Sunday Q-and-A with Bill Cowher: No need to coach him on how to talk to the Harbaughs

Bill Cowher hopes to get the call this week from CBS, asking him to sit down with both Jim and John Harbaugh for an interview session that will be part of the network’s coverage of the San Francisco-Baltimore Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

The former Pittsburgh Steelers’ Super Bowl-winning coach has some of his own catching up to do with Family Harbaugh.

With Jim, it might be reminiscing about the 1995 AFC Championship. Cowher’s Steelers weren’t able to post a 20-16 win against the Indianapolis Colts until Jim Harbaugh’s final Hail Mary toss was nearly caught by Aaron Bailey, but then fell incomplete. Jim says that game haunts him to this day.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher and wife, Kaye, greet fans during a parade celebrating the team’s victory in Super Bowl XL on Feb. 7, 2006. Kaye died of cancer in 2010. (AP photo by Mark J. Terrill)

With John, it’s recalling a USO tour in Iraq they took together with Jon Gruden, Tom Coughlin and Jeff Fisher, one of the first trips taken by a group of NFL coaches.

Cowher also might also ask John something he just found out: Why is Jim’s oldest son, Jay, working on your Ravens’ staff, helping out with the scout squad and other game-related logistics?

“No one’s even talking about that angle,” said Cowher with a laugh. “So not only may Jim not be talking to his brother John this week, but he might not even be talking to his son. How’s that going to work?”

Cowher, six years entrenched now as part of the “NFL on CBS” studio team, agreed to size up this 49ers-Ravens matchup based on his own experiences of having been to this big dance twice:

QUESTION: In your previous Super Bowl trips, it may have been a relatively tame environment – you had the Steelers in Detroit for the 2006 (a 21-10 win over Seattle) and then Phoenix in 1996 (a 27-17 loss to Dallas). What kinds of things does a city like New Orleans present that will cause a coach to have sleepless nights leading up to a Super Bowl?
ANSWER: The biggest thing to me is, when you get to this point, you have a group of players who you pull in and talk to directly. They have to take ownership of this team as well as just being in the locker room. When you’re there, it’s not just the head coach, but it has to be certain players that have to send the message, remind of them why they’re down there. No matter what city it’s in – Detroit, Phoenix, New Orleans, Miami — with an event like this there are things to do, people to see, and it all comes down to being able to enjoy it, but never losing sight of why you’re there.

Q: Could there be specific things for Harbaughs this week – with maybe extra family members – that might blindside them as first-time Super Bowl coaches?
A: Aw, no, I think for them, both those guys have been in this long enough. The coaches understand. I think even when you get to a Super Bowl early in your career – John’s in his fifth year and Jim’s in his second – they both have been in the league long enough that with these opportunities, it’s tough to get here. Again, the bottom line is no one remembers who loses this game. Your place in history is winning this game, not just being there. I think it has to be repeated. At the same time, you want to visit with family and friends, but there’s a constant reminder of the business purpose why you’re there.

Q: How do the Super Bowl extra-long halftime shows factor into time management that they might not be able to prepare for? And by the way, do you have any the formula for an ideal Super Bowl halftime show?
A: Three years ago, we (at CBS) were down there (in Miami) and saw The Who, and I’ve watched a few of them, when we weren’t in it. It definitely is a spectacle.
Let’s face it, that day is so different. That’s the one thing I learned from my first Super Bowl to the second. Halftime, longer. Pregame, longer. A 6:30 p.m. game. You can’t really prepare for that until you’ve actually experienced it. From the time you come out of the tunnel until the time you kick it off, it’s usually 14 minutes. And everyone has their own rituals and routines from the time they get out until kickoff. But for a Super Bowl, it’s 22 minutes. For that first Super Bowl, we were all fired up to go, and they hadn’t even done the National Anthem. And Dallas (on the other sideline), they were all calmed down, and then the game starts, and we’re down 10-0 four minutes into the game. It’s so important to at least talk to your team about harnessing that electricity that you’ll feel – particularly when you’re in a dome. When we were in Detroit, for that pregame, there is a buzz that’s ‘Oh, my gosh,’ and you feel the hair standing up on your arms. You feel the butterflies – and this is just pregame.

Q: And you know how both Harbaughs are such emotional people. Will they need someone to keep them anchored to the ground?
A: The one thing about them, when you’re emotional like that, you’ve got to be almost the antithesis of the situation. When there’s a little lull going on, you’ve got to get people cranked up. And when there’s all mayhem taking place, you’ve got to be a voice of reason. You have to be the balancing act. That’s the thing about emotional coaches – and good ones – they can gauge their teams and know when the right time is to get on a player, get on a ref, get on a call, or get pumped up, and there’s time to say, ‘We’re doing fine, let’s not get caught up in it. Just keep the focus.’

