Hardy Nickerson, Steelers Linebacker, 1987-1992
First, can you tell readers about your coaching career – how you got started and what you enjoy most about coaching?
I got started when I began coaching my kids after I retired from the NFL. I found myself coaching the kid’s baseball, softball, basketball and football games. I took an internship afterwards with the Bears in 2004 and enjoyed it. I guess I caught the coaching bug.
I coached the kids’ school teams and then became the linebackers coach for the Bears in 2007. My mother-in-law got sick and passed away, so I resigned from my position with the Bears and went back to coaching my kids in North Carolina. When my daughter got accepted to Cal, we moved out there.
I thought from there I’d just be dropping my kids off to school every day. But my son’s football coach asked me to help out a bit. The following year the school decided to make a coaching change and I threw my hat in the ring and got the job.
What level of coaching have you enjoyed most – NFL or high school – and why?
I enjoyed the challenge and preparation as a coach in the NFL and the responsibility. I was exciting and exhilarating.
But I’ve had the opportunity to coach my son and it’s been a great experience. Being in the position to coach he and other young men on the team – I’m enjoying this more than anything else I could imagine doing. Having an impact on young men’s lives to achieve bigger things down the road has been great.
Does your son agree?
(laughing) – I get asked that a lot yeah. We have a great relationship. Does his dad get on his nerves? I like to think we are the best of friends. He respects me as a dad and player. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to run into guys that I played against, with or for and have them tell him to listen to his dad! It’s been a blessing.
What coaches and coaching lessons from your time with Pittsburgh do you find yourself referring to most now as a coach, and why?
I find myself regurgitating so much from what Coach Noll said. The fundamentals…how to tackle….same foot and shoulder….they fly off my tongue now and I learned them as a rookie.
Dungy - how I coach and handle situations reflects on him. I often find myself asking myself “What would Coach Noll or Coach Dungy do?” . I rely on that experience.
You’ve had a great deal of success at Bishop O’Dowd High School- both in winning and churning out future NFL players like Tarik Glenn, Langston Walker, Kirk Morrison, Eric Bjornson, etc.. What do you attribute that success to?
The school has done a great job. I’ve just been here for the past two years. I had two guys play football in college my first year - one at Columbia and one made Colorado’s travel team as a walk-on. Last season, my son went to Cal, one went to Oregon, two to Sacramento State,, one to Stetson and one to Menlo Park.
It’s a rich history. I’m following a great high school coach in Coach Ternon. I’m carrying on the tradition of very good football and developing great student athletes.
You were the fifth round pick of the Steelers in ’87. There’s no guarantee as a fifth rounder that you make the team much less start – what did you do to stand out for the coaches to make the squad?
I went there to work my butt off. I would do anything I could to make the squad.
Geg Lloyd and I were part of the same draft.. Hinton, Carr and Station were there along with Hinkle, Little, Cole, Merriweather….it was pretty stacked.
How did you set yourself apart from some of those other guys?
As a rookie – I just kept learning and played as hard as a I could. I knew I had to make it on special teams and being versatile. I could run and cover equally well.
Who helped mentor you as a rookie and helped you adjust to the NFL, both on and off the field? How did they do so?
I had Donnie Shell helping me and my locker was right next to John Stallworth’s. Merriweather, Little and Robin Cole were also a huge help.
It was unusual. Guys all playing for the same position and competing with one another but still helping one another out. Those kinds of relationships don’t usually happen. They took me under their wing and that carried me for sixteen years.
How specifically did they help you – what helped you most?
Just the advice – the do’s and don’ts of how to practice, what we do and don’t do …things like that. It wasn’t any one thing that made all the difference – it was a number of small things every day.
Your last season was Bill Cowher’s first season as Pittsburgh’s head coach. How did you and the team adjust to the new coach – what did you notice about how the players worked to accept his changes and very different coaching style?
I think the team adjusted pretty well. It was a talented team. He brought in a system that seemed complicated at first but was pretty simple. It was a lot of “Just go out and play” kind of stuff.
How did the team adjust to the difference in personalities between Coach Noll and Cowher?
Coach Cowher’s personality was exciting. He was really young – I think he youngest coach in the NFL at the time. We had players like Tunch Ilkin that were older than him.
It made you feel like you were playing with a teammate – it made it a lot of fun.
You left the team after that ’92 season for Tampa Bay. What prompted that move and how hard was that for you?
I left in free agency. It was the first class for NFL free agency. It was tough. As a player, you want to be with the same team your whole career. But that’s the financial part of football.
A number of teams contacted me. it was like being a college kid and I just felt at home in Tampa Bay.
Did it feel good to be recruited again?
(laughing). It felt good to be recruited, yeah! The city didn’t have a winning team in a long time. I got a warm welcome. My wife and I flew in and arrived at midnight. Sam Wyche was there at the gate – with five-hundred fans with Hardy Nickerson jerseys chanting my name!
They had you at hello?
(laughing) Oh yeah – they had me at hello!
What were the differences you notices between those Steelers and Tampa Bay teams – both on and off the field?
They were different franchises. For me, it was an opportunity to play a different style of defense and that was exciting.
I wanted to be a part of building a nw team up. My experiences in Pittsburgh helped. Guys that mentored me…I took that mentality and became a leader in Tampa Bay.
Who were some of the greatest characters on the Steelers teams you played for and what made them so? Any examples?
Keith Willis was probably one of them. He always had a joke for you. Keith Gary was another defensive lineman on the team then and he cracked jokes. Woodson and Thomas Everett too…
I remember when we played Cleveland. Delton Hall was covering Webster Slaughter on a deep ball and had great pass defense on him. He goes up and knocks the ball away and falls on his backside. He played one more play then went to the sidelines. When we all came out we asked Delton what happened. He told us that ”When I hit the ground, it felt like my bottom split in half!” (laughing). I just remember that explanation – it still makes me laugh today. Funny stuff like that happens on the sidelines all the time.
What are your favorite memories as a Steeler?
In ’89, we started the season getting blown out in our first two games. We were outscored 92-10. But we roared back and made the playoffs. We lost to Denver by a field goal – I think we got our hand on it too but it still went in.
Chuck Noll talked about the game being a game of inches.. We were inches away from the AFC Championship game that year after being counted out.