It was the pinnacle moment in a near-decade of regional domination for the East Carolina wrestling program.
As the final day of the tournament went on the pressure mounted for heavier-weight competitors like Mike Radford and Willie Bryant.
The event was the 1973 North Carolina Collegiate Championships in Chapel Hill, featuring teams from 17 different schools in the Tar Heel State. Entering the final matches, ECU’s team had at least one competitor in every one of the ten weight classes. In the 150-pound weight class, both wrestlers were Pirates, guaranteeing at least one tournament title.
As the competitors took the mat for the lower weight classes, ECU got off to a strong start with victories from Jim Blair and Paul Ketchum.
Next Milt Sherman and Tom Marriott won their pairings, and then Jack Stortz defeated Steve Satterthwaite in the all-ECU matchup.
Suddenly ECU’s wrestlers and fans looked up and realized they were halfway through a sweep of all weight classes.
The Pirate grapplers were certainly favored in some of the classes, Radford remembered, but in others they could only be considered an underdog. As his lighter teammates notched one win after another, Radford, who wrestled one rung from the top weight class at 190, knew the pressure was on.
“We got through about four matches, two of those were heavy underdogs and our guys won,” said Radford. “Then it got to the point where eight guys behind me won and there was only one ahead of me. I wasn’t going to be the one to lose it.”
Radford was the favorite at his weight class, and he pulled out a victory, but Bryant, wrestling in the 190-pound weight class, was facing a wrestler from N.C. State who was ranked higher than he was.
Just like Radford, Bryant was driven by the desire to preserve ECU’s perfect run in the tournament. He prevailed, and the Pirates were able to celebrate the rarest of wrestling feats – taking the championship in every single weight class.
The Pirates would go on to win their third straight Southern Conference title – the third of five such trophies the program took home in succession.
“Wrestling, for the time that it was there, was the most successful sport that ECU ever had,” Radford said.
That uncommon level of success will be the subject of celebration this weekend when East Carolina honors the wrestling program at Letterwinner’s Weekend with a banquet, a halftime observance at the football game and other festivities. The program existed at ECU from 1961 to 1981, but the dominant season came courtesy of head coach John Welborn, who presided over Pirate wrestling from 1967 to 1977.
Besides five straight conference championships, the ECU squad finished the season ranked in the top 50 three times and in the top 25 once, in 1973-’74.
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Welborn compiled a 94-14-3 record over his ECU career. Most importantly for in-state bragging rights, his team never lost to North Carolina and fell only once to N.C. State.
Eastern North Carolina has never been known as wrestling country, but it only took a few home wins against those in-state rivals for the student body to catch on and show up at Minges to watch the inevitable.
“We frequently had better attendance than the basketball team, and they were pretty good during those years,” said former ECU wrestling and current faculty member Milt Sherman, who stayed connected with the ECU program for 10 years after he graduated in 1974. “We could bring N.C. State or Carolina on campus, which basketball couldn’t, and everybody wanted to see them get beat.”
The accomplishments of the ECU wrestling teams defied the standard formulas for collegiate sports dominance. The program’s budget was so threadbare that Welborn was teaching a full load and coaching two other sports – soccer and golf – when he took over the program. The first time his team qualified for nationals in 1971 he had to ask a local businessman for money so that he could rent a station wagon to transport his wrestlers.
The program was still new when Welborn was hired in 1967, so recruits weren’t wooed by history or reputation. The secret ingredients, it would seem, were the coach himself and the hardnosed culture he helped create.
The wrestling room in Minges Coliseum was, by design, a miserable place to practice. Welborn made sure the cramped room was too warm for comfort, and as the workouts went on the sweat made the atmosphere unbearable. In those confines, the wrestlers pushed each other so hard that a meet often seemed like a welcome respite, Sherman said.
“Everybody in our starting lineup had at least one tournament win, so I was working out with championship caliber athletes hour after hour after hour,” Welborn said. “And that helps you improve. If you’re competitive at all, you’ve got to be at the top of your game in practice. A lot of times practice was harder than the matches themselves.”
