NWHOF: Wrestling legacy of Douglas lives on
NWHOF: Wrestling legacy of Douglas lives on
Jim Douglas (Coleman) inducted into National Wrestling Hall of Fame – Wisconsin Chapter
Andrew Pekarek , USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin 2:23 p.m. CT April 8, 2017
Jim Douglas moved his family to Marinette County in 1951 to farm.
The roots of what he ended up growing in Coleman still run deep, not just in that community, but throughout the state.
“He wanted to raise sheep, but he changed his career and became a shepherd of wrestlers instead,” said Jim Richie, an assistant coach for Douglas.
Douglas led the charge in bringing wrestling to Coleman and was a pioneer in helping to expand the sport throughout the state to become what it is today.
During his 15-year tenure as head coach at Coleman, Douglas went 124-6-2 in duals and produced 13 individual state champions.
His small-town team of mostly farm boys claimed five WIAA state titles and two state runner-up finishes from 1959-1966 under a one-class format.
Photo Credit: Peshtigo Times
A charter member of the Wisconsin Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Douglas continued to coach up until a few weeks before his death in 1970 at age 56.
His impact on the sport, though, can still be felt.
Douglas’ coaching tree has grown rather large. There have been over 50 head coaches who have been responsible for over 25 WIAA team state championships who can trace their coaching roots back to Douglas, according to the Wisconsin Wrestling Online forum.
“He was like a father figure to us,” said Roger Pillath, who won two individual state titles under Douglas and was a member of Coleman’s first state championship team.
“At that period of time, most of the coaches were the yelling and screaming kind of coaches. He was not the Lombardi type. He was the type with a smile on his face that would show you how to do something and would pat you on the back.”
Douglas will receive the ultimate pat on the back Sunday when he is inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
His son, James, will accept the long overdue honor during the Wisconsin chapter’s annual banquet at the Rock Garden in Howard.
“I’m beside myself with happiness,” said James, a 1962 Coleman alum who wrestled for his father. “I think the community has the same affection for my father that I’ve had over all these years.
“My dad had hundreds of sons. I was just one of them. That’s how he treated all these kids.”
Genesis of greatness
Coleman wasn’t the first wrestling team Douglas helped get off the ground.
The entrepreneur started the University of Maryland’s program when he worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Md., in 1939.
Before that, he was the very first wrestler at West Lafayette (Ind.) High School. That’s because he was the only one.
Douglas, who was born in 1912, lettered in four sports as a prep athlete and learned to wrestle by practicing with the team at Purdue University as a teenager. He went on to wrestle for Purdue in college and made it to the Olympic Trials, coming up short of an Olympic bid after grappling while sick for 18 straight minutes before allowing an escape point.
“That’s how it was back in the 1930s,” James said about not having stoppages for periods or overtime. “That was the genesis for wrestling and my dad.”
The son of Scottish immigrants, Douglas grew up on the Purdue campus, where his father, John, worked as an administrator in the department of animal husbandry.
As one of five boys in the family, Douglas considered himself the runt of the litter.
The five brothers slept on bunks on a screened-in porch during the summer months. It was a daily occurrence for Douglas to run onto the porch, jump on his bunk and do 100 pull-ups off a wooden dowel in the ceiling.
“One of the boys took a saw and cut the dowel,” James recalled from the story his father told him.
“He came crashing down and smashed his bunk. … Grandma Grace came rolling out in her high Scottish accent and asked, ‘What in the bloody hell is going on out here?’ That sort of thing went on all the time. Dad never lost the charm of playing pranks and jokes on people, especially when he established wrestling at Coleman.”
Although Douglas remained a jokester throughout his life, he wasn’t fooling around when he asked Coleman Superintendent Walter Ott about starting a wrestling team at the school after he began teaching biology and chemistry there in 1954.
There were about 50 to 60 teams in the state at the time. Ott was at first a bit hesitant about introducing another sport to his small school.
“I recall that Mr. Ott said, ‘Can you have a winning program in five years?’” James said. “My father kind of smiled and said, ‘You bet. We can have a state championship in five years.’ Talk about positive thinking. Dad was in a school district that had no idea what wrestling was except for pro wrestling on TV with Gorgeous George.”
Wrestling and Coleman became a beautiful combination, although it was anything but pretty at the start when funds were tight.
Douglas held Coleman’s wrestling practices in the school’s woodshop during the fledgling years of the program. It turned out to be a fitting setting to build something special.
Not all of the wrestlers were outfitted with uniforms, so some competed in blue jeans during the inaugural 1955-56 season.
“He had great knowledge of the sport,” said Richie, who coached wrestling for over 40 years after getting his start under Douglas. “He had a unique style of teaching the fundamentals. He emphasized a lot on position and leverage and not giving up many points. You didn’t need a whole lot to win the close matches by just those basic things that he taught.”
