Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher released a new book June 1 titled “Heart and Steel” (Atria). It is co-written by Michael Holley, Point Park graduate, New York Times bestselling author and Boston sports personality.
The memoir begins with Cowher’s life as a growing child in Crafton and traces his current role as a football analyst on CBS, his recent Hall of Fame election, and marriage to his second wife, Veronica Stigeler.
A lot of ground is covered. His playing days, his coaching journey, his 15 years as head coach of the Steelers, his decision to retire and some very poignant passages about his personal life, especially the death of his first wife Kaye.
But 270 pages weren’t enough to get all the details Steelers fans surely want. So, ahead of the book’s release, Cowher joined me on Tuesday’s “Breakfast With Benz” podcast to talk about everything in the book.
And some things that aren’t.
What’s in the book: Lots of things about her first marriage to Kaye. Most notably, a look behind the curtain at his early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and his battle with an aggressive form of melanoma. A fight that finally claimed his life at 54 in 2010.
The chapters in Cowher’s book on this subject are by far the most convincing and revealing subject. I’m not writing this or mentioning it first because I think it’s “the right thing to say”. It’s just my opinion. And others I know who have received advanced copies of the book shared a similar thought.
“It’s more personal than I’ve ever been,” Cowher said on Tuesday’s podcast. “I opened up to the world. My hope is that my memories may help in a little way all those who have walked a similar path of difficulty. “
What stands out, in particular, are Cowher’s accounts of Kaye’s sad and rapid decline in health and her role – at times – as a de facto home nurse.
During Kaye’s illness, the Cowher family were very reserved with details beyond the announcement that they were battling melanoma. In the book, Cowher and Holley go into great detail about how difficult it was while she was sick and coping after her death. And the time spent in those years of Cowher’s life after retirement is well done and the most captivating in the book.
What is not in the book: As Cowher deepens his family relationships, there isn’t much going on about individual player relationships. His fondness for guys like Rod Woodson, Jerome Bettis, Dermontti Dawson and Hines Ward is evident. But these are mostly things on the ground.
I’m especially surprised that there hasn’t been more about his behind-the-scenes interactions with Kordell Stewart. The rise and fall – and the resurrection and second fall that followed – of Stewart, has been such a dominant storyline for nearly half of Cowher’s time here that I thought “Slash” might have its own. chapter.
But other than a few game-related timelines, Stewart’s roller coaster in Pittsburgh isn’t getting as much ink as expected.
What’s in the book: A feeling that Cowher and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick are much better friends than I thought.
Cowher shares how the two made a connection when Belichick was an assistant defensive coach in New York with the Giants and was on Marty Schottenheimer’s defensive staff in Kansas City. The two met at Giants Stadium, exchanged experiences and used a lot of notes from each other in their respective roles.
What is not in the book: Any connection between Spygate and the Patriots’ two wins over the Steelers in the 2001 and 2004 AFC Championship games.
There’s a lot going on about Troy Brown’s punt return in ’01 and Rodney Harrison’s sixth pick in ’04. But nothing on the controversy of the theft of signs.
“It’s only cheating if you get caught,” Cowher told me during the podcast. “If he was able to get any information about us, it wasn’t about him. It’s ours. We need to do a better job of hiding our signals. And being careful not to give anything to the opponent. This is called a competitive advantage.
“I never got caught up in this. This is not the reason why we lost the game. We lost the match (s) because they performed better than us. “
What’s in the book: A substantial amount on how his relationship with former director of football operations Tom Donahoe deteriorated in the late 1990s.
“I couldn’t put my finger on what it was at the end of season 98, before 99, but something was wrong with my relationship with our team’s personnel manager, Tom Donahoe,” wrote Cowher.
“I don’t know if he thought I was trying to be more connected than he was in the office, but he was visibly uncomfortable every time I walked into Mr. (Dan ) Rooney. I went there for a routine recording or to give him a little article, but every time I went out Tom wanted to know the sum of our conversations. It had never been like this before, but suddenly there was a tension and eroded trust between us.
What is not in the book: His relationship with Chuck Noll when Cowher took over from Noll in 1992.
The reason is that there was not much to discuss.
It seemed to be intentional on Noll’s part. Cowher and Holley capture this nicely via two very descriptive memories Cowher shared.
