Steelers' loyalty to Cowher paying off

DETROIT -- The chin arrives first, followed soon thereafter by the Inspector Clouseau mustache, the bugged-out eyes, the screaming, and the flecks of spittle.

If there is a hell on football earth, this is it. Nothing -- not Atomic Balm in your jockstrap, not a Tony Siragusa sideline report, not a books-on-tape rehash of the 2005 Houston Texans season -- is worse than the sight of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher breaking the land-speed record to enter your personal space.

"It's like, 'Oh, Lord, here comes Coach Cowher,'" says third-year cornerback Ike Taylor, a frequent victim. "You're like, 'He's getting closer ... getting real close ... just keep some eye contact with him ... don't say nothing.'"

And the Cowher spit-fest?

"You can't even worry about that," says Taylor. "You're worrying about Coach just being in your face, more than anything. If he's in your face, it's not a good thing."

If Cowher is in your face you'll need a squeegee and a probably a hug at scream's end. He gets so close you can count the lines in his scowl.

"He only does it on game day," says nose tackle Casey Hampton. "He's doing that for the cameras. He just be showing off."

Hampton is kidding, though he does lower his voice when he says this. No sense taking a chance on Cowher, who is about 30 feet away, hearing him.

"He ain't never got on me like that," says Hampton.

Nobody wants to be Cowher-ized. His snarl is so pronounced you want to take him to the vet for a distemper shot. The only thing missing is mouth foam.

But this is the Cowher we see on Sundays. This is the Cowher his players lovingly imitate -- in private, of course.

"They're used to be a couple of guys [who did impressions]," says backup quarterback Tommy Maddox, now in his fifth season with the Steelers. "But they're all gone. So maybe that's a bad thing to have."

That's not entirely true. Linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans have Cowher's mannerisms and sayings down cold. The proper jutting of the chin is a must. Then the fingers have to flare out just so during a tirade. Spitting is optional. Non-tirade imitations must include the Cowher favorite, "Keep it in perspective."

Maddox has been around long enough to know Cowher's coaching themes by heart. All it takes is a few opening sentences.

"There are some speeches, for some of us who have been around a long time, that we're like, 'Oh, we're getting that speech again,' " he says.

Cowher has earned the right to recycle his material. Hired in 1992 to succeed the legendary Chuck Noll, Cowher is only the second Steelers coach in the last 36 years. He is great theater (NFL Films camera operators will weep when he retires one day), but perhaps it's time to acknowledge that Cowher is also a great coach. Not Noll-and-four-Super Bowl-wins great -- nobody is in that team photo -- but mere-mortal great.

The truth is, Cowher is more than just another contorted face. He has substance, a sense of loyalty, and a respect for those who stick with him, and for those who play and coach for him. And the guy would swim each of Pittsburgh's three rivers for the Rooney family. After all, it was Steelers owner Dan Rooney who hired the then-34-year-old Cowher to replace Noll. And it was Rooney who ignored those who wanted Cowher canned after back-to-back losing seasons in 1998 and 1999.

"A lot of places I probably am [fired]," says Cowher. "I'm probably gone."

But if there's such a thing as a mom-and-pop NFL franchise -- and I mean this in a good way -- the Steelers are it. During the interview process, and even after Cowher was hired, Rooney would call two or three times a week. Football was rarely discussed. Instead, Rooney would ask Cowher about his wife, about his kids, about his level of happiness.

After one call, Cowher's wife, Kaye, couldn't help herself.

"What'd he want?" she said.

Cowher thought about it for a moment. "I think he just wanted to talk," he said.

Rooney didn't reach for a pink slip after the 1999 season. Instead, he showed some faith, and Cowher rewarded him with three AFC Championship appearances and now a place in Super Bowl XL.

All it took this year was four consecutive victories to end the regular season, and then three road playoff upsets to reach Detroit. No wonder you can officially include Cowher on the list of best NFL coaches never to have won a title.

If you're keeping count (and they are in Pittsburgh), no NFL team has more victories since Cowher was hired by the Steelers in '92. And only three active coaches in the league (Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs) have more career wins. It isn't the same thing as clearing space for another Lombardi Trophy, but it isn't bad.

Longevity should mean something in this business, and no NFL coach has more consecutive tenure with the same team than Cowher. Meanwhile, there have been 94 head coaching changes since Cowher was hired.

Rooney was no dummy with those phone calls. Before you can know the coach, you must first know the person.

"They brought me back, trusted me, and I am forever grateful for that," says Cowher. "You don't forget those type of things. Like I've said, there's nothing that would mean more to me than to be able to hand him that trophy."

If it happens, you'll see the Cowher that Kaye and his three daughters see: the Cowher as soft as a butter patty ... the Cowher who might get a little misty ... the Cowher who trudges upstairs to change after his wife and kids veto his latest ghastly sweater/shirt selection.

"People don't know this," says his oldest daughter Meagan, who plays hoops at Princeton, "but he's a softy. He's not as tough as he looks."

Ike Taylor will be relieved to hear this. If the Steelers win Sunday, maybe he'll get something other than The Chin. Maybe he'll get another Cowher favorite.

The Hug.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.