TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was midway in the third quarter of the game against the Buffalo Bills when Pittsburgh Steelers defensive Ray Seals was involved in a shoving match with quarterback Jim Kelly and one of his overly protective linemen.
But as soon as Seals reached the Pittsburgh sideline, that's when the real fight began. Steelers coach Bill Cowher stood on his toes and began screaming in Seals' face.
The veins were bulging from Cowher's neck, and the spit was flowing from his mouth. Cowher has never been able to control his emotions, or his saliva.
"Bill always gets his message across, sometimes it's not in a subtle way," said Steelers cornerback Willie Williams. "Bill was telling Ray that he needed him in the game. Plus, Bill is not the kind of guy you want to test. He always lets you know this is his football team, and Pittsburgh is his town."
Cowher, 39, is a Pittsburgh native. He grew up in a yellow-brick house in Crafton, which is 10 miles west of Three Rivers Stadium and not far from the communities of Clairton and Homestead, where smokestacks from mills that haven't been productive in years can still be seen.
Cowher is as identifiable as anyone in Pittsburgh these days. The long, strong jaw. The thick mustache. The tight and neat haircut.
This is the man who helped revitalize Pittsburgh's franchise in the last four years on sheer emotion, and has the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX here Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
"I'm not as intense as you think I am," said Cowher. "I think there's a difference between intense and having a great passion for the game. I'm just kind of an emotional guy, and I don't do a very good job of hiding that."
"Most of the people in Pittsburgh have worked hard all their lives, and that's the kind of person I am, and the kind of team I want. Physical. Blue collar. Intense."
This team is definitely in Cowher's image. Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell may never be mentioned in the same breath with Steve Young, Troy Aikman or Dan Marino. Pittsburgh's offense has been conservative for years until the Steelers added the five-receiver offensive set this season.
Outside linebackers Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd are the only fTC two highly recognizable names on defense, but the Steelers win with emotion and toughness. They dictate terms on offense, and gamble with crazy blitzes on defense. The Steelers feed off of Cowher, who occasionally runs alongside his team during kickoffs. He is always hugging his players or stalking the sidelines, or screaming into a headset.
"He is a great motivator and guys feed off him because he's so young and he played the game for seven or eight years," said Steelers center Dermontti Dawson. "I think the fire is still inside him."
Cowher was never a great player. He just had a relentless attitude and admiration for Dick Butkus as a kid. A youth coach once asked him to stop hitting so hard. His high school coaches were intimidated by his demeanor, but few college coaches were impressed by his ability.
Cowher went to N.C. State, and lasted five seasons in the NFL as a linebacker, mostly on special teams with the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. When a knee injury forced him to retire, Cleveland coach Marty Schottenheimer made Cowher the special teams coach at age 28.
"Marty loved Bill," said Ernie Accorsi, the Browns' former general manager. "Marty liked his competitiveness and willingness to get things done."
Cowher was an immediate coaching success. The Browns returned two punts for touchdowns that year, something they had not done in 17 years. The Browns also had gone 11 years without blocking a punt. Cowher's unit had two.
Six years later, Cowher succeeded Chuck Noll as the Steelers' new coach on Jan. 21, 1992.
"It really helps to have someone from this area who knows what this area is about," said Steelers president Dan Rooney. "He fits in with the Steelers as far as being a people person, as far as being a player's coach. There's more to Bill than just where he grew up."
Cowher apparently hates attention. He doesn't have a coach's show. No commercials. It's either family or football, with some occasional time for golf, lifting weights or playing Pac-Man.
"Football is a passion, but my family is No. 1," said Cowher, who has three young daughters. "I want to be successful, but I always want to be just another dad at home."
That's his style with the Steelers as well. Cowher even dresses like one of the players. He attended yesterday's news conference in khaki shorts, a sports shirt and Docksiders with no socks. Cool.
"You get in the pros, and people tell you how much of a business it is," said outside linebacker Levon Kirkland, "but Coach keeps a relationship with his players. He even calls us by our first names. He's not looking at me and calling me No. 99 or just Kirkland. He is blunt and straightforward. We understand where he is coming from."
One more Cowher story: While playing golf, he once climbed a building in Wooster, Ohio, to hit a shot rather than take a penalty stroke.
"Pittsburgh is a special place," said Cowher. "You get caught up with how this city identifies with this team. I identified with the Steelers when I was a kid, and now there is another generation identifying with this team. I think it's great."
Super Bowl XXX
Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5)
vs. Dallas Cowboys (14-4)
Time: Sunday, 6:20 p.m.
Site: Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Cowboys by 13 1/2