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Coaching Greatness: The Lessons of the Legendary Joe Bena (Who Will Soon Retire)

By BV, 01/29/14, 7:30PM EST

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Winningest Coach in NYS History Teaches More Than Wrestling

THE GREAT TEACHER IS RETIRING. Duanesburg head coach Joe Bena announced last week that he will retire after this season, his 48th on the sidelines.  As the leader at Newburgh Free Academy (1966-68), Niskayuna (1968-2003) and Duanesburg, he compiled the most wrestling victories in New York State history.  He has mentored Olympians, college All-Americans and New York state champions and has been inducted into the NYS Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame, the Section II Hall of Fame for Coaching, the National Coaches Hall of Fame and the Athletic Hall of Fame for Wrestling at Oswego. While those are very impressive accolades, when we spoke to some of those who have worked with Bena over the years, each one focused not on those accomplishments but on the many other things he taught and passed along on and off the mat.    

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“Coach could pick a kid out of the hallway that has no knowledge of wrestling and teach them to wrestle,” said current Duanesburg star Connor Lawrence last week.

Indeed.  That’s exactly what happened with a legend.

“In the early 1970s I had no one over 200 pounds,” Bena recalled of one of the seasons he was coaching at Niskayuna High School.  “I went into the hall looking for a big kid.  When I found one, I introduced myself and told him he could be our starting varsity heavyweight.  He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t like wrestling.’”

Jeff Blatnick may have had those feelings about the sport at that moment, but under Bena’s tutelage that soon changed. 

“Three years later, he was a state champ,” Bena said. “Then an NCAA champ and an Olympic champ -  and you know the rest.”

While Blatnick was clearly a special case, Bena has brought so many others into wrestling the same way.

“Joe Bena is a master of inclusiveness,” said Journeymen Wrestling Club founder and Shenendehowa assistant Frank Popolizio, who wrestled for Bena in high school and later coached with him. “Nobody I’ve ever met at any level does it like him.  He has people in his room that may not belong on the mat physically – at least you think that at first.  But he spends the time with them and gets those guys to believe they belong. And by the time those kids are seniors, they’re pumping out 25 or 30 wins and are dedicated to the cause. What makes Coach Bena great is his ability to bring people in, motivate them, teach them and make them feel like they’re part of something special.”

That’s a task he has taken on with some regularity. In fact, he did it this year. Bena was in Atlanta with his son in the fall of 2013 during his usual “recruiting period.” When he arrived back to Duanesburg, he realized he had just eight wrestlers signed up for the current campaign.

“It was time to get going,” Bena said. “Duanesburg has only 60-70 students in each graduating class, but I knew we could put together a strong team. I went to every gym class, went into the cafeteria, talked to everyone.  Here we are with 22 wrestlers in our room.”

And once they get into that room, most stay, partially because they soon find out that Bena will give each grappler his all.

“Some kids are great athletes and some are just learning the sport,” Bena said. “I’ve always made every effort to give each of them the same attention – whether they’re a Section champ or just trying to figure out the most basic things.”

That’s one of the things Lawrence mentioned when asked about his current coach.

“He treats us all equally,” the 160-pounder said. “It’s very hard to put into words what he means to me. He’s a motivator, intense, he always makes us feel good about ourselves and builds our confidence, especially mine.  He learns from our strengths and weaknesses. His passion for the sport is like no other.  He teaches us to have fun and help each other out.”

Fun isn’t always a word used to describe wrestling practice.  Bena, who likes to focus on the basics as much as possible, believes it’s essential.

“I love practice,” he said. “Because that’s the teaching. I love to watch kids learn and seeing the improvement.  My brain is always working on what I can do to make the kids better.  How can they hit those pinning combinations better?  How can they improve their setups?  I know for practice to be good, for all the hard work to happen, kids have to want to be there. When it’s December 24 or 26th, it better be fun. So if there’s nothing to laugh at, I try to find something to laugh at, even though a lot of times, it’s myself.”

Bena said he recently tripped and imitated the “fallen and I can’t get up” commercial.  He said he pokes fun at his “old man flabby skin” when he’s showing a move.  Two-time state champ and current NC State heavyweight Nick Gwiazdowski said Bena used to amuse everyone at practice when he practiced spelling ‘Gwiazdowski’, yelling it out during drills.

“We did a lot of hard work, but it was also fun,” Gwiazdowski said. “[Bena] would get on you if you were slacking, but didn’t really do a lot of yelling at all – he was kind of laid back.  And he left the coaching for the wrestling room.”

But his influence went way beyond the wrestling room and still does.  In fact, it spills out into the classroom as well.

When report card time comes around, each wrestler knows they have to bring theirs in and hand it to Bena before practice.

“During warmups, they would each come up one at a time and we’d look at the report card together,” the coach said. “I would announce the top three or four GPAs to the team.  The kids know that the academics are important.  I give a list of the wrestlers to the teachers at the beginning and tell them that if there are any problems, they should come and see me.  I want to know what’s going on with the kids.  Actually, the other day, a teacher came to me to tell me what a great job one of the wrestlers did recently.  The kids clapped when we talked about it in practice.  It was a really nice moment.”

One of many nice moments over the years.

“[Bena] always did what was right,” Gwiazdowski said. “He never cut corners, never did things that were questionable.  That impacted everyone around him.  You knew you couldn’t act like an idiot in school when you were one of his wrestlers.  If you were one of Coach Bena’s kids, people just assumed you would be a decent, hard working person who did the right thing.”

