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Do-it-Yourself Record Breaker
Wil Hane
March 20, 1961
That is Kent State's Joe Begala, coach of 226 winning college wrestling matches
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March 20, 1961

Do-it-yourself Record Breaker

That is Kent State's Joe Begala, coach of 226 winning college wrestling matches

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At next week's NCAA championships, the nation's best college wrestlers will meet to decide the top man in each of 10 weights. The top college coach at any weight, however, was decided early last month. That is when Joseph Begala of Kent State University, a little-known northern Ohio college where a wrestling match at midnight could out-draw a free lunch at the Captain Brady (the campus Waldorf), became the winningest coach in the history of collegiate wrestling. The idea that Begala is the most successful coach is supported by the record books; the idea that he also is the best is supported by Joe himself. He is confident that his do-it-yourself coaching philosophy is second to none for producing topnotch wrestlers.

Over a 29-year span, Begala has coached 184 individual conference, district and AAU champions, many of whom had never wrestled or even seen a college match before enrolling at Kent State. His lifetime record is 226 wins, 37 losses and 2 ties.

Begala has continually sent his squads against major colleges in the Midwest. He holds a winning margin over every school he has ever scheduled except Oklahoma University and Syracuse. All this has been done the hard way—without offering "pin money" (Joe's term for college wrestling scholarships).

Throughout his career, Begala has maintained that "college athletics are strictly for enjoyment; so why pay a boy to enjoy himself?" Nevertheless, dozens of high school wrestlers invade his office in the Kent State gymnasium each year with the question, "What will you give me if I come to Kent?" Before the enterprising young wrestlers can say another word, Begala interrupts them with his stock offer. "If you make the team, you'll get a school letter; if you don't, you'll get a good education anyway."

But despite Begala's antipathy toward scholarships, each year some of the best high school wrestlers in the Midwest show up in Kent State's tiny wrestling room on the first day of practice. (A few grant-in-aid scholarships were set up by the university three years ago but they are not awarded until an athlete has been in school a year and then only to needy cases.) A Cleveland sportswriter attempted to explain this enigma, saying, "If a kid wants the best coaching available, he'll go to Joe. Then, if he can't wrestle for Kent, he can always transfer to a Big Ten school."

Although he is not recruiting with scholarships, Begala is campaigning throughout the state for more high schools to include wrestling in their athletic program. "Anyone can wrestle and it builds the kind of man who'll wrestle anything," he contends. "And we need more of that kind."

When Begala came to Kent State in 1929, there were 682 students, of which only 82 were males. He had clinched the coaching job while still in his senior year at Ohio University, where he was captain of the wrestling team. During the season Begala wrestled in three different weight divisions against Kent State wrestlers and won each time. Sportswriters dubbed him the Ohio Ironman. The Kent State coach, Sellew Roberts, was so impressed by the feat, he offered Begala his own job. Begala accepted and immediately set about wangling matches with the toughest teams he could find. When he submitted his first schedule, school officials suggested he stay in his own league. Begala didn't listen to them, however, and the squabble ended with the faculty manager of athletics telling Joe he would "never be much of a coach."

That first season was Begala's worst. His team won three while losing four matches. Everyone was delighted. Up to that time a better record by a Kent State athletic team would have aroused suspicion of a fix.

One of Begala's first official acts, after he had obtained some wrestlers, was to announce publicly that if any team member ever pinned him that boy could have his job. Since Begala never missed a practice session or failed to dress for one, the challenges came quickly. To keep on the payroll, Begala trained as hard as, if not harder than, his team members. "And they trained hard," he says. "There was many a young buck out to make headlines at my expense. A few almost did. [A guy that strong shouldn't be allowed to run loose, one of his wrestlers once said after failing in an attempt to retire Joe.] And many a kid came into his own while trying to put me in the grandstands—which was the purpose of the whole thing," Begala adds proudly.

At the start of the 1956 season, Begala withdrew his challenge. He was 49 at the time and had taken on all comers for 24 years. "Even so," he says, "it was the most humiliating thing I ever had to do." However, Begala says he's confident he could have lasted another few years. "A wrestler can go full blast up to the time he's 50. He can win another five years on tricks of the trade and I've enough to stuff a wrestling mat."

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