Kaye Cowher carved out her own identity

Died July 23, 2010

She was the wife of the Pittsburgh Steelers football coach -- but she wasn't just Mrs. Bill Cowher.

Kaye Young Cowher, who died of skin cancer Friday at age 54 in her home state of North Carolina, was her own person, with her own accomplishments, even as she protected her husband and children from the limelight's fierce glare.

And if you don't believe it, ask Agnus Berenato, the University of Pittsburgh women's basketball coach, who knew her back in the early days of Title IX, when she was one of the first women to play college basketball on a scholarship in North Carolina.

"Kaye was Kaye, and as far as I was concerned, Bill was Kaye's husband," said Ms. Berenato, whose history with Mrs. Cowher dates back to the 1970s.

Ms. Berenato and her sisters, while playing basketball for the University of North Carolina, were "rivals on the court" against Mrs. Cowher and her identical twin Faye, who both played for North Carolina State. Faye Young Miller would later become Ms. Berenato's assistant when she coached Georgia Tech's women's basketball team.

But when Ms. Berenato first came to Pittsburgh in 2003 to coach for Pitt, she said, "there was a banquet at the YMCA the first or second week I was in town, and Bill was at the head table, and they asked me to speak. I thought, 'What am I going to speak about, are you kidding?' I was young, dumb and didn't know anything -- least of all that Bill was something like a god in Pittsburgh. I had never been to Pittsburgh, I didn't know.

"So I got up and looked over at him and said, 'Well, ha, you all might think Bill's in charge, but Kaye's the one who wears the pants in the family,' and so forth," she said. "Well, Bill was laughing and the whole thing was on television, and believe me I never heard the end of it."

Ms. Berenato is joking about the pants-in-the-family part -- "they had an amazing partnership and strong mutual respect for each other," she said. But her point is that through the years, Mrs. Cowher carved out her own identity as a pioneering female athlete and advocate for women's sports while raising three daughters who were gifted athletes -- and coming to Pittsburgh wouldn't change that.

No one saw this more clearly than Dan Rooney, the Steelers' owner who is now the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. After the Cowhers arrived in Pittsburgh in 1992, Mrs. Cowher -- a mother with a baby -- went out of her way to be helpful to the Steelers players' wives, he recalled.

"I first met her and talked to her when we were interviewing Bill to be our coach," he said in a telephone interview from Dublin Saturday.

"She was a wonderful, outstanding person, very friendly. She was especially good with the players' wives, and she raised three wonderful daughters very beautifully."

Mr. Rooney said he'd been in touch with the Cowher family during Mrs. Cowher's battle with melanoma, most recently talking to Mr. Cowher two months ago. "I feel badly about her," he said quietly.

His son, Steelers president Art Rooney II, extended condolences "on behalf of the entire Steelers family," noting Mrs. Cowher's devotion to her family.

"Kaye made many friends in our organization and our community. She will be missed by the many people whose lives she touched."

Mr. Cowher, a Crafton native who works as a studio analyst for CBS Sports, issued his own statement Saturday.

"Sadly, my wife Kaye lost her battle with cancer on Friday. Kaye was such a loving and compassionate person and she was the foundation of our family. Kaye was always at my side throughout my career as a player, coach, NFL analyst and, most importantly, as a parent to our three daughters Meagan, Lauren and Lindsay. They will miss their mother dearly," he said in the statement.

"Kaye was the rock that we could all lean on in the tough times. She was looked up to by so many people and I cannot say enough about what Kaye meant to our family. Her memory will never be forgotten.

"We would like to thank everyone who has kept our family in their thoughts and prayers and for those who have reached out to express their condolences. It is clear that Kaye touched a lot of lives."

Early on, it was clear that Kaye and her twin sister were destined to go beyond their blue-collar upbringing.

"They were exceptionally bright and talented athletically, but their dad worked in a cotton mill and didn't see college as a realistic opportunity for them," recalled Nora Lynch Finch, associate commissioner for women's basketball at the Atlantic Coast Conference.

She recruited the Young sisters from high school to play women's basketball at Peace College, then a two-year school in Raleigh.

"He thought the girls needed to think about business courses, maybe work in the mill, and marry, but their mother put her foot down and insisted they go to college."

After about two weeks at Peace, however, "it became clear that they didn't fit into the two-year program, so we made sure they took more challenging courses so they could transfer to a four-year college," Ms. Finch said.

Tall at 5-foot-11, Mrs. Cowher's teams at North Carolina State went 21-3 and 29-5, respectively, winning the inaugural Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball title in 1978 with a 9-0 record and ranking No. 3 nationally.

She and her sister later played for the Women's Professional Basketball League. They played one season with the New York Stars and two with the New Jersey Gems.

