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Rich Lorenzo's gift to wrestling

by on December 31, 2018 11:59 AM

You can find former Penn State wrestling coach Rich Lorenzo in a number of places around State College. Walking the trails that surround the university's golf courses or the corridors of stately Rec Hall come to mind. But on the day of a home match during the college wrestling season, he is found on the upper level of Rec Hall, leaning on the rail that separates Section S2U from the running track.

Perhaps the standing-room-only spot that actually sports his name on the rail isn’t fitting for wrestling royalty, because Lorenzo recently was named to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame for his lifetime involvement in a sport that has given him the time of his life. But he wouldn’t trade that spot for a reserved seat because everyone he cares about and those who care about him – and that number is nearly limitless – know where he is on match days.

Lorenzo holds court with former wrestlers and friends and random fans who feel compelled to climb the building’s steep steps just to say hello and see what’s on his mind before he settles in to watch that day’s contest. As he looks down on the blue and white mat with the Nittany Lion logo in the middle, he is appreciative that he was and is a part of the program that has escalated to heights that he actually could imagine during his days as a wrestler and a coach, but for many reasons wasn’t able to reach.

That it's reached its lofty status, that the Penn State wrestling team this season has its sights set on its eighth NCAA title in nine years, is just as satisfying for him. What current coach Cael Sanderson and his staff have done with the proud Penn State program that started in 1909 has earned Lorenzo’s undying respect.

“They’re doing so much for Penn State – Cael and Cody [Sanderson] and Casey [Cunningham]. They give their life,’’ Lorenzo says.

The 72-year-old, who wrestled at Penn State from 1966-68 and was an assistant coach and later head coach through 1992, knows that feeling.

“That’s the way wrestling was for me, it was my life,” he says. “People say it was your job; no, it was my life.

“There’s not a day I haven’t gotten up that I wouldn’t think about wrestling or doing something about how we can make the sport better or more interesting. These people (Cael Sanderson and Co.) are able to get the most out of people. It’s just amazing. They wrestle an aggressive style, an entertaining style, they go for it; they get the kids to get relaxed and have fun and push themselves to no end. I just respect those guys so much."

As expected, that feeling is mutual.

“I was very happy to see Coach Lorenzo get inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Cael Sanderson says. “It’s very much deserved. I say it every chance I get, Penn State wrestling is what it is today because of Coach Lorenzo. The support that we have is because of the relationships he built with wrestlers when he was coaching, the attitude and a lot of the standards – the high standard that Penn State wrestling has. I think that was a great decision to induct him into the Hall of Fame.”

Yes, Lorenzo's teams won 188 matches in his 14 seasons and six of those teams were among the top five at the NCAA Championships. Yes, he coached 53 All-Americans and four wrestlers who won a total of five NCAA titles. And, yes, he placed fourth in the 1968 NCAAs and was named Outstanding Wrestler in the Eastern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and he's in the Centre County Sports Hall of Fame.

But his induction into the national Hall spans more than wrestling and coaching. He was co-executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association (1993-95) and played major fundraising roles through 1999. He also served as executive director and treasurer of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club in order to support a high-quality freestyle wrestling club, and worked to raise funds to fully endow the wrestling program. So, the fact that the $4 million wrestling facility in Rec Hall is named the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex has Hall of Fame implications written all over it.

"I said one of the things you have to consider is the overall gift he has been to wrestling," says Bob Bubb, longtime Clarion State College wrestling coach who also is a member of the national Hall of Fame and a good friend of Lorenzo's.

"You take his service to the NWCA when it was about ready to fall apart and disintegrate and all he's meant to the young men he's coached. … Not any one point got him into the Hall, it was his overall contributions to wrestling, and you put them all together and he's certainly deserving of his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame," Bubb says.

Lorenzo, who will accept the award in Stillwater, Oklahoma, on June 1, prefers to deflect the praise that comes with it.

"It means a lot to me, but I look at it this way – I’m receiving the award and there are a lot of people out there who have helped me earn it," he says. "It’s really Penn State wrestling, that’s what it’s always been."

One of those people who helped was John Fritz, Lorenzo's assistant coach for 12 years and Penn State's head coach for six seasons after Lorenzo retired.

"We both were coached by coach [Bill] Koll and when you coached with Rich, you felt like you were on the journey with him and it was a lot of fun," says Fritz, a 1975 NCAA champion. "It was a fun ride. It was his passion and with that was the passion that … we're going to do it the right way. Winning wasn't above everything else. It was doing it the right way with the kids. That was the thing that made you proudest of the program.

"As I see Cael and what those guys do, it's so cool to see our kids are great kids and do it the right way and we pride ourselves on that at Penn State. Rich was the epitome of that," Fritz adds.

Scott Lynch and Jim Martin won NCAA championships under Lorenzo and Fritz, Lynch in 1984 and Martin in 1988. Both are orthopedic surgeons, Lynch at Penn State Hershey and Martin at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

"Coach Lorenzo is one of the most honorable individuals that I have ever been around,” Lynch says. “He has a straightforward, no-nonsense, honest approach that generates respect and makes you want to perform your best, not just in wrestling, but also in life. There is no person more deserving of this honor than Coach Lorenzo.

"He represents everything good about wrestling, both on and off the mat. Behavior and academics were just as important, if not more important, than wrestling. I am proud that he and John Fritz, another class individual, were my coaches."

Martin says Lorenzo is “just a good, honest, trustworthy person that you can really trust for good advice and he's always going to be looking out for your best interest – and nobody had any doubt about that."

Lorenzo and current Penn State board of trustees member Ira Lubert have been best friends since 1968 – "kind of like brothers" – and Lorenzo was the best man at Lubert's wedding.

"There's no more deserving person to be in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame than Rich Lorenzo," Lubert says. "He's dedicated his entire life to developing young men and to Penn State. He's a very unselfish person, always wants for others, always helping others. Goes out of his way for anybody. He's probably one of the most respected and well-loved people I know.

"To this day, if I'm with him at a national championship or a college match, literally 30, 40 people come up to him to say hello. There's always people shaking his hand, thanking him for what he did for them 20 years earlier, and reminding him what impact he's made on their lives."

Lorenzo's life would have been different had he gone home to Newton, New Jersey, to work on the family farm after graduating in 1968. He had one course left to take in the fall of 1968 and prior to that he got a call from George Edwards, who was the assistant coach under Koll.

"And he said, ‘Lorenzo, you’re the new assistant coach at Penn State.’ I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'I put your name in and you got the job.' I never dreamt one day in my life about being a coach and I never thought about being a teacher either,” Lorenzo says.

"After two weeks of coaching and teaching, I said, 'Boy, the Lord really gave me an opportunity that I’m not failing on.' It was just a great time to go to work for 30-some years at this university and run the wrestling program and never feel like it was work."

Lorenzo stopped the work that was coaching in the early 1990s for three reasons: health, NCAA regulations limiting staff size to three coaches, and a promise to Fritz and assistant Hachiro Oishi to help advance their careers. He continued to work for the university, stayed involved in the NWCA, and started helping the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and never really stopped.

And, as long as he can stand up, he'll look down with admiration upon Sanderson's college dynasty from his favorite match-day spot high atop Rec Hall, where he chats up anyone who wants to talk wrestling or anything else.

“That means everything to me. You see guys start to succeed in their life with their vocations and their marriages and their kids and all that, and it’s just a great feeling," Lorenzo says. "I’m a very wealthy person [in that regard]; that’s why they named me Rich. I’ll always be rich and I feel that way.”

 

Jim Carlson is a freelance writer living in State College.

 

 

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