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Cowher still trying to win the big one



Published: Wed, January 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



PITTSBURGH (AP) -- For someone saddled with the reputation of not winning the big one, Bill Cowher certainly coaches in a lot of big games.

That's why there's extra incentive in Sunday's AFC championship game for one of the most successful coaches to never win a Super Bowl: The man widely considered pro football's best coach is on the opposing sideline.

Cowher, the Steelers' coach since 1992, has won more regular-season games and division titles than the Patriots' Bill Belichick -- and just as many playoff games. When the two went head-to-head in the same division for four seasons from 1992-95, Cowher won three division titles to Belichick's none.

Amid the one-sided comparisons is the singular statistic that explains why Belichick is the resident wizard among NFL coaches, and Cowher is considered to be merely among the elite.

Super Bowls won: Belichick 2, Cowher 0.

Career resume missing big win

And it's not just winning football's biggest game that's been the problem -- Cowher is 0-1 in the Super Bowl -- it's getting there. This is the fifth time since 1995 the Steelers have played in the AFC title game, yet they have won only once and were upset three times as a favorite.

Can't win the big one? Seems the problem has been more like can't-win-the-one-before-the-big-one.

"I want to win a championship," Cowher said, resolutely, aware his career will seem incomplete unless he raises the Lombardi Trophy. "It has been a void that has been there."

Void? It's been a Grand Canyon-sized crater, especially because he is one of only two Steelers coaches in 36 seasons, yet is clearly the least-accomplished.

Chuck Noll might have won only two playoff games in his final 12 seasons, but he is still the only coach to win four Super Bowls.

Cowher, talking Tuesday, didn't try to rationalize the Steelers' AFC title game upset losses to San Diego (January 1995), Denver (1998) or New England (2002).

"I think we have been prepared to play every game," he said.

"When you go into the playoffs, you are playing quality teams and you can't turn the ball over and squander scoring opportunities. Those things have a way of staring you in the face at the end of a football game."

New attitude

Sounds like a simplistic answer for a complex man -- one who trails only Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells and Mike Holmgren in playoff victories among active coaches, yet is the only one of that group without a Super Bowl title.

Cowher dismisses the notion his teams were unprepared -- read "outcoached" -- but it's evident the Steelers have altered their approach since losing 24-17 to New England in the AFC title game in January 2002.

There's not a sliver of a chance Cowher would allow a Super Bowl rap video rehearsal this week, as he did 10 years ago. He also hasn't said one word about Super Bowl plans, as he did in 2002 -- a miscalculation the Patriots turned into a motivational tool.

The Steelers' minimalist plan is to focus every bit of attention on that day's practice or that week's game, never once daring to look behind or ahead.

It's the old one-game-at-a-time tactic, and it's worked perfectly for 16 of 17 games.

"We realize the magnitude of the game, but you don't deviate from what you've done to get here and we're not going to do that," said Cowher, who decided not to alter practice or meeting times this week.

Cowher adopted the approach during training camp, when he eschewed previous amenities such as a day at the movies or stopping a practice early because he liked what he saw.

"Maybe the last few years we've gotten away from some things," Cowher said.

Biggest challenge

That the 47-year-old Cowher has been more motivated and more energized hasn't been lost on his employers, who gave him a contract extension despite last season's 6-10 record.

"He's at the stage of his career where he's made enough money, he's raised a family, he's been successful," team president Art Rooney II said. "The only thing left for him to do is win a championship."

Doing so this season might be Cowher's biggest challenge. Belichick is 8-1 in the playoffs to Cowher's 8-8, but it's evident Cowher dislikes all of this talk about the Genius vs. the Jaw.

Despite Belichick's success in devising successful defensive game plans, Cowher pointedly answered "No" when asked if the Patriots' schemes are more complex than others in the league.

"To me, it's not so much [playing] Bill as it is playing the New England Patriots," Cowher said. "I don't think it's a mystic or anything else. You have to understand going in that what you see isn't always what you get."

Of course, the same could be said of the Steelers going into championship games.

"We've got to seize this opportunity," Cowher said.




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