INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Coach's life took many turns
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: John Chakot.
Bill Wilt never wrestled a match, but he became an outstanding wrestling coach.
He had no intentions of ever joining the military or becoming a teacher, yet a lot of his years have revolved around those two things.
He didn’t expect to be honored for the things he loved to do, and decades later, the accolades continue to pile up.
Bill Wilt’s life turned out nothing like he imagined it would, but he wouldn’t want it any other way.
One day in 1965, Wilt was walking down hallways of United High School, when his life took one of its many unforeseen turns. The then-geography teacher was told that he was going to be United’s next wrestling coach, despite having little knowledge of the sport. Alex Zbur, the Lions’ coach at the time, was going to be moving into administration, leaving his coaching position open.
“In those days, we didn’t have teachers’ unions or anything like that, and you did what you were told,” Wilt said. “Well, (the superintendent) put his arm around me and said, ‘Mr. Wilt, you are the new wrestling coach.’ I told him that I never wrestled before, and he didn’t care. He knew I played football and ran track, and that was enough for him. I was the new coach.”
Wilt wasn’t sure what to expect. Up to that point, he had done many things in his life that were new to him. He impulsively joined the Army, met his future wife while he was stationed in Germany and even became a teacher on a whim.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Wilt said. “I always did what I felt was right. I’ve been very fortunate, and things always ended up working out the way they were supposed to.”
They sure did.
o o o
Many years earlier, Wilt was just another high school athlete. He lettered three years in track and three years in football at Indiana Joint High School. Wilt loved playing football and was a running back on the Indiana team that went 9-0 in 1957, the first year that helmets had facemasks.
“I played on an outstanding team,” Wilt said with a smile. “I really did. We were undefeated that year because we had a lot of great coaches and there were a lot of great guys on that team. We were good. A bunch of them are already in the hall of fame here.”
Wilt will join some of those former teammates when he is inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday evening. Even though he was nominated because of his work as United’s wrestling coach, football is his favorite sport.
Wilt always wanted to move away for college, but things didn’t work out that way. He went on to play football for four years at Indiana State Teachers College, later known as Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“Out of high school, I was only about 145 pounds, and I always thought I wanted to play for Penn State,” Wilt said. “Penn State or Pitt didn’t want small guys like me, but I always knew I wanted to play football. The coaches stopped over at my house one day and wanted to know if I wanted to try out to play at IUP, and that was it. I not only tried out, but I ended up being anything they needed.”
Wilt worked on the special teams and practice squads and was constantly working toward a starting spot. During his junior season, his name was finally atop the depth chart at running back. He started a few games, but things then took a turn for the worse.
“We were practicing one day, and we were just in shorts because it was a Monday and we had scrimmaged on Saturday, and I was showing a freshman how to run a play,” Wilt said. “They were having a good time and into hugging and all that, and someone picked me up and was holding me. Then someone jumped up and hit me in the knee. Well, that was it. I ended up having surgery because of torn cartilage, but it had its benefits.”
As disappointing as the injury was, it was, in his words, for the better.
“In college, they want you to play,” Wilt said. “So once the swelling started going down, I tried to play. I couldn’t turn or make the cuts. … I had the surgery, and since I couldn’t straighten it, I had to let it heal. Some of the people I played with have problems to this day because they kept playing with their injuries. They kept playing, and my body didn’t take that kind of beating. My senior year, Bill Wilt’s name was down on the chart with a question mark beside it. I worked my way back up and got to play some, which I enjoyed and my body enjoyed because it was fixed.”
o o o
Wilt now considers himself a military man and is extremely proud of his time spent in the Army. There was a time, though, when he had no interest in it.
“You either had to take ROTC or health,” Wilt said. “I decided to take ROTC, but I had no intentions of staying in it. Between my sophomore and junior year, they picked 30 people out of about 300 to go to the advanced corps. I wasn’t one of the 30, and frankly, it didn’t bother me at all because I was playing ball and doing all sorts of other things. I was just having a good old time.”
Then, out of nowhere, everything changed.
As he was working construction on Sixth Street in 1962, Wilt had a surprise visit from his father, William, who said he had an important phone call from a major in the U.S. Army.
“He came over to me, and I remember I was wearing fishing boots because we were pouring cement, and he said I needed to come home,” Wilt recalled. “Back in those days, when fathers spoke, the conversation was over. There was no argument.”
Wilt ended up heading over to the ROTC, where the officers were waiting for him.
“I walked in there looking like a bum with cement all over me, and I won’t even tell you what they had to say about me because of my appearance,” Wilt said. “The bottom line came very quickly. The teachers and commanding officers got to pick one candidate that they thought would make a good officer. Then, they informed me that that person was me.”
They allowed Wilt five minutes to make a decision about staying in the program and joining the Army.
“I walked out and straightened myself up a little bit to look better and walked right back in,” he said. “I never wanted that, but I knew it was the right decision at the time. I then became advanced and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.”
Wilt took some time off from the family farm in Ligonier and went to Atlantic City to stay with one of his friends before leaving for the Army. Shortly after that, though, he received a phone call from his father.
“I thought ‘here we go, again,’” Wilt said.
Sure enough, his plans were about to take another turn. Wilt was offered a position to teach science and geography and help coach football at United.
“He told me I had an interview in three days,” Wilt said of his father, who was a teacher for more than 40 years. “Now, I never wanted to be a teacher, but there weren’t any freebies for jobs back then. Even though I was supposed to go to the military, I had to listen to my dad. So I hang up the phone, hitchhiked back and had my interview at United, and guess what: I was all of a sudden a teacher at United.”
