PITTSBURGH -- Bill Cowher interviewed for a job as the New York Giants' secondary coach 13 years ago. The interviewer? Bill Belichick.
Such are the vagaries of the NFL - like most coaches, these two have crossed paths before.
They'll meet up once again Sunday with serious stakes: Belichick brings the New England Patriots to Pittsburgh for the AFC championship game against Cowher's Steelers.
Back in the 1988 season, Cowher was Marty Schottenheimer's special teams coach with the Cleveland Browns.
When Schottenheimer left in early 1989, Cowher was in limbo, so he interviewed with Belichick, then the Giants' defensive coordinator, for the vacant job in New York. He was offered the post and was about to take it, when Schottenheimer was hired by the Kansas City Chiefs and offered Cowher the job as defensive coordinator.
"We go back a while," Cowher said this week of Belichick. "I've got a lot of respect for him. The job he did this year was phenomenal."
That might be, but Cowher has been by far the more successful head coach overall.
Still one of the NFL's youngest head coaches at 44, Cowher has coached the Steelers for 10 years, the league's longest current tenure with one team. His record is 105-67, he's reached one Super Bowl (losing in 1996) and this will be his fourth conference championship game.
Belichick worked most of his coaching life under Bill Parcells with the Giants, Patriots and Jets. He was 37-45 as the head coach with Cleveland from 1991-95, going 1-1 in the playoffs, and is 17-16 in two years as the head coach in New England, including 1-0 in the playoffs.
But this appears to be a different Belichick.
He joined the Patriots early in 2000 in a bizarre sequence of events.
Designated as Parcells' successor with Jets, he became head coach for a day, then quit to take the New England job. After threats of lawsuits, he ended up going to the Patriots for a first-round draft choice only to go 5-11 in his first season.
"People thought I was crazy to give up so much for a coach with a losing record," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "But I had gotten to know Bill very well when he was up here as defensive coordinator and I knew what kind of coach he could be."
That finally showed this year.
The Patriots started 0-2 and quarterback Drew Bledsoe was hurt in the second game. He was replaced by second-year player Tom Brady, who did so well that Belichick kept him on even when Bledsoe recovered. That was one of the most important decisions by any coach in the NFL this year, as the Patriots went on to win the AFC East with an 11-5 record.
"Drew hadn't been playing for two months. Tom had been playing. Tom kept playing," Belichick said. "I'd like to make more out of it than that for you, but that's what it was."
That's typical of Belichick this season - he's looser than he's ever been, he smiles more and he even shows a sly sense of humor than never surfaced in other spots.
Cowher's change after three down years in Pittsburgh is more subtle.
After Ray Sherman and Kevin Gilbride failed to work out as offensive coordinators, Cowher elevated Mike Mularkey, who had been the tight ends coach. Mularkey got quarterback Kordell Stewart back to doing what he had done in 1997, when he seemed on the verge of stardom, and the Steelers finished 13-3, the best record in the AFC.
"It's been a remarkable year for him and a remarkable year for us from a lot of standpoints," Cowher says.
"But we don't have time to reflect on it right now. Maybe - hopefully - in 10 days, we can look back and savor what we've accomplished."
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