“I don’t know if Chuck Noll was intentional with his exit plan after twenty-three seasons as head coach of the Steelers, but by the time I accepted the job in January 1992, Chuck’s office was empty. There was no sign that it ever was, ”Cowher wrote. “There was no main manual – How to Become a Steelers Head Coach – to flip through, and as scary and uncomfortable as it could be, that was the best thing for me too. I was thirty-four and had my own opinions and tons of things to learn.
“I had to understand how the building worked, what the dynamics were with the front office, the personnel and public relations departments, and the property. I needed to ask questions and get my own answers, not start with preconceived ideas. “
Cowher also vividly recalled a very practical conversation between himself and Noll on a plane before Cowher’s first season in 1992. An ecstatic Cowher was eager to choose his predecessor’s brain, but got little clarification.
“I asked him about the working atmosphere in the office, and he said, ‘That’s good.’ That was it. He did not explain or elaborate. Its good. I asked him how, as the head coach, he handled the personnel department and the property. I asked about the doctors on the team and the media too. He gave all the answers in one word or one sentence. Its good. At first, I was surprised by its minimalist approach. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. “
What’s in the book: Cowher’s decision to handle his exit after the 2006 season and the arrival of Mike Tomlin in a way very similar to how Noll handled things.
Because it used to work.
But Cowher points out that he left an Iron City beer in his office refrigerator for Tomlin as a welcome to town gift.
Tomlin finally told Cowher that he always kept it and never drank it.
If Tomlin didn’t open that sucker after watching last year’s joker game movie, I guess he never will.
What is not in the book: Detailed opinions on how he thinks Tomlin is doing now, or what their relationship looks like today.
So during the podcast, I asked.
“I feel very good about my relationship with Mike,” Cowher replied. “I have so much respect for him. In many ways, what he did (in 2019) when Ben (Roethlisberger) was away was one of his best coaching jobs. And obviously what they did last year (to start 11-0) during this pandemic. And all the different protocols.
Cowher uses a lot of space on the drought of the 1998-2000 playoffs and how tough that period has been. I asked him if he saw the potential for Tomlin’s team in 2021 slamming a similar rut of four consecutive seasons without a playoff win.
“They are where they need to be, with the return of Ben,” said Cowher. “The biggest question you’re going to ask yourself is the offensive line to see if it can establish itself this year.”
Cowher also praised the Steelers draft. But he highlighted some variables such as the collective health of the roster over the year and the apparent improvement in other AFC North teams.
What’s in the book: Lots of great ideas on writing and training quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during his superb 2004 rookie season. Cowher talks at length about the push-and-pull that existed between Roethlisberger’s demands (and Cowher’s occasional temptations). to nod) to do more on the offense in that regular season 15-1 in ’04, and the team’s desire to avoid overburdening their responsibility.
Not to mention a tense exchange with outgoing quarterback Tommy Maddox after Roethlisberger was chosen.
He also writes extensively about how shocking Roethlisberger’s attitude and arrogance during the pre-draft interview process was.
“The chip on his shoulder was impossible to miss,” writes Cowher. “He had an advantage over him and an enormous confidence bordering on arrogance. Our Managing Director, Kevin Colbert, also noticed.
“We both decided we wanted to talk to him again in a few weeks. This time we brought him to Pittsburgh. I spoke to him first, then pointed him at Kevin’s office down the hall. After Ben left our building, Kevin and I compared our notes.
“Well, what did you think? Kevin asked.
“Uh, was he… better this time than he was at Indy?” I replied with a laugh.
However, Cowher frequently springs up on Ben’s abilities in the field and pointed out how the QB was one of the first to contact him to congratulate him on being named to the Hall of Fame.
What is not in the book: The name of Shawn Andrews.
It’s the Arkansas goalie Cowher would have been willing to draft in place of Roethlisberger. As The Steelers legend has it, late owner Dan Rooney ultimately prompted Cowher and Colbert to take the risk of drafting a quarterback. This story does not appear in the book, however. Instead, Cowher presents the choice as a given – a collectively aligned mindset and front office decision.
Come to think of it, if Andrews is written for Big Ben, is there even a book to write?
I guess there could have been. But the final chapters of Cowher’s coaching career probably wouldn’t have been so fun to relive.
Listen: Tim Benz chats with former Steelers coach Bill Cowher about his new book and his thoughts on the Steelers now