Ron Cook: Cowher goes out a winner

Emotional comeback is 'poetic justice' for what is likely to bring an end to the Bill Cowher era

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CINCINNATI -- Bill Cowher's voice cracked just one time, best anyone could tell.

Moments after he addressed his Steelers players as a group for what almost certainly was the final time -- after he shared in the joy that followed the 23-17 overtime victory against the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday by rocking and rolling to the Joey Porter-led "Who Ride? We Ride!" chant that has become a team tradition after wins -- Cowher was asked if it was hard to keep his emotions in check.

Really, who wouldn't be emotional about walking away from a 15-year chapter of his or her life?

"It's hard when I see those players," Cowher said. "That's why I'm in this business. Those guys in that locker room."

Cowher is a bigger man than me.

I would have been bawling like a baby.

It's not just that Cowher is on the verge of quitting one of the best jobs in sports because of family reasons or money reasons or both, leaving the greatest, most patient, most loyal owners. It's the affection and respect for him that oozed in the locker room in those precious seconds after wide receiver Santonio Holmes lugged a short Ben Roethlisberger pass 67 yards for the winning touchdown.

Porter asked Cowher point-blank if he was coming back, presumably hoping against hope to get the answer he wanted.

Cowher said he dodged the question, telling the players he hadn't made up his mind. He told the media the same thing a little later but let down his guard just a bit when he said, "I know where I'm leaning. I just have to step back and remove the emotion."

Does that sound like a guy who's gone or what?

Official confirmation could come today when Cowher meets with each player at the team's South Side headquarters, his end-of-season routine. He said he wants to take "some time to reflect," but it's hard to imagine the Rooneys giving him much. They need to go about their business of finding their new coach, be it offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt -- the choice here -- or assistant head coach Russ Grimm or someone from the outside. You would think a decision would have to be made this week.

"I want him to stay," cornerback Deshea Townsend said of Cowher.

That was the prevailing sentiment among the players. And why not? Together, they and Cowher have done marvelous things, averaging 10 wins per year. This season didn't go well -- 8-8 and no playoffs, an underachievement for sure -- but they always will remember their time together when they look at their Super Bowl rings from last season.

You know of Cowher's relationship with Porter. It was Cowher who talked Porter into reporting to training camp last summer instead of doing a contract holdout. You saw Porter kiss Cowher on the neck after a big play in the opener against Miami and know that Porter turned up to show his support for Cowher at a Princeton-Duquesne women's basketball game before Christmas because two of Cowher's daughters play for Princeton.

But a lot of the other older players hold Cowher in the same high regard. Defensive end Aaron Smith, for instance. "I love playing for him." And the young players, too. Take Holmes, a rookie. "He helped me so much. He kept me going when I had all of the things" -- two arrests -- "going on in my life."

That's why it was kind of neat the Steelers sent Cowher out a winner, although much credit has to go to Bengals kicker Shayne Graham, who pushed a 39-yard field goal try at the end of regulation.

It was a game so typical of the Cowher era. The Steelers ran the ball well, getting 134 yards on 37 carries from Willie Parker. They did a great job stopping the run, holding the Bengals to 44 rushing yards. They won a close game; they are 51-34-1 in regular-season games decided by seven or fewer points under Cowher. And they beat the Bengals; they have won six in a row in Cincinnati, making Cowher 21-9 overall against the Bengals, his most wins against an opponent.

No one can accuse Cowher of going through the motions. He was typically animated on the sideline. Maybe not to the point of running across the field and stuffing a photograph in the referee's pocket, as he did to Gordon McCarter in a game in 1995. And maybe not to the degree where he threatened to come off the sideline to tackle one of the Bengals, as he nearly did to Jacksonville's Chris Hudson when Hudson returned a blocked field goal in 1997. But animated, nonetheless, especially after the Steelers' offense had a 90-yard scoring drive in the second quarter and their defense held at the Steelers' 6 and limited the Bengals to a field goal late in the first half.

Cowher probably did his best coaching with Parker, rushing to grab him coming off the sideline after he lost a fumble near the Bengals' goal line early in the fourth quarter.

"I didn't want him to keep his head down," Cowher said. "As much as we are going to be handing him the ball, that is going to happen. I didn't want him to change his running style. He is not a fumbler."

Later, Cowher was the first to grab Parker after he scored a 1-yard touchdown to give the Steelers a 14-10 lead.

"That," Cowher said, grinning, "was poetic justice."

There was a lot of that going around on this day.

This ending was a lot better than the 31-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens last week, presumably Cowher's final game at Heinz Field.

Cowher -- of all coaches and after 15 mostly successful seasons -- had this win coming.


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