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McKeesport's Ward 'grateful' for hall call

| Friday, July 20, 2012, 12:56 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Coach Jim Ward - McKeesport football mug (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

Jim Ward has coached quite a few players who went on to play Division I football and even a couple who made it to the NFL.

But to his credit, he made it to the hall of fame before any of them.

Ward, the McKeesport football coach and Steel Valley graduate, will be inducted into the Slippery Rock University Hall of Fame on Sept. 29, the same day The Rock hosts Kutztown. He will be one of seven alumni who will be introduced that afternoon and will bring the total membership to 189.

“I was real surprised,” Ward said. “I knew I was nominated, and there were a lot of people up for it. It was a pleasant surprise, and I'm certainly very grateful to have such an honor bestowed upon me.”

During his four years at Slippery Rock, Ward was named to three all-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West teams, and one publication named him a Division II All-American in 1993. After his eligibility was exhausted, he signed as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers. Though Ward did not make the final roster, he said spending time in a professional training camp was one of the best points in his life.

“Signing a professional contract with the Chargers was certainly one of the highlights of my career and really culminated things for a guy who went into a Division II school undersized and left with a professional team,” Ward said. “It was a great accomplishment and I was fortunate to receive a lot of awards. I think that step of signing with an NFL team was the thing I was most proud of.”

Instead of the NFL, he moved on to play for Memphis of the CFL for one season and played his a year for Connecticut of the Arena League. After his career ended, he went back to Slippery Rock to finish his undergraduate work and received his diploma in 1998.

Since his playing career ended, he has made his way around the WPIAL. He was coach at South Allegheny from 2000-02 and spent time as an assistant with Tom Nola at Clairton from 2003-06 before he joined the staff at Jeannette under Ray Reitz as linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator. During his two years with the Jayhawks, he helped the team to the 2007 WPIAL and PIAA Class AA titles.

He left Jeannette to take the head coaching position at Yough in 2009 and left after one season to take over for longtime McKeesport coach George Smith.

“In terms of accomplishment, being a part of the state title in 2007 was just an incredible experience,” Ward said. “There has been so many great players that I've coached and I've enjoyed seeing them improve each game. Seeing them progress and reach their goals makes me feel proud and makes me realize why I do what I do.”

For Ward to become the field general he is — he was named Quad South coach of the year in 2010 — he has taken the best things from his former coaches, including his high school coach at Steel Valley, Jack Giran, and Slippery Rock coach George Mihalik, and incorporated them into his repertoire.

“Kids will see right through you if you're fake, so every day I look for ways to improve myself,” Ward said. “I think the way you get kids to respond to you is to build relationships with them, which takes time, but overall you have to be yourself no matter what.”

About the only thing he doesn't like to do is talk about himself. Very few of his current players know about his upcoming induction, and it's a subject he is loathe to broach.

“I don't like to brag about myself, and a couple of them saw it, but it's not something I'm real comfortable bringing up to them,” Ward said. “But there's not really a lot of them that know.”

Keith Barnes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kbarnes@tribweb.com or 412-664-9161 Ext. 1977.

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