Bill Cowher's initial goal upon becoming the Steelers' head coach was a simple one. A Pittsburgh native who grew up less than 15 miles from Three Rivers Stadium, Cowher was just 34 years old when he was tasked to succeed Chuck Noll, who guided the Steelers to four Super Bowls during the 1970s.
"If I don't screw this up in three years, I can go back to my 20th high school class reunion at Carlynton High School as the head coach of my hometown team," Cowher told NFL Films in 2020. "That was my initial goal."
Cowher achieved that and so much more during his 15 years as the Steelers' coach. A former NFL linebacker for the Browns who later broke into coaching under Marty Schottenheimer, Cowher guided the Steelers to one Super Bowl title, two AFC titles and seven division titles. Cowher's success in Pittsburgh led to his inclusion in the 2020 Hall of Fame class. Cowher's class will be formally inducted in Canton, Ohio, this summer.
As Cowher celebrates his 64th birthday, here are five things you may not have previously known about the former coach and current CBS NFL analyst.
A record-setting start
Cowher's career started with six consecutive trips to the playoffs, tying Paul Brown's record for the most consecutive playoff seasons for a first-time head coach. Led by a dominant defense that included Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Kevin Greene, along with perennial Pro Bowlers Greg Lloyd and Carnell Lake, the "Blitzburgh" Steelers won five division titles during that span while establishing themselves as one of the NFL's most physical outfits. Among the highlights during Cowher's first six seasons included a 1994 playoff victory over Bill Belichick's Browns, the first time the two franchises had ever met in the postseason.
Super Bowl history
After falling short in the 1994 AFC Championship Game, Cowher's 1995 team endured an early setback when Woodson suffered a knee injury in Week 1 that kept him out for the remainder of the regular season. After a slow start, the '95 Steelers became the first team to make it to the Super Bowl after a 3-4 start. A big reason for the Steelers' second-half surge was the emergence of rookie Kordell Stewart, whose versatility as a quarterback, running back and receiver earned him the nickname "Slash."
In the playoffs, the Steelers raced past the Bills before surviving a last-second Hail Mary to beat the Colts in the AFC title game. With the win, the 38-year-old Cowher became the youngest head coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl.
Heavy underdogs in Super Bowl XXX, Cowher helped stem the tide of the game minutes into the fourth quarter. With his team trailing 20-10, Cowher called for what at the time was the earliest-attempted onside kick in Super Bowl history. With the Cowboys' return men taking off downfield, the Steelers surprised everyone when Norm Johnson dribbled his kick to Deon Figures, who recovered the ball just shy of midfield with 11:20 to play. The Steelers, who parlayed Cowher's gamble into a touchdown, fought but ultimately fell just short of completing what would have been an historic comeback.
This day in #PGHistory: At Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers defeat the Colts in the AFC Championship 20-16. (1996)— Pittsburgh Clothing Co. (@PGHClothingCo) January 14, 2019
Indianapolis QB Jim Harbaugh would throw a last-second Hail Mary into the end zone, but it was broken up by an “Immaculate Deflection.” pic.twitter.com/ORUb7j1fmx
The Steelers' best regular season
In 2004, Cowher oversaw the most successful regular season in Steelers history. After dropping its season opener in Baltimore, the Steelers would go on to win their final 15 regular-season games. Among the main catalysts for the '04 Steelers success was second-year safety Troy Polamalu, linebackers Joey Porter and James Farrior, defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith, offensive lineman Alan Faneca, receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, and the QB-RB combo of rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis. Roethlisberger won each of his 13 starts that season, while Bettis -- who started the season as a backup -- earned the final Pro Bowl selection of his Hall of Fame career.
A Cinderella season
Following a 7-5 start to the 2005 season, the final 100-yard game of Bettis' career ignited an eight-game winning streak that culminated in the Steelers' 21-10 victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XL. Along with winning the franchise's fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy, Cowher's team became the first sixth-seed in NFL history to win the Super Bowl. The Steelers also became the first NFL team to win the Super Bowl after winning each of their previous playoff games on the road.
Woodson ruled supreme
Cowher has said that Woodson was the greatest player he coached during his 15 years in Pittsburgh. A dominant force at cornerback and as a return man, Woodson earned seven of his 11 career Pro Bowl selections during his time with the Steelers. The league's Defensive Player of the Year in 1993, Woodson became the first professional athlete to undergo major knee surgery to come back and play in that season, starting for Pittsburgh while containing Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin throughout Super Bowl XXX. Woodson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.