Back to Coaching
by Peter Kravitz
After a 22-year hiatus I have returned to coaching wrestling—like a real-life T. S. Garp.
Wrestling has been important in my life. It instantly transformed me from a pudgy teen into a lean one. My suburban 1970s youth was too comfortable. Not eating or drinking anything for 36 hours to make weight, among other deprivations, forced discipline on me. While critics say cutting weight is a huge negative of wrestling, it was the best thing that ever befell me, strengthening my mind and helping to instill a lifelong passion for fitness.
I joined my Harriton High School (Lower Merion, PA) team as a 10th grader thanks to my coach, Bill Zimmerman. By my senior year I was team captain. My two younger brothers also followed as Harriton Rams captains. All three of us dropped other sports in pursuit of Pennsylvania wrestling glory. Along the way, novels about wrestling—such as John Irving’s The World According to Garp and The 158-pound Marriage and Terry Davis’s Vision Quest—inspired me.
After a successful collegiate wrestling career, I became the head wrestling coach at Haverford College in Haverford, PA, a Division III school. I was on my own regarding recruiting, practices, matches, and even driving. Considering how litigious education has become, I’m amazed today that I was allowed to drive the team van to away matches, though I was only a couple of years older than my wrestlers.
In the early 1980s, an odd gentlemen visited me at Haverford. He said he was going to start a Division I wrestling program at nearby Villanova University, which had never had wrestling. He wanted to know how to run a collegiate wrestling practice. While he had never wrestled or coached wrestling, he planned to coach the Villanova team.
How was that possible? Only top, experienced coaches ran Division I teams. I knew of this man but wasn’t aware he was one of the richest men in the country. His name was John Eleuthère du Pont. He was in his mid 40s; I was in my mid 20s.
While explaining to him how to train wrestlers, I wondered how Villanova administrators could let him coach. Apparently, they’d agreed to that after he said he’d help fund a new on-campus sports arena, which became the du Pont Pavilion. (The name is now The William B. Finneran Pavilion.) He also agreed to fund the entire wrestling program from scholarships to coaches’ salaries.
He visited me again. I considered coaching with him at Villanova, but there was something off about him and the whole situation that made me hesitant. As a result of growing up outside of Philly and graduating from the University of Delaware, I knew other du Ponts. They were wealthy and quirky—one was known to struggle with mental illness, which was rumored to run through the family.
I never pursued coaching with du Pont, which was probably a good thing. Villanova wrestling lasted two years. The university dropped the program due to its numerous NCAA violations. Super-rich guys hate following rules.
Still wrestling-obsessed, du Pont built a world-class wrestling facility on his 440-acre estate in Newtown Square, PA. By luring America’s best wrestlers with his wealth, he developed a top international wrestling club to rival the New York Athletic Club and Iowa’s Hawkeye Club in the early 1990s.
Iowa’s legendary Dan Gable warned all of his wrestlers to stay away from du Pont. If you saw the 2014 film, Foxcatcher (starring Steve Carell as du Pont, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award as best actor), you know du Pont descended into a deep psychosis and then murdered one of the U.S.’s greatest wrestlers, Dave Schultz, in 1996. After being found guilty of “third-degree murder but mentally ill” du Pont was sentenced to 13-to-30 years in prison, where died in 2010.
I’m no longer obsessed with wrestling. My objectives are far different from du Pont’s and from my previous two coaching incarnations. In go-around No. 3, I’m enjoying co-coaching the W.T. Clarke Rams Middle School along with Adrienne LaVacca, a female coach, trainer, and teacher. We’re developing middle-school wrestlers and teaching them to enjoy the sport for an excellent wrestling program—whose varsity squad, coached by a terrific father-son duo, the Leonards, made it to the semis of the New York State Division II dual-meet championships this year.
In 1998, I walked away from my job as an assistant varsity coach at Wantagh High School (NY) due to my wife’s full-time job and my need to parent my three young children. In my last high-school meet as a coach, my wrestler, Mike Ginsberg, was robbed of a Nassau County title in the 167-pound final by terrible refereeing. This was a bitter slice of déjà vu for me. Years earlier, in the East Coast Conference 190-pound final—my last collegiate bout—another referee, with the appropriate name of Bob Pancake (it’s a wrestling move), similarly pancaked me, denying me an upset opportunity over an eventual Division I All-American Rider College wrestler.
Luckily, the refereeing seems much better today and super-rich men are more interested in trying to run the country than wrestling programs.
And that’s really good for wrestling—as is this old guy’s mat return so far. Though nearly 60, I summon the energy for solid practices after long days of teaching teenagers. And while my left shoulder quit on me after two weeks, none of my wrestlers have quit.
Photo by Chris Chow (Canton, OH), @chris_chow