Longtime wrestling coach Yates to enter Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame
Near the start of his first season as wrestling coach at Berwick High School in 1988, New Kensington native Ernie Yates received a reality check from his boss.
“We were starting basically over” with the program, said Yates, a 1969 Valley graduate. “The athletic director told me we’d be lucky to win two matches.”
Yates, an assistant at Berwick for several years prior, kept an open mind, even after his team lost its first nine matches. His own wrestling career pivoted unexpectedly and ultimately for the best. Why couldn’t the same happen for the Bulldogs?
Berwick finished the season with an 11-12 record.
Yates went on to turn the Bulldogs into a perennial winner during 20-plus years in charge of the District 2 program, which competed in Class AAA against considerably larger opponents, including powers Easton, Nazareth and Northampton. By the end of his tenure in 2012, he owned a career record of 311-171-1 and four District 2 team championships (2003, 2005, 2007 and 2008).
For his achievements as a wrestling coach on the other side of the state but with Westmoreland County roots, Yates is a 2017 inductee of the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame.
“It took about five or six years to get things rolling,” Yates said.
“I was at my wits end (in 1988) because we were struggling. My wife, who has always been very encouraging and has inspired the wrestling program by helping the kids because she also taught at the high school, she told me, ‘You need to work harder.’ So we just kept working harder. …
“We implemented strength training and the club training (at the Red Hawk Wrestling Club). At first, I was a little reticent, being old school, to have the kids go to the club. But then as I saw it, if you didn’t go to the club and wrestle the better kids all year … well you just had to. And you couldn’t have an easy schedule.”
Yates, the uncle of former Burrell coach and wrestler Ryan Yates, might have applied his high school program-building acumen somewhere in Western Pennsylvania if he stuck with his original college plans and attended Edinboro. But late in his high school career, his father took a short flight to Harrisburg for work and ended up next to legendary Bloomsburg coach Russ Houk.
Houk and Yates’ father struck up a conversation fairly late in the flight, Yates said. The proud dad mentioned his three wrestler sons, including the one headed to Edinboro. Houk proposed a visit for Yates to Bloomsburg.
So began the process that eventually made Yates a Bloomsburg wrestler and a student-teacher at Berwick, which went through Houk when it wanted to offer Yates a full-time job a few years later.
Yates took the job with no ignorance about the hierarchy of sports at the high school. Berwick football reigned, and its athletes answered first and foremost to coach George Curry, who died in April of 2016 as Pennsylvania’s all-time wins leader with a record of 455-102-5.
“There was such an emphasis on football that we’d try to get as many of their good athletes as we can,” Yates said. “But we really worked on making the kids that we had better. We just wanted to improve the program with the kids that we had.”
While Yates never reached Curry’s level of longevity and acclaim, he thrived enough to earn a spot in the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014.
That Hall of Fame induction did not mark the end of Yates’ coaching days. The Alle-Kiski Valley ceremony is not a concluding point, either. He finds joy in the friendships he establishes with coaches and the connections he creates with his wrestlers.
Yates serves as a volunteer assistant with Class AA Southern Columbia, which won the District 4 team championship and placed third in the PIAA this past winter. It defeated Burrell, 34-21, along the way.
“It’s still fun,” he said. “And now I don’t have the responsibilities of a head coach.”