Legends Series: Carnell Lake
Not everyone has the chance to come home again, but that happened for Carnell Lake when he was hired as the Steelers defensive backs coach in 2011.
For the former Steelers safety/cornerback, it was a dream come true.
“I did pinch myself,” said Lake. “I was very fortunate to not just come back to an organization
that drafted me, but to work with some of the finest minds in coaching. It’s not said too much now, but Mike Tomlin will go down as one of the best coaches in the league. His record and tenure in one spot, when you look at what he has done, I am blessed and learning a lot from him. I am lucky.”
Lake also weighed in on a variety of other topics in this exclusive interview:
*What was your best on field memory from your playing career? *
“That is probably an easy one for me. In the 1990s we were struggling to make a name for ourselves. We were trying to make the playoffs, we were a young team. We were knocking at the door a couple of years. We were really trying to get into the Super Bowl. In 1995 we made it. We beat the Indianapolis Colts to go to Super Bowl XXX. That game, the end of that AFC Championship game, was a big moment for me, our team and the City of Pittsburgh.”
What do you remember about that atmosphere at Three Rivers Stadium that day?
“I remember how difficult the game was, and how much we had to fight. It really came down to one play at the end of the game. We had to defend a pass in the end zone to go to the Super Bowl.”
That last play, everyone was holding their breath. What was that like for you?
“It’s been so many years, but it seems like it was in slow motion. The ball was in the air for so long, it took forever to come down out of the air into the back of the end zone. There were a lot of bodies flying around. You look up and the ball is rolling on the ground. Everyone looked around to see what the referee was calling. It did land in a Colts’ players lap, but he wasn’t able to hold on to it. We just started running around. There was noise and commotion. It was a wild time after that.”
* You made an unselfish move switching positions during your time with the Steelers, going from safety to cornerback. Was that tough? *
“I had mixed emotions about it. One, I was upset because we knew we were turning into a good team. It was the start of the 1995 season and we opened against Detroit. Rod Woodson went down with an injury. That was a big letdown for the whole team. He was one of our star players. We felt good as a defense having a player like that. When he went down it took the air out of us. We went another six games before Coach LeBeau came to me on a Sunday night and said we have been trying to fill Rod’s shoes and it’s not working. He asked me if I would be willing to move to corner. I said, I am not sure, why don’t I practice corner for the week and on Friday let’s talk about it and see if it’s something we still want to do. By Friday, after practicing there for a few days, I felt like I can do this.
“That Sunday I was playing corner. We played Cleveland. That was my first game at corner. It was non-eventful. I thought this corner stuff isn’t so bad. Then we went to Cincinnati and we played against a bunch of Pro Bowl wide receivers and it was a different game. I was taken to task out there. I had a bad game and I was sitting on the bench and Coach (Bill) Cowher came up to me and said corners have to have a short memory. That right there freed me from the levity of it all, the burden of making the change. I thought after that corners are going to get beat occasionally, it comes with the position. I took off after that.”
*What was it like to play for Bill Cowher? *
“Bill Cowher was a very fun, inspirational coach. For a player, he was one of the best. Guys felt like they could be themselves. There was always a tone of having respect for coaches and teammates, but also we felt like we could develop and have our own sense of personality. For a young team that was a breath of fresh air.”
*You played for two coaches in Pittsburgh, how did Chuck Noll differ from Bill Cowher? *
“Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher are personality wise different. Bill Cowher was more vocal, in your face, engaging. That is the way he led. He was in to coming around and talking to individual players.
“Chuck Noll was the opposite. He didn’t say a whole lot, but when he did the team listened. He had a way of saying very few words but getting the message across. There was a weight to his message. He was also a very good teacher. Some of the techniques I used as a defensive back my whole career I learned from Chuck Noll. Coming in after the draft he pulled me aside and said I want to show you a few things. I have to say I wasn’t sure. I knew of Chuck Noll, but I wondered if he really was showing me something I can use. I didn’t realize until about the end of training camp that this guy is brilliant. As a linebacker in college trying to adjust to playing defensive back in the pros, those things he taught me helped me to become who I was.”
How much of what Bill Cowher and Chuck Noll taught you do you use today in your coaching?
“From Chuck Noll, knowing what you say matters to players. From Bill Cowher giving you a pick-me-up on the sideline when things aren’t going well. Dick LeBeau being supportive on and off the field. Supporting, caring coaching will always be beneficial to a player. Players do listen. They will come back to you and say something you told them and you are like, ‘Wow, they were listening.’”
*What did it mean to you to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers? *
“I played with some of the best players that have ever played the game. I played in a city that has a history of winning. A fan base that is probably the best in the NFL by far, around the world. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”
What is it about the Steelers that is special?
“I think for any organization the culture of it starts at the top. The Rooney family have been very supportive. I played 10 years for the Steelers and this is my seventh year coaching. They have always been rock solid in their support of players and coaches. They are very approachable, always in the building. I think that starts it off for everybody. The Rooneys have always picked quality head coaches. Fortunately for the Steelers there has been consistent leadership and there hasn’t been a lot of turnover. I think that is a reason the Steelers have been able to win as much as we are. That trickle-down effect, from picking good coaches, to staff and ultimately it comes down to picking good players. The Steelers have always had a knack for finding good talent. You combine all of those things and put it in the pot and what comes out are Super Bowls.” * *