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When State High Was King of the Mat: The Homer Barr Era

by on December 08, 2016 5:00 AM

It was a team led by an even-keeled coach who allowed himself one wacky superstition — he wore pink socks and a pink bow tie with his gray suit. And it was comprised of a bunch of “professors’ kids” who somehow dominated foes who typically had more muscle.

The State College High School wrestling team of the late 1950s and early 1960s set a Pennsylvania high school record for consecutive dual meet victories. While winning 64 straight meets, the Little Lion wrestling program became one of the most remarkable sports dynasties ever forged in this area.  

Sure, that record of 64 wins was surpassed by North Schuylkill High School in the mid-1970s (76 wins) and then further eclipsed by Central Dauphin earlier this decade (77 wins). And yes, Bald Eagle Area achieved some amazing things in the 1990s. But the legend of State College High School wrestling under Coach Homer Barr is unique and remarkable.  As the years go by and memories dim, that legend deserves — even demands — to be retold.

ROOKIE WINS STATE TITLE

The story begins with Barr’s own career as a competitor. At Clearfield High School, he wrestled only during his senior year in 1947, but he achieved a phenomenal result for a rookie, winning the Pennsylvania high school title at 185 pounds. He then moved on to Penn State where he became a heavyweight and placed 4th, 3rd and 2nd at the NCAA finals from 1949 to 1951.  

Prior to Barr’s arrival as coach in 1956-57, there was little in State College’s wrestling history to set it apart -- 64 wins, 80 losses and 2 ties over 20 seasons. But in 1956-57, Barr’s first year of guiding the Little Lions, their record was 11-1, and the famous streak had already reached nine.  

As the wins mounted in the years that followed, wrestling at State High took on a life of its own. “It wasn’t just important to the wrestlers,” says Len Rockey, a varsity grappler in the early 1960s who later coached his alma mater.  “It was important to the school. Everybody came to wrestling matches…”

*          *          *

When my brother Bob graduated from State High in 1962, he issued an order to me: “Don’t lose that streak.” That command may seem strange since he never wrestled and I was just a fifth grader who was destined for basketball mediocrity. But for once, I didn’t argue with my older brother. Like Bob, I had fallen head-over-heels-in-love with Little Lion wrestling. I would never set foot on a mat — except to break a classmate’s nose in P.E. — but my heart was joined to Homer Barr’s cause.


From left, State High’s varsity lineup in 1960-61: Jay Williams, Willy Ebaugh, Joe Gates, Glenn Thiel, Dave Thiel, Tim Adams, Joe Wernham, Eddie Facer, Len Rockey, Chris McClain, Mike Gill, John Kepler, together with team manager Chuck Porter and head coach Homer Barr

Years later, in the mid-1970s, I gained a new perspective on Homer and his boys. I attended a conference of Christian athletes in Phoenix, and there I met Sports Illustrated writer Herman Weiskopf, a fellow Penn State alum. Not only did we share the same faith and the same university; we also shared a passion for wrestling. Herm caught the bug as a Penn State student in 1953 when the Nittany Lions won the national championship. Then he served as sports editor for the Lock Haven Express, and that meant he covered wrestling in “Mat Town U.S.A.”  Even when Herm secured a post with S.I., he continued to write about wrestling.

Herm told me that Sports Illustrated had sent him to State College in the early 1960s to do a feature on Homer Barr’s wrestling team. Sadly, that piece was never published,  a victim of the magazine’s space limits. Today, I wish I had thought to ask my friend for a copy of that story before he died. But if I ever doubt the magnitude of accomplishments by Homer’s boys, all I need to remember is that they came within a whizzer of being featured in America’s greatest sports magazine.    

*          *          *

What was it that made Homer Barr so successful? I talked to some of those “boys”— now in their 70s — and their memories are vivid, especially those that pertain to the coach:

  • Homer was a “cool cat.”

    “I never heard him raise his voice in all the six years I was around the wrestling team,” says Dave Guss, a varsity regular in 1961-62. “I never saw him yell at anybody. He was definitely a cool cat.”  Adds Rockey, “He would get excited when he was mimicking moves, but he didn’t yell in anger or out of control. I admired that.”

  • Homer made wrestling fun.

    “I think Homer realized you get more out of a wrestler if it’s a positive situation and you make it enjoyable,” says Rockey.  And the Lions had lots of fun — whether laughing at the neon-colored sweatsuit of junior varsity coach Bob Sutherland or boisterously singing in the back of the bus while returning home from a victory.

    Then there were the many chances to hassle every wrestling team’s favorite target, the basketball team. Jim O’Hora, a varsity standout for two years, recalls Homer’s tendency to look the other way,  in good fun, when his boys were on the prowl. “We used to get their basketballs and climb the ropes and get up into the overhead and jam them there,” says O’Hora. “Homer would always act like he was maybe a little upset with us, but there was always a little smirk on his face. They couldn’t climb the ropes to get the balls. Eventually he would say, ‘Okay guys, get the balls down.’ ”  

  • Homer was a technician and a teacher.

    The State High coach scripted every practice according to drills and time allotments. Says O’Hora, “It was so regimented, it was magnificent.” Meanwhile, opponents were carefully scouted, and each varsity wrestler was given an index card while preparing for an important dual meet. That card told him what he must do or not do if he wanted to win his bout.

