That's right, give me 10 minutes with Coach Cowher. I don't care where, as long as I have a monopoly on his attention and he can't leave until I've had my say. Put me in the urinal next to him, on an elevator with him, in a shared cab—it doesn't matter. Just give me the opportunity for a brief intervention.
That's right, I said intervention. That's what we call it when we corner someone we care about to slap some sense into their head before they continue down some ultimately self-destructive path.
In the coach's case, if the information on the rumorcoaster is even 10 percent true, the man who's steel jaw came to symbolize the steel-mill, hard-hat, failure-is-not-an-option outlook of the Pittsburgh Steelers, even when the steel mills themselves were long gone from Steeltown, is apparently addicted to something that is clouding his judgement.
What is the Cowher drug of choice? I don't know, glamor maybe? Now that he's won a Super Bowl and has enjoyed celebrity TV status as a pigskin pundit he may think he's no longer in the same league with another former steeltown. Maybe the white on his collar from the broadcast booth is blinding him to the true blue that will undoubtedly bleed through the next time he breaks a sweat—if he breaks a sweat.
Anyway, pretend with me that I've got him where I want him and eavesdrop on my conversation.
"Hey, Coach Cowher! Wow! Imagine sharing this restroom with you! Here I am little old John Howell, nobody from nowhere taking a leak in the urinal next to the great Bill Cowher! Man! How did I get so lucky?"
He gives me that signature Cowher sneer/scowl. That's a good sign—I think. Hope.
"Hey, Bill. Can I call you Bill?"
Still sneering/scowling, not even a grunt of an answer, I decide I'd better ixnay the first name basis.
"Sorry. Forgive my familiarity. Coach Cowher."
I know I have to make my move fast because he's starting to do the little dance we men do when such activities are almost completed.
"Ok, Coach, listen to me. You don't know me. You probably don't give a rodent's posterior what a polywog like me thinks, but you need to hear me out. Two minutes."
Still silent, he stops the sneer/scowl and gives me a look that says, I'm listening, against my better judgment, but if I don't like what I hear, I may kill you with my bare hands at any moment. Shoot your trap at your own risk.
Ok, Bill. Oops. I mean Coach. Here's the thing. You really have the itch to get back into coaching, but those fancy-ass jobs in Carolina or Tampa Bay aren't open. It's gotta be a big letdown. And yeah, you let yourself consider Buffalo for what—a half second—while Wilson and Brandon played footsie with you until your so-called better judgment snapped you out of it?
And then you decided you'll just have to settle for another year of punditry because after all, everyone has standards and, my God, Buffalo? BUFFALO? (Read, PLAYOFFS? ala Jim Mora in beer commercial.)
Buffalo? What were you thinking?
"Exactly, Coach Cowher! What WERE you thinking when you slammed the door on the one opportunity that will make you an NFL legend the likes of Halas, Lombardi, or your Pittsburgh predecessor, Chuck Noll, perhaps? (Because as much as you achieved thus far, you're still not on the level of these guys yet, and you won't get there wearing a blazer with a network logo on the pocket. Trust me.)"
Finally he looks half interested with one eye while continuing to glare with the other.
"You don't get it, do you, Coach?"
The one eye that had a glint of interest is slipping quickly back into glare mode with a bit of a seethe blended in, so I realize I'd better get to the point.
"Okay, here it is. Ready? Buffalo is the new Pittsburgh. Think about it. Rust belt town, built on heavy industry, but its manufacturing prowess and its sense of collective identity gradually slipped quickly away from the seventies on, just like Pittsburgh. But at least there's football."
"Pittsburgh had the great Knoll years in the 70's when steel production started taking the fast lane to Japan. But then, after that, the Steelers and their hometown wallowed in mediocrity for years, wandering like the Israelites in the wilderness until you showed up. By then, the only hard hats worn in the Three Rivers area were Steelers helmets. Helmets, yes, but the Steel Curtain they once represented was long gone."
He's giving me that, "I kind of know where you're going with this, but can you boil down the sociology lesson?" look, so I try my best to be concise.
"That's right, Coach, things were drifting big time, like a rogue barge on the Monongahela, till you arrived. Then, right away, you helped the town and their beloved team find themselves again. Sure, you weren't absolutely perfect. There was that thing with Cordell Stewart, after all, but basically, other than that "Slash" and burn issue, you did what only Bill Cowher could do for a Rust Belt town with an identity crisis
"You put the iron ore back into the Steelers. You heated up the old blast furnaces. And if there was any red to be found at Heinz Field it was blood, not ketchup. It took a few years of more or less continuous progress but eventually, you put all the pieces together, and got the old steel town another piece of hardware in the likeness of Saint Lombardi.
"And let's face it. What you did was great. What you did was uniquely your doing, as no other coach could have done. But I know Vince Lombardi, and he was a friend of mine (not really on either count, but you get the allusion) and Coach, you're no Vince Lombardi—yet."
At this point Cowher's standing there, still in his stall but staring straight at me as if he had just seen a vision of—I don't know, Terry Bradshaw with hair? Anyway, I could tell I was getting through to him. I was on a roll. But who knew how long I'd have him like that, so I started sprinting for the wire.
"Which is why Buffalo is critical to your NFL legacy.
"Where did Lombardi ascend to gridiron sainthood? It wasn't in Washington. It was in the most unlikely of places. Green Bay. Population 75,000 including domestic animals. Not exactly a garden spot, right Coach? Not Carolina, that's for damn sure. Certainly not Tampa Bay.
"I mean really, Coach, are you getting soft? What is it with you? The Bill Cowher I know doesn't want to be in shirtsleeves in Carolina in November or Florida without even a sweater after New Year's. And what's the big challenge in either town? Tampa Bay has won it all. No ground to break there. So explain it to me, Coach? Why NOT Buffalo?
"Buffalo is still stinging from four consecutive near-misses, from "Wide Right," and after the four frustrations, the so-called Music City Miracle. Buffalo has lost a fifth of its population since Pittsburgh won their last Super Bowl under Chuck Noll. Buffalo's weather is worse than its economy—though it could be said that both are better than perceived—but still.
"Coach, Buffalo is the only place Bill Cowher goes to become a legend. There are a lot of coaches who managed to win one Super Bowl in some panty-ass town where half the population didn't even bother to turn on the TV when the team was in the big one. My God, you don't want to be confused with Jon Gruden for Chrissakes!
"Coach, Buffalo is your Green Bay! If you were an airline pilot, it would be your Hudson River. How can you not see this! Sure, Buffalo needs you in the worst way, but you need Buffalo even more."
"Okay, okay," he shouts. And just as quickly he's on his cell phone. Is that his wife, he's talking to?
"Hey Hon, it's Vince—I mean Bill. Yeah. No. Never mind. You wouldn't understand. Listen, I need you to do something for me. Can you find that message from—yeah, from Ralph Wilson. Is it still there on my desk—no probably in the can. Yeah. Do you mind? I need his number. Hey, hold on, Hon! I'm sure they have nice houses in Buffalo."
John is available as a speaker for any organization or event on sports topics or a variety of other topics. For more information see The Speaker page on his website: www.johnwingspreadhowell.com/theconsultant.aspx