Coleman won its first state championship in 1960, just
Coleman won its first state championship in 1960, just four years after the team started under the direction of coach Jim Douglas. The photo from the Peshtigo Times shows Douglas, right, and assistant coach Jim Richie, left, being hoisted up by their wrestlers, including in the front row from left, Paul Lepianka, Roger Pillath and Cliff Patz. In the back are Don Wiedemeir, Jack Vondross, Ray Champagne, Jim Lesperance and Howard Patz. (Photo: Courtesy of Peshtigo Times)
Douglas harnessed his coaching ability in the 1940s when he was based at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Glenview, Ill., and was responsible for training pilots how to wrestle for self-defense purposes should they get shot down during World War II.
Douglas later was stationed on the island of Saipan in the Pacific before being honorably discharged as a Lt. Cmdr. in 1946.
When he began coaching at Coleman, Douglas had a natural knack for making his pupils believe in themselves.
“I was wrestling a two-time state champ, who was 260 (pounds) and I was 200,” Pillath said about his freshman year. “(Coach Douglas) told me before the match, ‘Roger, you’re going to get beat. But go across the mat and see if you can take the bugger down. He’ll never expect it.’ Well, I took him down and got pinned in 59 seconds. I came off the mat and he said, ‘Great job. He never expected it.’
“His excitement was from that I got that takedown. He was that type of coach. You won if you could accomplish what you could on the mat. That was a big thing.”
Douglas was like a big kid around his wrestlers, willing to go back and forth with them in pulling pranks for good-natured fun.
He had an affinity for handing out nicknames as well. James, for example, is better known as “Pug” in Coleman since his father felt he was rather “pugnacious” as a toddler.
Coleman wrestling coach Kevin Casper said, “(Douglas) went to a few football games and my dad (Ken) was a defensive end. From that point on, Douglas called him ‘Barb Wire’ because he said nobody would get around you.”
While it didn’t take tiny Coleman long to rise to the top of the state, Douglas wasn’t shy about spreading his wrestling knowledge. He held clinics at other schools with the hope more teams would pop up. He believed iron sharpens iron, and more teams meant more competition to do so.
Douglas often officiated matches for other schools when referees were scarce. He wore his usual black trousers, white shirt and black bow tie.
“He never wore the zebra shirt,” Richie said. “That was his uniform. That’s what he wore. He didn’t care what the WIAA wanted. He was his own person.”
Although he went out of his way to spread his passion for wrestling, Douglas’ heart belonged in Coleman. That’s why he turned down a teaching and coaching position with a higher salary from a bigger school in 1959, which is when he was named teacher of the year by the state chamber of commerce.
“My father had so much regard for the Coleman community and was so loyal,” James said. “He didn’t want to leave those farm kids behind. He had so much respect and so much love for the farm boys because we had been farmers ourselves, so he appreciated what those kids brought to the wrestling mat.”
James Douglas plans to give his father’s Hall of Fame plaque to the school to display rather than keep it as his home in Shorewood, Minn., which is where he spent the majority of his 40-year career as a broadcast photojournalist.
For a town that didn’t know a lick about wrestling prior to Jim Douglas’ arrival over 60 years ago, the statue across the street from Coleman High School with the years of the wrestling team’s 10 state championships speaks volumes about his impact.
“He put Coleman on the map,” Casper said. “People in this community take great pride in that. That’s something that motivates me and makes me proud to be a part of the history. That’s something that we as coaches have always taught all of our kids.”
Casper just completed his 28th season as the school’s wrestling coach. The program crowned three individual state champions this year, giving it 32 in the program’s storied history.
Casper, a 1979 Coleman graduate, never got to wrestle for Douglas, but has heard so many stories about the man from alumni or others coaches at tournaments that it’s almost as if he did.
“The philosophy Casper is using right now is the same philosophy Douglas used,” Pillath said.
“Some of the moves have changed. Some of the drills have changed. But the basic program has not changed. You have generation upon generation backing it.”
There are over 300 high school wrestling teams in the state today and the WIAA individual state tournament finals fill the Kohl Center each year.
Many of them are there because of Douglas, a shepherd of wrestling for the state.
“I think he would be very, very impressed with the overall quality of wrestling and the way wrestling has moved into the state,” Richie said. “That was part of his dream.”
In addition to Douglas’ induction, seven individuals will receive awards from the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame at Sunday’s banquet.
Jerry Lasecki of Pulaski will receive the Medal of Courage. Lennie Shefchik, a Luxemburg-Casco alum, will get the Outstanding American Award. Former Wrightstown coach Bill Verbeten will receive a Lifetime Service Award along with Scott Arneson, Larry Gorres, Dale Hodkiewicz and Marty Marash.
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