After the league folded in 1981, she married Mr. Cowher, who was then playing for the Cleveland Browns. The Cowhers met in 1976 when they were classmates at North Carolina State and he was on the football team.

Ms. Finch said the two sisters were both "gorgeous" blondes, who made a commercial for Dannon yogurt while playing professional women's basketball.

"I loved coaching them. They were enormously competitive," she said, noting that as a power forward, "rebounding was Kaye's greatest strength.

"It was hard, hard work -- you're not a good rebounder if you wait for the ball, and she knew that. She had long arms and a nose for the ball."

As did her daughters, said Jeremy Bennett, who was the Fox Chapel High School girls basketball coach when Meagan, Lauren and Lindsay Cowher played on the school's team.

"All three were very athletic," he said, and Mrs. Cowher "was always there to offer advice and assist with the younger players."

For someone so watchful of her family's privacy and determined to create a zone of normalcy amid constant media scrutiny, it's telling that a cause Mrs. Cowher chose to support was dedicated to families at risk -- Family Resources, Inc., a nonprofit child abuse-prevention agency based in Pittsburgh.

In 1998, when Mr. Cowher first stood up to speak at an annual fund-raising dinner for the agency, he said -- only half-jokingly -- that he was there on instructions from his wife.

The Cowhers' involvement began in 1997, when Elizabeth McCarthy, their neighbor in Fox Chapel and a longtime board member at Family Resources, turned to them.

"I knew nothing about development -- we'd had two previous annual events and they were kind of a bust and I thought, 'Maybe if we got the Cowhers that would help us get on peoples' radar,' " said Ms. McCarthy.

"It just so happened that Kaye and I both got our nails done at the same place, and I was walking past her and she flashed me this million-dollar smile, so I stopped and introduced myself, and told her I'd sent her a letter about Family Resources."

"Oh," Mrs. Cowher told her, laughing, "That's my father-in-law's address, send it to me."

Mrs. McCarthy heard nothing until Christmas Eve when her phone rang.

"It was Kaye calling. She said, 'We've received 37 letters from charities asking for our support, but we're going to choose yours,' " Mrs. McCarthy remembers her saying.

The Cowhers were as good as their word. The following May, the Cowhers hosted the agency's third annual dinner, with 270 guests -- up from 87 the year before -- and the numbers would get larger every year, Mrs. McCarthy said.

But Mrs. Cowher wasn't just about charity dinners, she added. She was also intensely interested in the Therapeutic Parent and Children's Center Downtown, a preschool providing intensive therapy for children in Allegheny County who have been physically or sexually abused.

On a day when a dog was brought in for pet therapy, the children crowded around it while Mrs. Cowher sat quietly in a corner, observing closely and interacting with the children -- but asking that her presence not be noted.

Still, "As quiet as she was about not wanting the spotlight, she was a real steel magnolia," said Ms. McCarthy, noting that Mrs. Cowher's mother fought to allow her daughters to play basketball and she in turn raised her girls to be fierce competitors.

When the Cowhers retired to North Carolina in 2007, their parting gift to Family Resources seemed guaranteed to last long after they'd left: a new all-purpose basketball court and football field at the agency's 238-acre retreat center in the North Hills, which they'd helped to refurbish. A summer escape for poor city children, it now serves families year-round who come for workshops on parenting skills, neighborhood safety and leadership training.

Its unveiling on June 10, 2007, was spectacular, too, featuring the Cowhers, Ms. Berenato, a half-dozen Steelers and members of the Pitt women's basketball team who coached dozens of delighted children.

"She was instrumental in the design of that sports court and the field," said Walter Smith, executive director of Family Resources, noting that Mrs. Cowher talked extensively with vendors and the architect about the kind of court she wanted.

"She was a values-driven woman who lived her life because she cared about kids -- her kids and our kids," he added. "Family was her passion."

Indeed, Mrs. McCarthy laughed when she remembered an incident when Mrs. Cowher saw her husband cursing on television during a Steelers game that was going badly.

"Bill was telling me how, God help him, Kaye let him have it when she saw him cursing on television. You could read his lips and she told him, 'You've got three daughters, and you need to be an example to them and the community.' So he had to shape up after that."

Her most vivid memory -- the one she wants to keep -- was of the day Mr. Cowher called her to pick up a signed Super Bowl football to auction off for Family Resources.

"I went over to their house and the whole family was there, and Bill not only gave me the football, he was plying me with books for my husband to read, saying 'Here, he has to read this and this,' and the three girls were laughing and teasing him, and Kaye was there, keeping them all in line.

"That's how I want to remember her, laughing with him and those three girls."

The family will hold a private service Monday in North Carolina.

Memorial contributions may be sent to Family Resources of Pennsylvania, (412) 363-1702 or www.familyresourcesofpa.org.

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. First Published July 25, 2010 4:30 AM


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