Penn State Wrestling

Former Penn State wrestler and coach John Fritz said all he ever wanted was to be a national champ. Now he has a new perspective.

Penn State wrestling coach John Fritz watches the Nittany Lions wrestle in the Big Ten semifinals at the Bryce Jordan Center in 1998.
Penn State wrestling coach John Fritz watches the Nittany Lions wrestle in the Big Ten semifinals at the Bryce Jordan Center in 1998. Centre Daily Times, file

After taking a break from hiking on a mild December day, former Penn State wrestler and coach John Fritz took time to talk to the Centre Daily Times about his career, the current Nittany Lions squad, and more.

The three-time All-American and 1975 national champion retired from coaching about 20 years ago — and retired as Director of Penn State Commonwealth Campus Athletics last year — and currently has a small landscaping business called, “Flower Power — We Love You Very Mulch.” Here’s what he had to say:

Q: How much do you follow the Nittany Lions these days? What are your thoughts on the current program?

A: I follow them closely. I’m not one to go to practice, but I do go to all the matches and nationals every year. I think my brother and I have only missed nationals about one time in the past 20 years. This team is so much fun to watch. Part of what I was doing after I got out of coaching was teaching the coaching class at Penn State. In that class, we study styles of coaching, and have been looking at transformational vs. transactional coaching. A transformational coach would be one that’s more concerned about not just winning, but the total development of the athlete, not only as an athlete, but as a person. I think Cael Sanderson is the epitome of what you would call a transformational coach.

Say you stall to win your match; you’re not really developing your skills. It’s better to try to score, and therefore constantly develop your skills, conditioning and everything else. It’s a testament to Cael and his staff — Casey (Cunningham) and Cody (Sanderson) — that they expect their wrestlers to go out there, and instead of worrying about winning and putting pressure on themselves to win the match — they go out with an attitude like, “Hey, I’m just going to try to score and have fun with it.” And this Penn State football team is like that, too. They have so many options when they’re trying to score. When you do that, you open yourself up and you might give up some points and it might get a little sloppy, but it’s a positive thing, and it’s positive for the fans. Our Penn State wrestling team is so much fun to watch, and I think that’s why. They’re enjoying the experience, and they’re looking at it that way — like, “This is a fun experience, I’m going to go out there and try a bunch of stuff and keep trying to score.” It’s been fun to watch. It’s been very exciting, and I think it’s changed wrestling.

Q: What memory most sticks out to you from your time at Penn State — either as a wrestler or coach?

A: When some people on the outside hear the “We are ... Penn State” cheer, they think it’s arrogant. But if you know the origin of that, you know we do things because we think it’s the best thing and the right thing. We want to win the right way, and I think we’ve always held those kind of values, and it’s made me proud to be a coach and wrestle for Penn State. I feel the same way now, as a fan, watching these young guys wrestle. You can see that they embody those values, and that’s what they strive to be about. It makes you proud.

Q: What accomplishment sticks out most to you: Your national championship win in overtime against the reigning champ in 1975, or the ’93 season, where you coached the team to a 22-0-1 season, and were Big Ten and NCAA runners-up?

A: That’s a tough one. I was never a state champ in high school — I lost in the finals two years in a row — and when I came to Penn State, all I wanted to be was a national champion. I was third as a sophomore, third as a junior and finally won as a senior. At the time I thought, “Wow, this is the greatest thing.” But as a coach, it was far more gratifying to see those kids win national titles, and kids who didn’t win national titles, it was fun to see how much they improved their skill-set, got the most out of themselves and worked hard. It’s also fun to see what they’re all doing now. We had kids who were national champions who are now orthopedic surgeons, like Jim Martin and Scott Lynch. Those kind of things make me more proud.

For me to see John Hughes at Lehigh — he won a national title as a wrestler, and it was great to see him win a national title, but it is just as great or greater to see him coaching others and giving back to the sport. It’s more gratifying to see someone else do it than when you do it yourself. That’s why I went into coaching.

Q: You guided Penn State during the transition into the Big Ten; tell me about that experience. What major differences did you see once Penn State entered the Big Ten?

A: Even though we always had goals to be the best in the country and have a national-caliber program, being in the Big Ten brought us up a level. We were in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association, which was a good league, but the strength of the Big Ten was amazing. Even the lesser teams in the Big Ten are competitive. Kerry McCoy was one of my wrestlers and was with me through the transition, and now he coaches for the University of Maryland. That’s very cool to see. There were a lot of changes when we entered the Big Ten, not just with the competition, but with some of the NCAA coaching rules. It was challenging at the time, but it was exciting to be in the Big Ten and have a more national schedule. Now we’re wrestling all those top Big Ten school every year, and I think that’s helped in our recruiting, too.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to tell people who follow Penn State wrestling?

A: Penn State wrestling fans are the greatest. It’s neat the way they follow and their support for this team has been outstanding. I just love it. I love that they’re positive and they’re knowledgeable. They make it easier to compete because of the way they are.