Editor’s Note: This column by Sandy Stevens was written before Drexel met Rider in a Feb. 9 dual meet, which featured Drexel’s Jack Childs and Rider’s Gary Taylor, the two active winningest coaches in Div. I. It was also the final meeting with Childs retiring after this season. Unfortunately for Childs, it was not a team victory as Rider won 20-12 in Lawrenceville, N.J.
“The match went the way a lot of our matches with Drexel have gone over the years,” Taylor said. “Back-and-forth. I thought it was a good match. Coach Childs and I are always going to be battling, to try to beat each other, and when it’s over we’re good friends.”
Column by Sandy Stevens
When do you take off the cape? When’s the right time to leave behind the respect and rewards that come as a successful head coach, and how do you do that gracefully?
Division I coaches Jack Childs of Drexel University, Dave Grant of Northern Illinois University and Jack Spates of the University of Oklahoma recently talked about how and why they made the decision to retire at the end of this season — the decision to take off Superman’s cape.
Jack Childs considered retiring several years ago but knew he retained his passion for the sport. When the 2011 NCAAs were awarded to Philadelphia, however, his son Jesse asked, “Dad, how many coaches get a chance to retire right in their backyard?”
Childs will do so next month, completing his 35th as Drexel’s head coach and posting more than 500 victories during his time at Stevens Tech and Drexel.
“I’m still on the mat showing my bar-arm series, but I can’t drill like I used to, like I want to,” Childs said. “It’s a younger man’s sport.”
Yet, good wrestlers don’t always make good coaches, stressed Childs, an adjunct professor in Drexel’s evening college graduate program. “They’re prepared to coach on the mat, but I don’t think they’re prepared to teach.
“It’s a team, but you have to prepare 10 individuals, and everyone is different. Young guys don’t realize enough that we’re educators.”
Until two years ago, Childs never had a full-time assistant. “I was responsible for everything, from making the hotel list to working with compliance,” he said. “Learning to delegate is darn tough for a young coach. You don’t have time to learn by doing; you have to manage that right away.”
As the team adjusts to a new head coach, Childs wants to stay involved and travel with the team for the transition. “Long-range, I want to follow these young men I recruited and watch them reach the status they can,” he said.
Childs and his wife Anne, a first-grade teacher, plan to attend the 2012 Olympics in London, spend more time with their three grandchildren and perhaps follow the fortunes of son Michael, assistant coach at Davidson.
Childs, a former president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association and member of several halls of fame, is also considering mentoring young coaches of all sports in the Philadelphia school system.
“There’s a lot I want to do while I still have the time and energy,” he said. “Anne says I have the Cal Ripken syndrome: I just keep showing up.
“The wins keep coming, and I’m grateful, but more importantly, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of these young men’s lives, to educate — not just in wrestling but in teaching them to be professional young men.
“It’s never been a job; it’s been my life,” Childs said. “I embrace the fact that it’s my last time. It’s been a great ride.”
In 15 years, Dave Grant has built a competitive and academically honored program, sent Huskie wrestlers to 38 NCAA Championship tournament appearances and amassed a winning record, often through challenging times.
“I took a program that started to be cut and put it on solid footing,” Grant said. “A lot of people think it’s all about winning, but you have to cover the necessities first — uniforms, feeding the wrestlers — and we had issues with facilities. For 12 years we shared a room with the gymnastics team. We got a new wrestling room three years ago.”
Now it’s time for different pursuits, he said. “Coaching and specifically wrestling, they’re time-consuming, night and day,” he said. “At some point, you want to be able to do other things.”
Grant, a Kentucky native and former Northern Iowa All-American, urges young coaches to learn from their more experienced peers so that they don’t make the same mistakes.
“They need to know, for example, what’s important to the administration,” Grant said. “I came (as an assistant) from Minnesota that had a fully funded staff to NIU where there was $5,000 for an assistant coach. The challenge was like learning to run a small business.
“These things are learned through experience, and we don’t want any more programs cut,” Grant stressed.
He’d also like to see more sharing among coaches. “When you’re involved with coaching, you try to do what’s best for your team and have less time to help others, but there’s less sharing among wrestling coaches than in most other professions because of the competitiveness,” he said, “and in some ways, that hurts our profession.
“But we’re facing a crisis in our sport with programs being cut. Maybe we should help each other more. The National Wrestling Coaches Association convention is a good start.”
Grant said he looks forward to being able to be involved in and around his family longer for every holiday. “And maybe spend a month in Florida in the winter,” he added.
Also, he owns a number of buildings in DeKalb, the home of NIU, and Grant’s wife Kris has been helping manage the real estate. “She’s ready to turn the keys over to me, that’s for sure,” Grant said.
“Wrestling has been great to me,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate, but I’m ready (to retire) at this time in my life.”
“Wrestling is in many ways a consuming sport, one that requires tremendous passion,” observed Jack Spates, completing his 18th season guiding the Sooners after coaching at Cornell University. “When your passion diminishes, it’s time to move in a different direction.”
Spates doubts that older coaches sometimes hang on due to their egos. “You still must keep your love for the sport, and you still have to provide for your family,” he said. “Older coaches have acquired a vast knowledge that many younger coaches realize is a tremendous asset when they get that (head) job.
“There needs to be a balance,” said Spates, whose son Jeremy serves as an assistant OU coach. “Younger coaches have drive and energy. Older coaches have experience and wisdom.”
He strongly considered stepping down several years ago when team fortunes faltered, Spates said, but criticism that he couldn’t turn around the program spurred his decision to stay.
“Not get better? That’s exactly what we tell kids not to believe,” he said. “We were fifth last year, and I expect as good or better finish this year.”
Spates promised recruits he’ll be the club coach next season, although he looks forward to stepping out of the wrestling room and sitting in the stands. “But officials tell me that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve received my last warning!” he said.
Spates holds a master’s degree in divinity and plans to continue his involvement in ministry. “I gave my life to Christ when I was a sophomore in college and walked with him for many years,” he said. “Sadly, I turned my heart. About eight years ago, God brought me back to my knees, for which I’m eternally grateful.”
He’s not sure what direction his service will take, but he already works in prison ministry in Oklahoma City and El Reno and teaches youth corps members. “The bottom line is, (retirement) is just more time for what I’m doing,” he said.
Spates noted that in 1968, as a 5-foot-tall, 90-pound high school sophomore, his friends signed him up for the wrestling team as a joke. He’d never seen a wrestling mat or a meet, but he was hooked.
“I’m so grateful for the impact the sport has had on my life and my family,” he said. “I’m blessed with a wife who loves the sport and the kids but also is eager to be my helpmate in the next chapter.
“I’m just a blessed man,” Spates said, “and I leave with a smile on my face.”
(Special Note: My sincere apologies to Michael Mitchell, whose name appeared as Michael Martin in my last column.)