Back in the 1970s, Ernie Yates didn’t even think about going to Berwick to coach wrestling. It took one of his icons, Russ Hauck, to twist Yates’ arm after they met at a camp in the western part of the state.
“Coach Hauck told me that there’s a junior high coaching job at Berwick and an elementary school teaching job available,” Yates said. “And he made me go to an interview and my whole life changed because of it.”
Shortly after he became the fifth coach in school history and the rest was history.
Last month Yates, originally from the western part of the state, officially called it quits after more than a quarter century as Berwick’s head coach. He retired as one of the winningest coaches in Wyoming Valley Conference history with 325, just two behind long-time Tunkhannock coach Frank Wadas. The conference’s all-time wins leader for a coach is Coughlin’s Dana Balum, who racked up 461 in 35 years. Yates could also be headed to the Hall of Fame soon as Wadas and Balum are both in the state’s PWCA Hall.
“The milestones are great and if you coach long enough I guess you get to 300 wins,” said Yates, who retired from teaching at the school two years ago and has coached more than 500 dual meets. “But I like to think I made a difference in kids’ lives. We not only made them better wrestlers, we made them better people too.”
While his tenure won’t officially end until the middle of this month, Yates’ brilliant career ended in March after the Class 3A Northeast Regional Tournament when he realized he would be shutout of a PIAA championship yet again.
If you’ve ever seen a Berwick wrestling match or meet in the last 25 years you know how animated and emotional Yates gets during the action. But he said there was no emotions after making the call.
“It was a hard decision for me to make. The last three years I’ve been struggling to make it,” he said. “When the postseason ended I was driving and decided it was time. I came home told Ellen (his wife) ‘I think I’m going to do it.’ And after I turned in my resignation letter I felt a good sense of relief. As emotional as I am I’ve been very positive about it.”
It certainly could have been a very hard choice for Yates, who coached an astonishing 43 District 2 champions, seven regional champions, 14 state qualifiers and 10 medalists including back-to-back appearances in the state final in 2007 and 2008 with Aaron Karns and Nick Venditti, respectively. The last few years, the Dawgs had down seasons for the standard Yates set prior. But the program was showing many signs of promise for future years picking up big wins as a team and individually at season’s end by a team filled with underclassmen.
Now, a new coach will have the opportunity to reek the benefits of Yates’ work. Many former coaches have decided to stick around with the program they formerly led. But Yates said he’s going to enjoy his time.
One of the things he and his wife, Ellen are looking forward to is getting to spend more time with their four grandchildren.
“I’m going to be a grandfather and wrestling enthusiast and I’m lucky to have a wife who likes to go to wrestling matches,” said Yates, who spent time as a referee working 200 matches as an official between stints as assistant and head coach at Berwick. “When the season starts I will have a little thing, but I have met so many great people in the conference that you can compete against them and be great friends with them after. And that’s very rewarding.”
There were many memorable moments in Yates’ career. Jeremy Griffith became the first state medalist for the program early in the century. Karns became the first state finalist. The team won back-to-back District 2 Class 2A Duals championships and then in 2008 fell just shy of being the first District 2 team to finish in the top eight at the PIAA Team Championships.
But one moment that really stands out for him was getting the opportunity to coach his son, Brent, who became the school’s first 100-match winner. It’s something not many mentors have had the chance to accomplish.
“That was very rewarding. It’s hard coaching your son,” Yates said. “I always looked at is as he will wrestle for me for four years but will be my son forever.”
And Yates’ legacy will also live on forever.