Updated: Aug 19, 2021
Photo by Jerry Coli Crafton native and former Carlynton linebacker Bill Cowher was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 7.
-HALL OF FAME-
By Alex Lehmbeck
The Pro Football Hall of Fame weekend this year wound up being one of the busiest ever. In addition to the 2021 class’s enshrinement on Sunday night, Aug. 8, the 2020 group received its shine the previous night, with last year’s festivities postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With one inductee left on Saturday’s 12-person slate, the vast majority of fans remained at the venue late into the night. An unforgettable face stepped up to the podium, and after a couple minutes of continuous standing ovation, he finally spoke. After briefly congratulating the fellow inductees, he made a declarative statement.
“What a weekend for the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
The sea of black and gold in Canton, Ohio – just a couple hours away from Pittsburgh – erupted in support. The man they had all stayed to see was Crafton native and 15-year Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher.
Once a long-haired, confident linebacker at Carlynton Junior-Senior High School, Cowher now has been cemented in football history with his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He even mentioned his alma mater in his speech, which particularly thrilled Nate Milsom, Carlynton athletic director.
“We need to do a better job of making sure our kids realize how special it is to walk the same halls as someone in the Hall of Fame,” Milsom said. “The kids here need to realize that anything is possible with hard work and dedication.”
Cowher took the reins for his hometown’s pro football team at the age of just 34, and saw immediate success. He became just the second coach ever to lead his team to playoff appearances in each of his first six seasons. He led the Steelers to two Super Bowl appearances, and earned the NFL Coach of the Year honor twice.
When defensive back Ainsley Battles first showed up to an NFL training camp in 2000, he had heard of Cowher’s reputation as a “player’s coach.” An undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt, Battles knew he wouldn’t be the legendary coach’s No. 1 priority. But he was immediately impressed by the team’s discipline and organization under Cowher’s watch, something he boiled down to each person knowing “their job.”
Battles emphasized the pride Cowher showed for his hometown while serving as the Steelers head coach, with his personality perfectly encapsulating the blue-collar traditions of Pittsburgh. He said Cowher encouraged the team to embrace the city, something he didn’t notice as much in other NFL organizations. As an example, Battles used team travel, where Cowher’s approach differed from most teams that had private flights ready to go.
“When I was in Pittsburgh, you were at terminal A16,“ he said. “So you parked in the parking garage, you got your luggage, you went through the airport, and you stood in line like everybody else. That was one of the things that really stood out. You’re part of this. You’re part of Pittsburgh, you’re not Pittsburgh. There’s a humility, a camaraderie that speaks volumes.”
After a four-year career in the NFL, Battles began teaching. He said he incorporated lots of Cowher’s coaching philosophy into his teaching strategies, in the classroom and as a defensive coordinator for Atlantic Coast High School in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Being a coordinator, you have to get people in harmony working together,” Battles said.
“Everybody’s got different personalities, so your job is really ‘how do you get everybody moving in the same direction, while still everybody can be themselves?’ What the coach does is they become that bridge. They become the translator.”
As Cowher’s legacy solidified, he never lost sight of his roots. He still keeps in contact with his high school to this day. In 2015, he surprised the Carlynton football team for his 40th high school reunion, teaching the squad lessons from his storied career. Scott Yoder, Carlynton’s head football coach at the time, remembered Cowher’s passion and charisma.
“During our conversations and while addressing our team, it was obvious he was a natural leader and motivator who had genuine appreciation for his hometown and alma mater,” he said.
The Steelers honored Cowher before a 2019 home game, with Cowher inviting his high school’s football team, coaches and marching band to take the field with him for the celebration. He also surprised the school’s 2020 graduating class with a virtual commencement speech.
“For him to take the time to speak to the graduates on the video was truly a special moment and showed how much he cares about his alma mater,” Milsom said.