JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — In the fall of 1976, Pat Pecora packed what he could into a $150 car bought from a family friend and made the hour-long drive east from the Pittsburgh surburbs into the western Pennsylvania highlands.
He had no idea what he was doing. The 22-year-old needed a job, and the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown offered one that sounded an awful lot like three. Wrestling coach. Men’s soccer coach. Gym teacher. Pecora needed to find a way to juggle them all at once. For $9,000 a year.
Never mind that he hadn’t so much as kicked a soccer ball or that the wrestling program he inherited consisted of a handful of guys practicing on a stage in the student union, where one roll too many sent them tumbling to the floor below. His earliest recruiting trips were walks to the cafeteria, where he’d scout for young men in high school wrestling shirts.
Join me, Pecora told them. We’re going to be a family.
A family that’s grown by the hundreds over the last 44 years, one bound by the tenets the winningest college wrestling coach in history began preaching long ago.
Head up. Butt down. Elbows in. Knees bent. Brothers for life. They’re all baked into the foundation Pecora laid during that first fall, one that set the groundwork for 618 career wins (and counting), a pair of NCAA Division II national titles, 14 individual national champions and 154 All-Americans.
When UPJ edged Mercyhurst 22-13 on Feb. 7 to give Pecora his 617th dual meet victory — breaking the mark held by former Oregon State coach Dale Thomas for all NCAA divisions plus NAIA and junior colleges — the celebration included more than 100 alumni who remain close to Pecora years, even decades, after they’ve hung up their singlets.
“My dad would say, ‘We’re doing a good job as mother and fathers if our children are close,’” Pecora said. “My whole philosophy is, ‘If I’m going to be a good coach, my wrestlers have to feel like brothers.’”
And they do. It’s not uncommon for athletes a generation apart to develop deep bonds rooted in their love of the sport and the man who nurtured it. Isaac Greeley, a two-time All-American under Pecora in the 1990s, still talks to his old coach at least once a week. It might be about their jobs. The current team. The old days. The future.
The program that struggled to find enough wrestlers to form a team in the early days began practice last fall with 45 athletes on the roster, all fighting for the 10 spots available during a given dual meet. Some bail out of frustration. Others stick around out of habit, loyalty and the off-chance they’ll get a shot.
“From the guy who was a six-time national champ to the guy who wrestled one match to the guy who didn’t even get in to start one match, he helped someone be a better wrestler because it was his brother,” Pecora said. “All of that made this happen.”
So did the guy who learned about the sport during living room brawls with older brothers Ernie and Richie in Turtle Creek, a mill town about 12 miles east of Pittsburgh. The Pecora boys would emulate the moves they saw during the professional matches they watched on TV on Saturday mornings.
“It was wrestling and it wasn’t fun wrestling,” Pecora said with a laugh. “It was Jumping Johnny DeFazio drop kicks. Bruno Sammartino bear hugs. Illegal head locks. It was a fight basically. And your big brother was beating you up.”
Ernie, the oldest and the biggest, had his way for years. Then Richie joined an actual wrestling team and learned the sport. Suddenly, things weren’t so one-sided. By eighth grade, Pat was in the gym, too, wrestling all the way through college at West Liberty University. There was something about the sport that drew him in — the discipline, the pressure of performing with no one else to rely on and no one else to blame.
“If I can run out in front of all these people and say ‘Hey, I’m going to see what we can do,’ then anything else I do will be easy by comparison,” he said.
As a coach, Pecora sparred with his wrestlers well into his 40s. Current players insist the trim 66-year-old has the best core strength on the team. A nonsmoker, he overcame lung cancer in his 50s and became so antsy after surgery to remove a portion of his left lung that he attempted to tear the tubes out of his chest so he could get to practice. While his contemporaries sit and talk during prematch warmups, Pecora often climbs stairs at the arena until it’s time to work. Once the meet begins, the rest of the world falls away.
“There’ll be times where he says something during the match and we’ll talk about it a couple hours later and he’ll say: ‘I don’t remember saying that? Did I really say that?'” senior Devin Austin said. “He’s holding you accountable for how you wrestle during a match. If you don’t give it your all, you’re going to hear about it.”
Such conversations are rare. Barry Gresh became Pecora’s first All-American in 1979. The Mountain Cats have produced at least one every season since.
Pecora led the school to Division II national titles in 1996 and ‘99. The outside world took notice. In the early 2000s, Maryland offered to double Pecora’s salary and give him a pair of full-time assistants as well as a volunteer coach, an academic adviser and a strength and conditioning coach.
It was the big time. He was intrigued but worried about the traffic. The cost of living. The idea of uprooting wife Tracy and their four children. He said he was waiting for a sign from God. Then the father of one of his wrestlers left a voicemail on Pecora’s phone, telling him: “Pat, this is God. Stay at UPJ.’”
So he did.
“(Moving) didn’t fit into our philosophy or my philosophy,” Pecora said. “The family is the most important element of society.”
And if he left, who’s to say if he would have joined the likes of Thomas or Olympic champion and Hall of Fame Iowa coach Dan Gable as one of the best ever? Not that Pecora believes he deserves to be in such company.
“That’s wrestling royalty. I’m not wrestling royalty,” he said. “I come from projects. … I grew up wrestling my two brothers in the living room. And I survived that. I grew up a tough kid, not afraid.”
Pecora looks for that same respectful fearlessness while putting together a team. It’s why so many of his wrestlers have been sons of coal miners and farmers.
“You’re a fighter no matter what,” Pecora said. “You can be both a fighter and a good man. You don’t have to be a knucklehead, be a tough guy. You can show compassion, have a heart and still be a guy no one wants to mess with.”
Even when the ride suddenly comes to an end.
“When guys lose at the national tournament, coach is crying with them,” Greeley said. “And as a wrestler and a teammate and an alumni, you know how much it means to have someone in that moment who has been in the foxhole with you.”
As for how much longer he plans to stay in that foxhole, Pecora — who became UPJ’s athletic director in 2008 — says he’ll stick around as long as the Mountain Cats are winning.
UPJ finished 21-3 in dual meets this season. The Division II Super Region tournament is this weekend in Erie. The national tournament is next month. There are practices to run, men to mold, relationships to invest in.
The urge to teach the essential skills remains as strong now as it was when he pulled into campus nearly a half-century ago. So why stop?
“It’s not like you have to do it forever,” Pecora said, using one of his pet phrases. “You just have to do it the rest of your life.”
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