Q: Of the two, whom do you know better?
: John, I have a lot of respect for him. We did that USO tour, and I know you only get so much down time in the offseason, but to see John Harbaugh there with the troops was special. I know John also started out coaching special teams and went right to a head coach. Special teams is how I got to play in the league, that’s where I started coaching. A lot of people think you should be a coordinator first (before head coaching) but I understand that you’re talking to the whole team when you’re doing that job. You’re involved with offensive and defensive players. I think every head coach should have to be a special teams coach at some point. I see now how far he’s come, how he delegates. He’s the glue on that football team with a lot of veterans, a lot of high expectations, lets them do their things, but he’s the guy who keeps everything in place.

Q: And with Jim, there’s the 1995 AFC title game – Steelers against the Colts, Jim at quarterback, maybe one of the best conference title games of all time. What still sticks out in your mind about the impact that game left on both franchises?
Jim was the driving force of that Colts team, a team that came out of nowhere and won games they weren’t supposed to win. He was a feisty guy, competitive, and their team kind of took his lead and kept scrapping to the very end. I remember on the last play, his Hail Mary, I looked at his face and he thought it was caught. And that’s how he is today – competitive, emotional. I give him all the credit just for being himself. His team has taken on his personality.
Looking at that game, the ironic thing is that both the Super Bowls we went to, we lost in the AFC championship the year before. The year before, we were playing San Diego, threw one into the end zone at the end, it was incomplete,  and we fell short. This time, we’re on the defense side, the ball being thrown into the same end zone (at Three Rivers Stadium), it’s incomplete, and it’s a good thing.
I remember so many things — I remember (Colts linebacker) Quentin Coryatt dropping an interception right in his arms (from Neil O’Donnell). I remember Willie Williams’ big tackle to force a punt late in the fourth quarter. Jim completed a pass against one of our blitz zones that got ‘em back in the game. There were a bunch really big plays in that game. It also propelled a return to instant replay because we did not have it (since 1992) and there was talk about what if the official ruled that (Hail Mary) pass complete, that could have sent the wrong team to the Super Bowl.

Q: When you look at the Ray Lewis storyline, there’s another emotional guy. How does his retirement announcement factor into the Ravens’ play lately?
A: That element was so much more impactful through the (late-season and playoff) run. It was like – we need to get him to the Super Bowl. Then when you get there, OK, we did what we had to do. His announcement took all pressure off everyone. They weren’t playing good. They’d lost four of their last five games and all of the sudden, it’s ‘Let’s do this for him.’ And all of the sudden, they’re a confident bunch. He initiated that sense of purpose and that focus, and I think that’s why they’re at this point now. He propelled them here. But now, what’s going to make the difference going forward is the turnovers. You’ve got a young quarterback in his first Super Bowl (San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick). Then you’ve got Joe Flacco, who hasn’t thrown an interception through the playoffs up against probably the best defense he’s seen in a while. This has the makings of being a very, very good game.

Q: The Lewis story must remind you of the Jerome Bettis story – announcing his retirement and propelling the Steelers to their last Super Bowl win.
Yeah, it really does. There’s no question, it has the same feel to it. Jerome was a driving force, particularly for him after that fumble he had in Indianapolis (in the AFC divisional game win over the Colts, giving Indianapolis a chance to win at the end but a missed field goal allowed the Steelers to advance to the AFC title game vs. Denver). We got to the Super Bowl, and then, we had to finish it off. Ray Lewis and that factor, and what he brings to that team from an inspirational standpoint, it’s very motivating for the Ravens. He’s gotten them there, and now you wonder if it’s not a story of fate and destiny for this team.

Q: So after all this time removed from the NFL sidelines, the assumption is that you want to return at some point. There was a report a few weeks ago were you were quoted as saying you’d like to come back, but then you said later on CBS you were content with the TV work. What’s the thought process on when and where to return? Is it a year-to-year decision depending on what jobs are open?
Just to be honest with you, that question (about returning) was asked (at a media gathering in New York), and I had just got done giving my thoughts about the Super Bowl, and I was in one of those coaches modes. One of the first questions I get asked was: You’ve been out of the game six years, do you think you could be successful if you came back? And all this competitive part got to me and I said, ‘Yeah. I still watch tape. It’s not that I forgot how to coach after 27 years.’ And he came back and said, ‘It’d be a little bit of a challenge, wouldn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it would be a challenge, and maybe ultimately, the challenge would be the reason why I’d come back.’ So, I think I kinda got caught up in the moment. It wasn’t like I said I wanted to coach, but don’t tell me I can’t do it. (Laughing). But honestly, when it’s all said and done, I know what it entails. And I never want to say I’ll never coach again. But I’m not trying to keep my name out there. And I hate to say I’m done coaching, and then do come back. I think I’m young enough to where I’d be foolish to shut that door, but I do love this job at CBS, the time it allows me, travel in the off season. I’m really in a good place now. But at 55, I’m done coaching? I don’t know.

Q: Maybe you’ve just got more comfortable wearing makeup every Sunday?
(Laughing) That’s the one part I don’t like. But I’ve really enjoyed doing specials, talking to people on interviews, this is really enjoyable to watch the game evolve and still be involved in it, talking about where it’s been and where it’s going. I’m very engaged.

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