn't know what it was going to entail. I didn't go in there with any preconceived thoughts, but as I sit here 13 years later I have no regrets whatsoever. I've been able to do things that, had I stayed in coaching, I would not have been able to do -- in terms of traveling and experiencing things that the grind of being an NFL coach would not allow you to do. I've gotten back to normalcy. I'm in New York, a New Yorker, spending time in Bedford, an hour outside the city as well. Again, a little bit more normalcy in terms of having an offseason where you can travel and spend time with five grandkids that I'm so blessed to be able to enjoy. Got remarried after my wife passed away. She's a musician. It's really been a very wholesome life I'm living right now, a lot more balance than I've ever had before."
n (Laughs) A lot more wholesome in the media and following a rock star, huh?
"(Laughs) Yeah, that's about pretty much it, exactly. I know this is the 100th year of the NFL, and I spent 40 years in it in terms of coaching, playing and now on the other side of the media. The NFL's been an integral part of my life, and this Hall of Honor induction that goes with being with the Pittsburgh Steelers is really a highlight of it."
n We talked a little more about the current team and how the previous day's trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick could spark them. Cowher was a big fan of that trade before he even saw Fitzpatrick wear the colors.
n And then, in what to me was reminiscent of a phone interview with Jack Lambert, I thanked him and told him I was good, wished him luck and said goodbye. Lambert called me out for ending the interview early, and I always regretted not staying on the line and just talking about the game, even though I had enough to do my job and didn't want to tie him up. Cowher didn't say so, but I had the impression he was surprised by the goodbye, that we could've talked ball all night.
n Maybe I'll get that chance again. I feel like I screwed up the first 10 years of our relationship. But he fixed it, and with no real benefit for him. That's a Hall of Famer right there.