That’s something Popolizio mentioned frequently as well.

“Nowadays, there’s so much focus on technical skills, Xs and Os,” Popolizio said. “But he’s a throwback.  It’s more important to him to build the person, the integrity.”

Popolizio recalled a time in the mid 1980s when Niskayuna was facing Shenendehowa in a big dual that came down to heavyweight.

“Our heavy stood no chance of winning – he was overmatched,” Popolizio said. “But his opponent picked him up and was called for an illegal slam.  If our guy didn’t continue, we would win on a disqualification.  I remember [Bena] walking out there and telling him he needed to do the right thing.  He told him to forget about winning and losing – if he could physically get up and compete, that was what he should do.  Our heavy listened.  He continued and lost.  But Coach Bena was proud – his standard was doing what was right.”

Those memories and lessons aren’t easily forgotten.

“So many guys come back to see him,” Popolizio said. “They come to the room to find him because of the impact he’s had.” Gwiazdowski agreed, saying he talks to Bena “quite often, probably at least every two weeks to see how he’s doing and how the high school team is doing.”

And of course, the list of former wrestlers he’s in close contact with includes a former state champ, state runner up and two-time college All-American -- his sons John, Mike and Joe.  The coach talked with pride about the success of his children, although coaching his family members brought some unique challenges.

“It’s totally different when you ride home and eat dinner with your coach every single day,” he said. “I learned to turn off the coach and be the dad as soon as we got in the car.  There were times I wanted to say things, but I didn’t, because I didn’t want to get to the point where any of them were doing the sport for me rather than themselves.”

Although two of his sons competed at the NCAA tournament as collegians, Bena said he was unable to attend because of conflicts with his high school teams.  However, he did celebrate plenty of achievements over the years.

He saw Andy Seras and Jeff Blatnick take the mat at the Olympics, while Dave Koplovitz was an alternate in 1988.  He said he coached 17 college All-Americans, 12 New York state champions, 37 NYS placers and 72 NYS qualifiers.  25 of his squads won league championships in his 48 years.  He also mentioned the significance several sportsmanship awards had to him.

And no other coach in the Empire State has won more wrestling matches – 673 as of the end of last weekend.

So, what stands out to Bena most as he looks back at decades of work?

“It’s pretty difficult to pinpoint because so many things matter,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the kid that isn’t a great athlete getting his first win. Or winning some matches that you’re not supposed to have a chance to win. Watching Jeff [Blatnick] win that gold medal in person – that was big.  My wife and I spent the week there on and off with him and seeing him wrestle and then on the podium with that American flag going up and the national anthem playing – that was really moving.  All of my state champions were special, of course my son being one of them.  Coaching my sons was wonderful.  I could talk about it for so long - there are so many more great memories.”

And there’s still time for more in 2014.  He knows some things he’d like to witness as the season comes to a close.

“My goal every year is to win our league and classification tournament and get as many kids to the states and have them finish as high as they possibly can,” he said.  “We won our league and we have the class tournament coming up in a couple of weeks. Right now we have some boys who are sitting quite well.  [Connor Lawrence, Andrew Mollevik and Zach Lawrence were all mentioned in our site's last NYS rankings]. We could definitely send some kids to the states where they are capable of doing good things.”

In reality, Bena didn’t expect to still be on the sidelines in 2014.  After all, he retired from Niskayuna High School in 2003 and came to Duanesburg to help for just one year (which obviously turned into many more).  But he said this is the end of the road.

“This is it,” he said. “My body is getting pretty tired. There’s a whole lot more to coaching than practice and tournaments.  It’s a grind.  I’ll miss it, especially being around the kids. They give me energy.  But it’s time to walk away.  I might come to Eastern States to watch some good wrestling and give some support next year, but I don’t think I’ll be the guy hanging around the wrestling room.  Whoever takes over, it’s their job.  I’ll answer any questions, but I don’t want to be looking over anyone’s shoulder – it will be their team.  I know it’s the right thing for me, but I also know I’ll miss it tremendously.”

He will be missed as well.  But he won’t be bored.

“I’ve got four children and a number of grandchildren,” he said. “I like to spend time with them.  I’m really looking forward to that.  One of my hobbies is old British cars and I am excited to work on those cars.  I also have a 120-year old house that keeps me busy.  I have a lot to do.”

He’s done a lot already.

“He’s literally like a father to me,” Popolizio said. “If you imagine the impact he’s had on me and you multiply it by thousands, that’s what you’re dealing with.  It’s a rarity to find someone who puts in what he did for 48 years.  It’s the end of an era.  There are a lot of great coaches out there and I mean no disrespect.  But he’s truly unique. I’ve never seen him lose it or step over the line. He never loses track of the ultimate goal of influencing young people. He could be the best coach of any sport in New York State ever and it’s got nothing to do with wrestling.  Put him in volleyball, gymnastics, whatever, it wouldn’t matter. It’s about his ability to manage and influence people.”

“He’s a great wrestling coach, but it’s about more than that,” Gwiazdowski added. “He’s just a really, really good guy – a quality person.”

That quality person will hang up his whistle in less than two months after nearly a half century of leadership.

“I found something I loved to do and I’ve had success at it,” Bena said. “I didn’t make much money, but that’s not important.  I’ve had wonderful, wonderful people to work with – great coaches, great kids, great parents.  If you find something you love to do and you find success and have an impact on others, you’re lucky.  I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.”

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