Photo: While Bruce Baumgartner was busy winning 13 World/Olympic medals between 1984 and 1996, including four gold medals, the former heavyweight star as coached and served as an administrator at Edinboro University until retiring in May 2020.
By John Johnson
After 36 years of hard work and dedication, legendary freestyle super-heavyweight-turned-wrestling-coach-and- administrator Bruce Baumgartner chose to retire from Edinboro University on May 8. It was a career that saw him progress within the university located in the western Pennsylvania community of Edinboro; from starting out as an assistant wrestling coach in 1984, elevated to head coach in 1990, named interim athletic director in 1997, and permanent AD eight months later. Baumgartner then held the position of athletics director until 2018, when he was Appointed Assistant Vice President of University Advancement.
Baumgartner will remain the President of USA Wrestling, a position he has held since 2016.
So why now for retire from Edinboro?
“Two things,” he said. “One, I have seen too many people work long, 65 or 70, and when they retire, they don’t have the ability to do what they want to do because their health isn’t there. I am healthy and my wife is healthy. I am a state employee of the state system of higher education. They did give the faculty, and I am faculty, an incentive to retire, and I took the incentive. The way it is structured, most people don’t work after 35 years. I did 36-plus. I felt it was time.
“I have a lot of things in life that I put on hold, or not do as much as I’d like. I really felt, whether I was assistant coach, head coach, AD or assistant VP, I put 100 percent into that position.”
Baumgartner now feels he can devote full focus to his position as President of USA Wrestling, but is vested in the community and does not have plans on moving to Colorado.
“I am looking forward to putting more effort into my role as President of USA Wrestling,” he said. “I want to promote what USA Wrestling stands for, and I owe a lot to USA Wrestling. I will always be involved in some capacity with USA Wrestling.”
“It is not a stretch to say Bruce Baumgartner may very well be the most consequential person in the history of USA Wrestling,” said Rich Bender, Executive Director of USA Wrestling stated. “If you combine his impact as an elite wrestler with his tireless post-competitive career commitment to help lead the organization, few, if any, can rival that impact. We are incredibly grateful for all he has done and continues to do for USA Wrestling and the entire sport.”
Baumgartner, who will turn 60 this year was born on Nov. 2, 1960 in Haledon, N.J., and got his start in wrestling through his older brother, Bob.
“My brother was three years ahead of me in school and was good in football and wrestling,” he said. “I would watch him play and I had some interest in football. Then during the winter season, he would come home and show me wrestling moves since we did not have wrestling in junior high.
“Our mother would always have to move furniture and glassware because we would break a lot of things while wrestling. I was 170 pounds in eighth grade and my brother was bigger and more mature than me, and the match would always end in a fistfight.
During high school at Manchester Regional High School, Baumgartner excelled on the wrestling team, going 23-0 his senior season, until he lost in the semis of the New Jersey state tournament and placed third.
“As a freshman, I weighed 190 and cut down to 170, probably not within the weight-loss guidelines we have today,” he recalled. “After cutting down to 170, I had a chance to wrestle varsity at an upper weight so my coach brought me a quart of milk and a dozen doughnuts to go up a weight class again, not a good practice.
“Heading into my junior year, I had no desire to go to college and wrestle. I wanted to be a bus mechanic like my dad. During my junior year I had a pretty good wrestling season progressing though sections, districts, regions, and made it to pre-state in New Jersey. It was after my junior year, I decided I wanted to go to college.”
Bruce did win a Junior National title, but without a New Jersey high school title, he was overlooked by many of the large college wrestling programs. He attended Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind., where he wrestled for four years as a Division I competitor. During his collegiate career he finished runner-up at Nationals his sophomore and junior years, and was the 1982 national champion his senior year completing an undefeated season of 44-0. His overall collegiate record was 134-12 with 73 falls.
As a three-time NCAA finalist, Baumgartner lost his first two title bouts to very strong competitors; to eventual OW Howard Harris of Oregon State in 1980 and to the University of Iowa’s Lou Banach in 1981. Then in 1982, Bruce defeated Oklahoma’s Steve Williams, 4–2 for an NCAA title. Between his junior and senior years, Baumgartner won the first of many international titles as he captured gold at the Summer Universiade in Bucharest at +100 kg in 1981.
