Readers of Bill Cowher’s new book will receive an open and honest collection of stories from the Steelers’ Hall of Fame coach. Along with stories from his childhood and personal life, “Heart and Steel” — Cowher’s autobiography written in collaboration with Michael Holley — also delivers several revelations from his 15 years as Pittsburgh’s head coach. Among the things readers will be surprised to learn is which team Cowher feels was his best with the Steelers (the 1997 team that fell to the Broncos in the AFC title game) and the reason Pittsburgh decided to move on from Rod Woodson after the 1996 season.
One topic Cowher did not address in his book is the Spygate scandal that may have contributed to his team’s losses to the Patriots in two AFC championship games. Despite evidence suggesting that the Patriots had an unfair advantage in both contests, Cowher does not pin his his team’s shortcomings on Spygate. Cowher also doesn’t blame Patriots coach Bill Belichick for trying to gain the upper hand.
“It’s only cheating if you get caught,” Cowher told The Athletic’s Ed Bouchette. “Like any player, if you’re going to hold him, don’t get caught. If you get caught you’re wrong, if you don’t you’re right. I always thought we never lost the games to New England because of Spygate. If he got the calls because we didn’t do a very good job of making sure we signaled those in, that’s on us, it’s not on him. Because we’re always looking for competitive edges. I think as any coach whether it’s someone’s stance, someone’s split, someone’s formation. You’re looking at someone’s eyes, how are they coming out of a huddle? You’re always looking for those little things that give you a competitive edge and that to me is what that was.”
In 2015, an in-depth report by ESPN unveiled the extent of the Patriots’ illegal recording during their first championship run. Included in ESPN’s report is that the Patriots had “handwritten diagrams of the defensive signals” the Steelers used during New England’s 24-17 victory. Three years later, the Patriots again defeated the Steelers one game shy of the Super Bowl.
“We didn’t lose the game because of [Sypgate],” Cowher said. “We lost the game because they executed better than we did.”
Several of Cowher’s former players may not entirely agree. Former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward still questions the legitimacy of those games.
“When we played [New England] in the championship games, we would audible, and the whole defense switched to the side that we were running,” he said in a 2019 interview with Barstool Sports. “I just don’t understand how [the Patriots] knew all our audibles, all our signals.”
“The Spygate thing, that was frustrating,” added former Steelers Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis in a 2015 interview the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Looking back, there were opportunities that were blown that was very hurtful. But you can’t cry over spilled milk, and we lost those opportunities. We should have played better and we didn’t and we can’t do anything but blame ourselves.”
Instead of lamenting over what his teams didn’t do, Cowher is appreciative of what his teams were able to accomplish during his time in Pittsburgh. The second coach in NFL history to make the playoffs in each of his first six seasons, Cowher became the youngest coach in NFL history (38) to take a team to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1995 season. That season, the Steelers became the first team to reach the Super Bowl after a 3-4 start. In Super Bowl XXX, Cowher called a gutsy game that included the earliest attempted onside kick (at that time) in Super Bowl history. Cowher’s bravado nearly paid off, as the Steelers threatened to upset the Cowboys before a late interception sealed Pittsburgh’s fate.
Two years later, Cowher’s 1997 team — the one he believes was the best of his Steelers teams — enjoyed a magical ride that included three thrilling overtime victories during the regular season. It was particularly a magical season for quarterback Kordell Stewart, who became the first player in NFL history to throw at least 20 touchdowns and run for at least 10 more in the same season. Seven years later, Cowher’s 2004 team won a franchise record 15 regular season games. The following year, the Steelers became the first sixth seed to win the Super Bowl, defeating the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL after winning three consecutive road games. All that success will lead to Cowher being formerly inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
“I have no regrets at all, and I think that’s what you’ll see in this book,” Cowher said. “I have a lot of lessons I learned about playing, coaching, being a father; how do you deal with people, when you lose someone how do you deal with grieving? I went through grieving with three daughters and I talk very openly about that in my book. Part of life is not to have regrets but what did you learn from it? Did you grow from it? I’d like to think I haven’t stopped growing.”