Wilt was only supposed to be there a few months, but then his stint as a teacher was extended. Then, he finally made his way to the Army and was sent to Germany. The lieutenant ended up in Würzburg even though he thought he was headed to Nuremberg.
“Things changed for me again,” Wilt said. “I knew something was up when we were halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. I was always supposed to go to Nuremberg, but ended up somewhere about 100 miles away from that.”
Wilt, whose job was to load troops up with supplies before heading out into the field, was set to head to Nuremberg when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
“I ended up going up north to the border, and we were on full alert,” Wilt said. “I thought I was never going to make it to Nuremberg. Then, after that settled down, I finally made it there. I took over someone’s position and was in charge of all of the supplies in southern Europe. Things slowed down again, and then weird things happened again.”
With many others in the military on their way to Vietnam, Wilt was told that he and other officers weren’t going.
“That’s when they went with the draft,” Wilt said, “and when they went with the draft, that was it for me. In the meantime, though, I met my wife who worked with the government as a translator. I’d say 98 percent of my military experience was fantastic. There were a couple things that were a little spooky, but you’ll have that.
“I did things and saw things that a lot of people wouldn’t understand. My parents surely didn’t understand. Things are so isolated around here, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s just the way it is in Indiana, Pa. No one understood why I liked the military so much.”
Even though it wasn’t what he had planned, he loved just about every minute of it.
o o o
After returning from his stretch in the military, Wilt married his wife, Irene, and returned to his job at United. He still didn’t want to teach, but had lost many friends in the Vietnam War and thought it was best for his family if he didn’t try to return to the Army. His wife gave birth to their son, Mike, and daughter, Stefanie. Instead, he continued teaching and went to graduate school, receiving certificates from IUP and from Duquesne.
“My wife told me to quit moping around about the teaching, so I went back to school,” Wilt said. “I worked on my teaching and ended up doing 16-plus years as a teacher. I got my administration degree and a job opened up at United. I did 23 years as the principal, and that was something I never expected either. That wasn’t planned at all.”
Just like his career as a wrestling coach.
Before he knew it, that day in 1965 came and went, and Wilt was producing Appalachian Conference champions left and right. His teams won four conference titles, he coached 14 individual conference champions and he had three wrestlers who won District 6 titles. One of those athletes, Larry Strong, went on to win the state championship at 103 pounds in 1967.
“It was a learning experience for both of us,” Strong said. “We knew when he came in that he didn’t have a lot of wrestling experience, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t care about his background because he was a great coach. He came to us during my junior year, and it was interesting because he was young — almost like an older-brother figure to a lot of us. We learned more about the sport together, all of us. I was just grateful that we had a program and had a coach like him.”
Wilt coached the Lions for 16 years and is the longest-tenured wrestling coach in United history. He racked up 101 dual meet victories, and his 1975 team won the conference championship with a 10-2 record.
“My wrestling career was nonexistent,” Wilt said with a laugh. “I never wrestled. I was very fortunate to have had great assistants. Ken Jones was by my side through all of it. I’ve never had a person in my life who I worked better with than Ken. We got the program going pretty good, I’d say, and wrestling is still pretty strong at United. We had a great time and had a bunch of great, really tough kids.”
“He was very intense and was always a competitor,” said Wilt’s son, Mike, who ended up coaching wrestling at United, too. “When I was coaching, I would always ask him for advice. He was someone that anyone could go to for advice. He’s just that kind of guy.”
Wilt received a call from Purchase Line principal Stanley Bem one day because District 6 was looking for someone “on this side of the mountain” to be on the District 6 committee. One thing led to another, and Wilt ended up as the chairperson for the district wrestling tournament for many years. He started by working on the district volleyball tournament, and eventually took over wrestling.
“At that time, wrestling was going through a lot of changes. All of the sports were, actually,” Wilt said. “So being on those committees, we had to make some decisions. Mr. Bem got me into all of that stuff, and then 16 or so years later, I was still doing it.”
He finally retired from his position in the district — and with the school — in 2002.
“We go back a long, long way,” said Bem, who was the president of the PIAA for five years. “We still hang out. We fish together and hunt together, and sometimes we got out socially together. I ran the basketball tournaments for District 6 while he was working on the wrestling. He was great for the district and was well-respected as a chairperson. He was very successful.”
So successful, that he was inducted into the District 6 Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009.
o o o
Even all these years later, Wilt can still be found at area sporting events. He has been a track and field official for more than 45 years, and he attends football games and wrestling matches just to watch the kids.
“I always went to other games just to watch when I was the principal,” Wilt said. “I still do. If there is a good game, I go. It doesn’t matter what teams are playing.”
Sports have taken up a lot of time in his life and probably always will.
“He loves those sports, and those kids,” Irene said. “He was a good coach and really spent a lot of time in it. I don’t like sports, but I became a fan of wrestling. He’s always liked all that football and stuff, and he still goes to games and matches. He’ll never get away from it.”
“My mom never got into sports,” Mike said, “but she liked wrestling. She started taking me to matches from the time I was a baby. But don’t ask her to turn on a football or baseball game. She won’t watch it.”
Wilt attributes much of his success to his wife and claims he couldn’t have handled all the twists and turns life threw at him without her.
“I absolutely couldn’t have done any of this without her,” he said. “She always supported me. In Germany, they don’t have sports like we do. When she came here, she couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal — especially football. Sports mean nothing to her. She liked the wrestling because she knew the kids. They were like family to us.
“After I retired, I looked around and realized I had missed a lot. I was out coaching or going to meetings or games. Life definitely threw me some curve balls, but looking back, I guess I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”