    “Homer used to call us ‘a bunch of professors’ sons’, which we were,“ says Glenn Thiel, a varsity regular for four years during the streak. “But Homer was so into the fundamentals. All we did was drill and drill on different moves. We’d go to Bald Eagle and they had these big, tough farm kids and we’d be scared to death when we’d weigh in next to them. But we would beat them because we had all the moves and the slicks.”

Oddly, the Little Lions won dual meet after dual meet with few superstars. “We were very good in dual meets,” says Thiel, who later served as Penn State’s head lacrosse coach. “We had balance up and down the lineup. But as for state championships, Dicky Tressler won a couple, Chris McCLain won one, Gene Tressler won one, but that’s it.” And although Thiel would be the first to salute any state champion, he is quick to mention the time State College beat a Lock Haven team that boasted four state champs.

Dick Tressler (left) and Dave Thiel check their weights during the 1959-1960 season. Thiel placed second in District 6; Tressler lost in the semifinals of the state championships after winning state titles the previous two years.

SOME EASY WINS, SOME NAIL-BITERS

The 64-match streak included some easy wins, most notably over Penns Valley, a team that would eventually avenge such thrashings as 46-0, 44-6, 50-10 and 41-3. But then there were the nail-biters that threatened to kill the streak and remove the pink from Homer’s wardrobe.  

The Johnstown match in January of 1961, for example, presented a tough opponent and a scheduling difficulty. Recalls Thiel, “My brother Dave was our 127-pounder. He had to take the SAT that morning, and he didn’t think he could make weight and wrestle and take the test. Homer said ‘Fine,’ and Dave McLaughlin filled in. But he got pinned and somehow we still won, 20-19.”

“The streak was important to Homer,” says Rockey, “but it wasn’t win-at-all-costs.”  

And then there was the Clearfield match in February of 1962. Prior to the season, the Little Lion coach scheduled a non-conference battle with his alma mater, and he timed it so that a State College win would tie Clearfield’s state record of 62 straight victories.

Talk about a big Clearfield crowd. Fans spilled out into the hallways and others sat on the edges of the mat. As expected, the home team dominated the lighter weights and built a big lead. But then it was time for the heavier guys, and Homer had wisely juggled his lineup. His boldest move was to elevate his soon-to-be state champ, Chris McClain, all the way up from 165 pounds to heavyweight. There, McClain would meet Clearfield’s regional champion, Zimmerman.

A HOLLYWOOD ENDING

It all came down to a Hollywood ending. If McClain could defeat his burly opponent, State High would win the dual and preserve the streak. Leading the match as the clock ticked down in the third period, McClain strained to hold Zimmerman down so his foe couldn’t crawl off the mat for a re-start. By now, fans were sitting on the actual wrestling surface.

“The place was going nuts,” says Thiel. “Chris won by something like 4-2 over the big guy. It was bedlam.”

McClain’s father, William, was pastor of State College Presbyterian Church. He was so excited about his son’s victory — and the team’s 22-20 triumph — that he leaped completely over the scoring table and onto the mat.

But as they say, all good things must come to an end. And it was in the opener of the 1962-63 season that State College met its match. The long-suffering Penns Valley Rams had been quietly building their own powerhouse, and State High had graduated 10 seniors from the previous year’s lineup. The score on Nov. 29, 1962 was Penns Valley 29, State College 18.   

“Homer came in the locker room,” recalls O’Hora, “and he was calm, cool and collected. He put his arm around all of our shoulders at one time or another, and he said, ‘Hey, we’ll just start a new streak.’ ”


Len Rockey followed these instructions from Coach Barr to beat his opponent, Carlson, in the unforgettable 1962 dual meet with Clearfield. 

NO MORE WINNING STREAKS

However, such a streak was not to be. Barr’s Little Lions continued to win, but they did so with records like 8-3 or 7-4. Then, in 1966, the Clearfield native headed to the college ranks, becoming head coach at the University of Massachusetts. It was no surprise that he won three New England collegiate championships in nine years.

Tragically, Homer encountered an unbeatable foe in the form of a brain tumor. He passed away on July 1, 1975 at the age of 48, leaving behind his wife, Blanche, their two sons and their two daughters.

As for State College’s wrestling program, Homer had placed it in capable hands by suggesting that his old friend, Ron Pifer, follow him as Little Lion coach. Pifer, a two-time state champ from Bellefonte and a star at Penn State, had worked out under Barr’s guidance on a few occasions. Homer knew that Pifer was a superior wrestling technician and a strong leader. The Lions prospered under Pifer, and he eventually rose to the position of North Building Principal at State High. Homer’s former 154-pounder, Len Rockey, also took two turns as Little Lion coach, and he enjoyed one especially successful run of three years in the early 1980s with no losses and two ties.

Today, the program is guided by Ryan Cummins, a captain at Penn State and NCAA qualifier in 2002-03.  Now in his fourth year of coaching the Little Lions, Cummins looks forward to a successful season as his athletes begin action this Saturday at a tournament in Athens, Pa.

But regardless of the outstanding coaches that have served or will serve State High, none of us should expect another leader quite like Homer Barr. For Dave Guss, “it meant more than you can imagine” to wrestle on Homer’s team. “He was a special person, more than a father to all of us.”

Glenn Thiel (left) and Len Rockey reminisce with the aid of Coach Barr’s workout notebook from the 1961-62 season. 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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