‘Special moment’ for Steelers’ Hall of Honor inductees Bill Cowher, Hines Ward
When he was hired to succeed Chuck Noll in January 1992, Bill Cowher went to sleep that night hoping he could keep his job as coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers for at least three years.
“I laid in bed that night and thought, ‘Wow, if I don’t screw this up, in three years I can come back to my 20th class reunion as head coach of my hometown team,’ ” Cowher recalled. “My first goal was not to get fired in my first three years.”
Cowher never did get fired by his hometown team, lasting in the position for 15 years and getting the franchise its “One for the Thumb” ring by guiding the Steelers to a victory in Super Bowl XL.
On Monday, 13 years after he stepped down as coach to begin a broadcasting career, Cowher returned to Heinz Field to be recognized as part of the team’s third Hall of Honor class. Cowher joined Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward, four-time Super Bowl champion Larry Brown and Elbie Nickel, a post-World War II tight end, as inductees.
The class was inducted into the Hall of Honor on Sunday night and participated in a halftime ceremony Monday night when the Steelers played the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.
“When you think about the legendary people that are in the Hall of Honor, it’s very humbling,” Cowher said. “For a little kid who grew up four miles on the other side of the mountain and incline, it’s very special.”
When he was in high school in the 1970s, Cowher recalled running on the same track at Carlynton as Brown, who was a tight end/tackle for the Steelers from 1971-84.
Cowher graduated from Carlynton in 1975 when the Steelers were in the midst of their four Super Bowl championships in a six-season span.
“What this team did for this city in instilling a proudness and reinvigorating how you felt about this place, it was a renaissance,” Cowher said. “This organization was a part of it. Even to this day, it’s a model organization starting at the top.”
It was fitting Cowher was inducted in the same class as Ward, the MVP when the Steelers dispatched the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL to bring the franchise its first title since the 1979 season.
“He’s a special guy,” Cowher said. “For him to be on the stand for us and get ‘One for the Thumb,’ he was an integral part of that.”
Ward won a second Super Bowl championship with the Steelers before retiring after a 14-year career. He remains the franchise’s career leader with 1,000 receptions, 12,083 yards and 85 touchdown catches.
Ward credited Cowher with making all of those accomplishments possible.
“I like to think I played with the passion, the toughness that he wanted out of his players,” Ward said. “He was a great coach. I would run through the wall for coach Cowher. For us to go out and win Super Bowl 40, our legacy will always be tied in, intertwined together.
“Every time I see him, I give him a big hug. He’s like a father figure to a lot of football players on that team. It’s a special moment to go in together.”
Ward was looking forward to the halftime ceremony because of his connection with the fans. Ward retired in March 2012, a few days after the Steelers released him rather than try to extend his career with another team.
“I never really had that last hurrah to say thank you to the fans,” Ward said. “To get recognized tonight is something I always wanted and looked forward to.”
Nickel played for the Steelers from 1947-57 and held most of the team’s records for a tight end until Heath Miller broke them.
Nickel, who died in 2007, was represented by his son, Joseph Nickel, and daughter, Susan Dean.
“He would have loved to be here with the three other gentlemen,” Joseph Nickel said. “He’d have been thrilled.”
Nickel was recognized as a member of the franchise’s all-time team in 2007 when the Steelers celebrated their 75th season.
“We were surprised then that fans still remembered him,” Dean said. “It’s a real surprise and an honor to be here. He would love it. We wish he could have been here.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .