“That to keep [the students] in health, and to strengthen and render active their bodies, they be frequently exercised in running, leaping, wrestling, and swimming.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in his “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania” 1749
Today will be a landmark day for Philadelphia wrestling. Today, Philadelphia hosts its first NCAA wrestling championships. And today, Philadelphia reminds the country that this is merely the next chapter in a storied history.
Buried in Penn’s University Archives, a pamphlet written by Benjamin Franklin details his attempt to bring education to the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia’s greatest statesman and Penn’s founder, Franklin advocated the athletic education of students nearly 155 years before the first intercollegiate wrestling championship.
That match, organized by Quaker coach J. Leonard Mason, would take place on April 7, 1905, in the presence of 800 at Weightman Hall Gymnasium.
A few days before the match, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported, “Much speculation is rife as to what men will compete in these bouts.” The pre-match controversy arose after rumors surfaced that the Quakers’ competitors would borrow from their respective football teams to fill their squads.
Penn would host Princeton, Columbia and eventual champions Yale in the first championship of the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association, the nation’s oldest collegiate wrestling league.
However, wrestling in the city of Philadelphia lacked traction, despite Penn’s success in hosting the EIWA. As the sport prospered in the rest of Pennsylvania, it became an afterthought in a city dominated by football success.
Slowly but surely, though, as the city grew, so did the reign of wrestling. But first it would need a palace, a royal lineage and a king.
By 1941, the city had all three.
* * * “This properly belongeth to the Disputations which are Exercises of young Students, who … in this Palaestra [are] brought up to a more serious Search of Truth.”
— Benjamin Franklin, quoting Obadiah Walker’s On the Education of a Young Gentleman
The construction of the Palestra struck a distinct chord in glory of antiquity. The word “palaestra” — which first appeared in The Histories by Greek historian Herodotus — literally meant “the house of wrestling,” and was used to test the “manliness and temper and upbringing and manner of life.” Since 1927, Penn’s Palestra has served as the cradle of wrestling civilization in the Philadelphia region.
One of the first coaches to inherit the Palestra, W. Austin Bishop cemented wrestling in the area with the nation’s oldest wrestling alumni club — a vital source of support in years to come.
In 1937, Bishop founded the Penn Grappler’s Club for alumni and others supporters, said former Penn coach Roger Reina, head of this year’s NCAA local organizing committee.
With a coach and arena in place, the Quakers lacked only a star to put Philadelphia on the national wrestling landscape. But in 1940, Penn found its man in Richard DiBatista.
The hulking heavyweight — affectionately known as “DiBi” — arrived at Penn on a football scholarship. At the time, Penn did not offer wrestling scholarships, so he played on both teams, and even captured a wrestling national championship in his sophomore year of 1941.
Though DiBatista would go on to become a successful coach and referee, he almost gave up wrestling in his junior year. Fortunately for Penn, Bishop brought the star “back to the wrestling room from the fraternity house,” as National Wrestling Hall of Fame President Lee Roy Smith put it.
In 1942, DiBatista became the first two-time NCAA champion east of the Alleghenies.
“DiBatista had polished a few go-to moves that worked with great success. On his feet, his setup was an arm drag with an inside trip and leg attack,” Smith said. “From the bottom, DiBatista liked to work an explosive sit out and turn that nobody was able to stop.”
“You can’t be beat when you can take somebody down and get away from anybody,” Smith added in layman’s terms.
* * *
“Many of the first Settlers of these Provinces, were Men who had received a good Education … and to their Wisdom and good Management we owe much of our present Prosperity.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in his “Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania”
While high-school wrestling ranks sixth in participation for boys’ sports throughout the country, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Philadelphia has just two Division I programs remaining: Penn and Drexel.
“On the college level itself, we’ve lost quite a few programs,” said Jack Childs, who has coached at Drexel for the past thirty-five years and is the winningest coach in college wrestling history. “La Salle had a good program. Temple had an outstanding program.”
But just two years after fielding a national champion, the Owls’ program was dissolved in 1988.
In the late 1970’s, sports like wrestling were prone to be cut by athletic departments as schools strove to save money and meet gender equity requirements in the wake of Title IX.
In 1979, former Penn Athletic Director Charles Harris announced that the school would cut its wrestling program. But with the support of wrestlers, then-coach Larry Lauchle and the vast alumni network cultivated by the Grappler’s club, wrestling clung to life.
“The sport is not that expensive to fund,” National Wrestling Hall of Fame historian Jay Hammond said. “It’s the private schools, where rich alumni endow the sport [where it has survived]. It’s unfortunate because at the high-school level, the sport is growing.”
“Reina stopped the rot,” Hammond said with a chuckle. “If it weren’t for him and the coaches at Cornell, there may not be any wrestling at any Ivy League school. He created a template for eastern private schools to preserve their sport.”
As a senior captain, Reina led Penn to its first above-.500 finish in ten years. After being named the team’s coach in 1986, he built a juggernaut that would win seven straight Ivy league titles in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, produce multiple national champions and even capture an Olympic gold medal.
“He was, in my opinion, the best Division I coach, bar none,” said former national champion Brett Matter who wrestled under Reina. “He made you a better person. He ran the team like the CEO of a company … and he had a ton of resources to help drive you toward reaching your ultimate goal.”
As Reina rebuilt Penn into a force to be reckoned with, the country began to notice.
* * * “May the GOD … unite the Hearts and Counsels of all of us, of whatever SECT or NATION, in one Bond of Peace, Brotherly Love, and generous Publick Spirit.”
— Benjamin Franklin in “The Plain Truth”
Five years ago, the NCAA selection committee awarded Philadelphia the right to hold the eighty-first NCAA championships. Reina, who is the head of the local organizing committee, has helped gather 500 volunteers to downtown Philadelphia to help out this weekend.
Perhaps none is more important than one of Reina’s former wrestlers, Chris Hanlon.
Hanlon is the executive director of Beat the Streets Philadelphia, an organization committed to establishing wrestling youth programs in the area.
A glimpse of the success of Beat the Streets was seen through the smiles of over 240 kids of all ages, who descended on the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday afternoon to learn from Penn assistant coach Matt Valenti and renowned sports psychologist Daniel Gould.
Beat the Streets had its roots in a program led by former Lehigh great Bud Lindholm, and was later revived by coach Bill Wallace to teach kids in Camden on a 10-by-10 mat. The program grew into an opportunity for former Penn wrestlers and brothers Brett and Clint Matter to give back to sport and city that gave them so much.
The brothers donated mats and uniforms, and modeled their Beat the Streets program on a similar New York project.
In only a year, Beat the Streets Philadelphia has helped mentor youth and high-school athletes and pushed the number of wrestlers in the city’s programs from 30 to 400. The results have been tangible, as seen through the example of nearby Edison High School.
“Jon Carlos Melendez, last year, failed every single subject, missed over a hundred days of school and was in a good bit of trouble,” Hanlon said. “He started going to practice, was reluctant at first, but then bought into it over the summer and since … he’s missed only six days of school, five of which are excused absences, is passing all but one of his classes and has gotten rave reviews from his teachers.”
Even the NCAA has recognized the level of commitment in the city, donating $25,000 to the cause.
This past winter, Edison won its first Philadelphia Public League championship, a major accomplishment for a school lacking any major athletic success.
“To see the reaction of the kids … gave me goosebumps and made me realize why we do this,” Hanlon said.
Moments like these, and the great coaches who have built up programs — like Reina, Childs and Bishop — have made this the first NCAA wrestling championship to sell out. And it will be a bittersweet moment for Childs, who will retire this year.
“It’s given me the opportunity to say good-bye to the sport right in my backyard,” he said. “For me, it’s a special time … It’s a great opportunity to showcase not just wrestling, but the city of Philadelphia itself.”