John Fritz is a Penn State legend, and an integral part of the Dear Old State's incredible wrestling history. Coach Fritz, as many still know him, came to Penn State from Liberty High in Bethlehem in the fall of 1971. He finished his collegiate career as a 3-time All-American and 1975 National Champion, all at 126 lbs. He was one vote short of being named Outstanding Wrestler of the national tournament as a senior, with a thrilling OT victory over Michigan State's Pat Milkovich.
That would be enough perspective for most. But it's just the start for Coach Fritz. In 1980, following coaching stops at Colorado State and Franklin & Marshall, Rich Lorenzo asked John to return to State College as his top assistant. Fortunately for Penn Staters, John accepted, and over the next decade, along with Hachiro Oishi, who joined the Penn State staff in 1983, the team built upon Bill Koll's foundation, sculpting Penn State from a regional power into a national contender, led by an incredible string of lightweights, including Carl DeStefanis, Jim Martin, Ken Chertow, Jeff Prescott, Shawn Nelson, and others.
Coach Fritz became chief of the Penn State Wrestling family with PSU's entrance into the Big Ten conference in 1993. He retired from the Head Coach position following the 1998 season, but stayed in State College. Today, he's Commissioner of the Penn State University Athletic Conference, and over the last several years, has been instrumental in fostering the growth of varsity sports among the Commonwealth campuses. Foremost among those efforts has been the return of varsity wrestling to six campuses, and Penn College of Technology. Next weekend, Commissioner Fritz will preside over the PSUAC's Wrestling Championships, held at Rec Hall. Place winners will qualify to compete in the National College Wrestling Association's National Championship, held in Allen, TX this March.
Having had a front-row seat for every Penn State - Iowa dual held from 1982 - 1998 gives Coach Fritz a perspective that few people can match. With the top-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes coming to State College this Sunday for a sold-out, capacity crowd dual at the Bryce Jordan Center, Black Shoe Diaries asked Coach to share a few of his memories. He graciously agreed.
BSD: Coach, you took the reins of the Penn State program from Coach Lorenzo in the 1992/93 season, Penn State's first in the Big Ten. Your first conference dual - and first home dual as head coach - came against Coach Gable's Iowa Hawkeyes, a familiar opponent. What was the feeling like for you, amongst the team, and around State College in the week leading up to that first home dual?
Coach Fritz: Well, it's been quite a while since then - I really have to think about this one. But Rec Hall and Happy Valley are such special places. We have some of the very best fans in all of college wrestling. It was always fun to wrestle Iowa because of the success they had. It made those matchups special.
Going into the Big Ten was so exciting for us. Although we, as a team of wrestlers and coaches, had always felt that we wanted to be a team that challenged for National titles, being part of the Big Ten, the most dominant wrestling conference in the country, made that goal more apparent. But as a coach, you know there is added excitement to a match like this and you hope that each wrestler treats it as another step in the process of constant improvement. And of course, the best way to evaluate is against the best competition. I do distinctly remember how loud Rec Hall was that night and no matter how much "coach-speak" we might want to use - treat them all the same, etc. - there is something to be said for experiences like this, for wrestlers ,coaches and fans.
BSD Historical Notes: Penn State and Iowa tied, 18-18, in that conference-opening dual. Penn State would finish the season unbeaten, 22-0-1, and won its 3rd National Duals Championship. Coach Fritz, in his first season at the helm, was named NWCA National Coach of the Year.
BSD: Fast forwarding a bit to December 1996. I was a sophomore at Dear Old State, and sat in the upper deck for the original Iowa vs. Penn State dual in the (then) new Bryce Jordan Center. I remember, at the end of the dual, Coach Gable forfeit heavyweight. I'm not sure I ever heard as many boos. The 12,000 people around me seemed awfully upset with him. What do you remember about that dual, and how much of an adjustment was it to leave Rec Hall behind and switch sides of campus for such a big match?
Coach Fritz: That was a tough situation. We had a great crowd in the BJC. I think at that time we broke the record for the largest crowd east of the Mississippi. Although it’s hard to beat the atmosphere of Rec Hall, it was great to be able to have more people from the state get to see a big match.
It ended up disappointing, not just because of losing the dual meet, but because we had Kerry McCoy, one of the all-time best wrestlers in the country at any weight, and the fans didn’t get to see him wrestle. I can’t remember the name of the heavyweight Iowa had warming up, but they decided to forfeit and the crowd was not happy. Not to mention Kerry and our coaching staff.
BSD: The next season (97/98), your last as Head Coach, you traveled to Carver Hawkeye Arena just after the New Year. Warrior Run's Jason Betz scored a big win at 126 over Doug Schwab. The momentum of the dual swung back and forth, but Iowa's Lee Fullhart took the 190-lb match to close the Hawks within two points, 19-17, and get the Carver crowd extra rowdy. So, it all came down to heavyweight, and with Kerry McCoy having graduated, a young Mark Janus took the mat for you against Wes Hand. Did you have any words for Mark before he took the mat, and what were the next few minutes like for you from your coach's chair?
Coach Fritz: Thanks to you, I just got to watch that match on YouTube for the first time since that season. I feel as though I’ve seen it more because it’s one of the more memorable moments that coach Oishi ( who has an office next to mine now) and I reminisce about. Seeing it again brought back some great memories. Our entire team had such great spirit and fight. It was a joy to coach them.
I would like to say I had some special message for Mark but I’m sure it would have been like any other match: "go out there and keep wrestling and let it happen". I do remember seeing Mark continue to try to score and be aggressive. Hand was good with upper body techniques, and I didn’t realize until just watching the film that Janus initiated the flurry that led to the pin. Hand underhooked to body lock, and Janus hit a last ditch headlock (since Janus was the one who appeared to be in trouble) to counter Hand’s bodylock. Janus adjusted really well when Hand tried to throw him, and Janus landed on top in a position he is very comfortable in.
I was pretty sure then that Janus would get the pin, and remember saying to Coach Oishi, "he’s going to pin him and we win". It was a good lesson for any wrestler to learn: no matter what, keep wrestling and good things will happen.
BSD Historical Notes: That dual was Iowa's 100th dual in fabled Carver Hawkeye Arena. Their record after Janus pinned Hand fell from 98-1 to 98-2. Who was the team that gave Iowa its first loss in Carver? That would be Penn State, in 1989, when our Lions wrestled as part of the Eastern Wrestling League (EWL). The legend holds that Iowa Coach Dan Gable was so disappointed at the 1989 dual loss that he took his squad outside immediately following the meet, and conducted an impromptu practice in the icy Carver parking lot. If true, to Coach Gable's credit, it must have worked, because the Hawkeyes didn't lose another home dual until Coach Fritz returned in 1998.
BSD: Thanks so much for sharing your memories with us, Coach. One last quick question for you: how do you see this Sunday's big dual at BJC playing out?
Coach Fritz: Well, after going back in time to the memorable PSU - Iowa matches in the past, it’s easy to state that even when you think it’s pretty predictable, it’s really not. This Sunday's dual is another one that is too hard to call.
On paper you would have to favor Iowa. They have great balance. Penn State, on the other hand ,has a mix of experienced wrestlers and others that are not so experienced. They are all capable of great things.
Duals like this usually have a few matches that, on paper, are almost "sure wins". I don’t see any sure wins. We all know, with the talent out there on center mat in the BJC before a packed house of 15,000-16,000, anything can happen. This will be a great test and preparation for Big Ten’s and Nationals. One of the great things we have been accustomed to seeing with Cael’s and his coaching staff’s wrestlers is they will be aggressive and mix it up . That makes for exciting wrestling. I’m looking forward to a great match!