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
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.
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).
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."
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."