As the early 1980s began, so would Bruce’s reign as one of the top freestyle wrestling heavyweights in international competition. Following his NCAA title in 1982, Bruce would win his first World Championship medal (bronze) in 1983, and would become an Olympic champion at the LA Games in 1984. At the 1986 World Championships in Hungary, Baumgartner defeated the top Soviet wrestler, David Gobedjishvili, becoming the first American to win the World heavyweight title, his first of three.
In the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Bruce lost to Gobedjishvili in the gold-medal match and settled for silver. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, however, Baumgartner avenged his lost to Gobedjishvili to take the gold and became the first American wrestler to win three Olympic medals. After World titles in 1993 and 1995, Baumgartner was favored to win his third gold in Atlanta, but lost to Andrey Shumilin of Russia. Bruce and settled for a bronze at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where he was elected U.S. flag bearer and U.S. Olympic Team captain.
As impressive as Bruce’s high school, college, national, and international resume is, just as impressive is the fact that Bruce was also was a grad assistant, working at Edinboro, and he and his wife were raising three sons! Bruce attended grad school at Oklahoma State University where he was training for a place on the 1984 Olympic Team and serving as a graduate assistant wrestling coach.
During this time Bruce had a chance to train at the University of Iowa and met up with Hawkeye grappler Mike DeAnna, who informed Bruce he had taken the position of head coach at Edinboro University, where they were planning to covert a Division II program into Division I. After the World Cup in March of 1984, Bruce traveled to Edinboro and felt the college and program had some opportunities.
“I wanted to be part of growing a program to help make a difference in athletes’ lives and make a change,” Baumgartner said. “Changing a D-II to a D-I program takes a lot of work as well as the fact that Edinboro went 0-11 the year prior.”
Bruce accepted the job, and continued his efforts in making the 1984 Olympic Team. Making the team, Baumgartner would go on and win his first Olympic gold medal at heavyweight in men’s freestyle. While training and working towards his Olympic title, Bruce would conduct a lot of his work remotely with DeAnna via phone as he continued to train in Stillwater.
Baumgartner eventually became the head coach at Edinboro, where Sean O’Day became its first Division I champion in 1989. During his tenure as head coach, the university placed as high as sixth in the nation, with several members of the team going on to wrestling at the Olympics for the U.S. Under Baumgartner’s administrative AD duties, he helped direct a team in 2015 that finished third in the NCAAs.
“I believe in Edinboro,” he said. “Even to this day, it provides a very good education for the cost, it is academically student-centered, we are not all about winning, although we have won in a lot of sports, including wrestling, at Edinboro. I like its academic integrity, I liked that it provided a good atmosphere for wrestlers to be successful, it also allowed me to be the head coach as I competed. And, we are proud parents of three Edinboro graduates.”
In 1995, one year before he earned his final World-level medal, he was presented the James E. Sullivan Award by the Amateur Athletic Union as the outstanding amateur athlete in the U.S. In 2008, Baumgartner was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
Baumgartner also credits his wife, Linda, for keeping balance in his life with training, competition, coaching and raising a family.
“Linda really afforded me with all the supports to be successful in wrestling and my professional career,” he said. “She helped raise the boys and did a lot around home. My wife is also an athletic trainer and after long days of coaching and training, I was able to head home for any treatments I needed regardless if it was stretching exercises, icing and heat. My wife would do it so I didn’t have to spend time in the training facility and could be home with her and the boys. When I first came to Edinboro, my wife and I were teachers and coaches, and I thought we would be here three or four years.”
Bruce also has other plans as he enters another chapter of his life.
“I’d like to get back out and do some motivational speaking engagements like I have in the past,” he said. “Also, doing things with my wife like traveling, house repairs, golfing, fishing, and doing some volunteer work in the community. I am also going to offer some volunteer time to Edinboro Univ. to the people who occupy my previous positions. I also want to give back to the wrestling program.”
No matter what Bruce does in life, he puts his all into it and seems to always find a way to give back to the oldest and greatest sport!