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Victory moves Cowher up where he belongs

Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher walked into the restaurant at his team's hotel the day before Super Bowl XL and joined Steelers Hall-of-Famer Joe Greene for lunch.

"I sat down with him, and Joe's now scouting for us," Cowher recalled Monday. "So. Joe goes, 'You know, you guys got it, don't you?' And I said, 'You know what, Joe? Yeah, we do.' You say 'it,' and it's like a basketball player that's in a zone. This football team was kind of in one of those. I could just feel it. We practiced the same way. The mentality was right. There was a swagger we had. We had 'it.' "

Finally for Cowher, his Steelers got hot at the perfect time and rode their streak all the way to the NFL championship.

Pittsburgh's 21-10 victory over Seattle on Sunday lifted a weight off Cow-her's shoulders, whether he wanted to admit it or not. He had lost the Super Bowl to Dallas a decade ago, and his career included four AFC Championship Game losses -- all at home.

Now he adds the Super Bowl to a resume that includes 10 playoff berths in his 14 seasons and a 141-82-1 regular-season record -- the fourth best among any active coach in the league. Overall, Cowher is 153-91-1, which ties him for the 14th-most wins in history.

Even though Cowher is only 48 years old, no NFL coach -- going back to the founding of the league in 1920 -- ever has won the championship later in his head coaching career.

That's a testament to the patience of Steelers owner Dan Rooney, the value of franchise stability and the perseverance and success of the man known affectionately in Pittsburgh -- his hometown -- as "The Jaw."

"It really does complete a void that's been there," Cowher said. "We've been knocking on the door for a lot of years, and I'm certainly very appreciative of the support Mr. Rooney showed through '98 and '99, a couple tough years we had. It says a lot about him as an owner. It's a fine line. Last year we had a good football team and it takes just one bad game to knock you out."

The Steelers went 7-9 and 6-10 in '98 and '99. But Cowher rebounded. He has remained a superb motivator of players, a coach who is in tune with the pulse of his team. He is an outstanding defensive coach. And he has been supported by one of the best group of assistant coaches in the game.

Cowher's defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, is one of the great defensive strategists ever. His offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt, brilliantly handled young quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the past two years, sticking to the power running philosophy Cowher likes but doing it with creativity. Russ Grimm is one of the top offensive line coaches in the league and is considered a prime head-coaching candidate. Six of Cowher's former aides have gone on to become NFL head coaches, and Whisenhunt could become the seventh if he gets the Oakland head job this year.

"I think you have to consider him one of the best coaches in the game," Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said.

While Cowher's reputation is greater in the wake of the win over the Seahawks, the coach says he never let himself be too burdened by the one hole in his resume; the knock he "couldn't win the big one."

"I didn't mind the label," he said. "You're going to have detractors. You're going to have critics. That's part of the profession. All the teams we lost to (in AFC finals) went on to be Super Bowl winners. Denver won, New England won two Super Bowls. The only one that didn't was San Diego, the very first one we lost (in 1995). So we lost to the best team in the National Football League that year, just like everybody else did. That didn't bother me."

"A lot of people have asked me, are you defined by the one win, winning the Super Bowl?" Cowher said. "In my mind, this doesn't define who you are. I don't think it's the destination that defines you, it's the journey that defines you."

The past two years, Cowher finally got the chance to prove what he could do with a great quarterback. Cowher never had a young, elite signal caller before he got Roethlisberger.

The Steeler quarterback had a shaky game against Seattle, but Cowher praised him for his poise under pressure.

"Ben made plays when he had to," Cowher said. "Ben's tough. He's resilient. Think about what he's done in two years' time. It's kind of mind-boggling, really."

Roethlisberger, who turns 24 next month, will make Cowher and the Steelers a contender for years to come. The Steelers have a relatively young core of stars. They have only two major free agents this offseason -- receiver Antwaan Randle El and cornerback DeShea Townsend. Center Jeff Hartings might be a salary cap casualty if he doesn't accept a pay cut.

"Every year you start over and you put a new group together," Cowher said. "And next week we'll have to start talking about that, about free agency. But for the next week I'm going to sit back and reflect on the season we've had and what we've accomplished. For the next week, I'm going to enjoy every moment of it."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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