Welborn remembers the time the team from West Chester State of Pennsylvania came to Greenville for a match. The Westchester coach, Milt Collier, was an ECU graduate and routinely scheduled dual meets with the Pirates.
On this particular trip, Collier asked if his wrestlers could work out with ECU on the day after the match, which the Pirates had won handily. Welborn invited them into the sauna-like wrestling room and put all of the athletes from both teams into groups of three, where they would take turns wrestling the others in the trio.
Before long, the wrestlers from West Chester started to step outside.
“That room, you couldn’t see out the door because it was full of sweat,” said Welborn, who became an ECU assistant athletic director in 1977 and remained in that role until his retirement in 1998. “They turned it on harder, and by the time we finished these threesomes, they dropped one out. One would go out the door, and then two would go out. And when it was over, every one of theirs had left, and not one of ours had.”
Years later, a former ECU wrestler went to Westchester as an assistant coach, and he reported back to Welborn that the legend of that workout lived on at West Chester.
“He came back and said that they still talk about that workout at East Carolina, that we were a bunch of animals,” he said.
Welborn’s strategic recruiting was another element in creating North Carolina’s most dominant wrestling program of that era, said Bruce Hall, who came to ECU to play baseball but walked on to the wrestling team and became a two-time Southern Conference champion. Welborn’s recruiting efforts were concentrated in New York and Virginia, and the athletes from each state had distinct strengths that combined for a stronger whole. New York wrestlers were tough and quick and would take down an opponent using their legs, he said, while the men from Virginia were known for their mat skills.
When a wrestler had a certain move or skill that the others on the team had never employed in a match, Welborn would ask them to teach their teammates that move until each athlete had added it to his repertoire. The result of that intense collaboration was a team that could capture every weight class in a tournament field of 17 schools.
“The combination of the two types of wrestlers that John Welborn recruited made for a phenomenal room,” Hall said. “We were constantly working in there, trying to get better. John Welborn was not only a good recruiter but he was a good wrestler and good coach too. We wanted to win because of him.
“It was just like a perfect storm.”
After Welborn took his new position in the athletic department in 1977, former ECU wrestler Bill Hill assumed coaching responsibilities for a year, followed by Ed Steers. In subsequent years, budgetary constraints and the requirements of Title IX led athletic director Ken Karr toward the decision to eliminate the wrestling program. Current and former wrestlers and boosters fought to save their sport, but the decision stood and wrestling was cut in 1981.
Today the program alumni reminisce about the days when ECU wrestling was one of the pillars of the athletic program.
Determined not to let the team’s legacy fade, longtime Pirate booster Mike Bunting started lobbying three years ago for wrestling’s inclusion in the fall letterwinner festivities. Because of the nature of the team’s history, the banquet and halftime recognition will honor everyone who ever wrestled during those two decades. As of last week Sherman had heard of at least 85 former wrestlers who planned to be in attendance – including all ten of the men who won their weight classes on that legendary 1973 day in Chapel Hill.
For Bunting, who served on Clarence Stasavich’s athletic council in the 1970s and thus had a front row seat to wrestling’s dominance, Jeff Compher’s decision to shine a spotlight on this long-dark program is gratifying. The wrestlers, and their venerable coach, deserve to hear that applause so many years after they made an emphatic statement in their sport.
“We finally are getting the recognition those guys deserve,” Bunting said. “It’s been a battle, but we got it. It’s just amazing what they did and how they did it with what little they had to do it with.”
donald tyson says
Wow , now that some good stuff! Real PIRATES!!!!
Those guys were boss! Wish ECU would make it a lettered sport again. They are selling wrestling short in the EAST!!
Mike Radford says
Bethany…. your article regarding wrestling at ECU, and all the forgotten success was enjoyed by many more people than you may know of. I had so many words of fun memories from people in our era. I thank you so much for your time and effort in writing the piece.
As fate would have it, there was no control over the weather and game circumstances.
Be safe and God Bless,