It really was an act of God,”Ernie Jones says when recalling his first steps toward a lifelong relationship with the sport of wrestling. Jones, who is in his 13th season as head wrestling coach at Tulsa’s Cascia Hall High School, says he never planned on going into wrestling. A skinny kid who lived in the country outside Sapulpa, Jones says he was never asked to participate in sports. But a penchant for mischief – and a strong sense of self-preservation – led him to stumble into his own destiny.
“They were building a brand new school next to the old one,” Jones recalls, “And we were told not to go into the new building before it opened. Well, of course, my buddy and me walked right into it after school. We heard some noises at the end of the building and went and looked through the door to see what it was, and there staring right at us was the meanest guy at the school: the wrestling coach. He came up to us and asked, ‘Are you boys wanting to wrestle?’ We didn’t say a word, just nodded our heads. And that was that.”
Each year in Oklahoma, thousands of youngsters are introduced to the sport of wrestling. Little league wrestling tournaments across the state regularly draw hundreds of participants. While football gets the headlines, wrestling is firmly entrenched in the culture of Oklahoma, and with the numbers of young people taking up the sport each season, it doesn’t seem anywhere close to giving up its ground.
“We had something like 180 elementary kids sign up this year,” Shawn Jones, head wrestling coach at Broken Arrow High School, says. “And that was before the actual sign-up day. Every year we’re getting more.”
Shawn Jones has a unique understanding of the attraction wrestling holds for kids in Oklahoma, and for what it takes to develop young wrestlers into champions. All he had to do was look to his father, the aforementioned Ernie Jones, who coached Shawn and his two younger brothers, Biff and Rodney, who are also successful coaches today.
“I don’t know how other dads are as coaches,” the younger Jones says, “but he did a fantastic job of making us fall in love with the sport.”
The same influence Ernie Jones has had on his own sons has been shared with hundreds of other young men over the course of his more than 40-year career as a wrestling coach and teacher. In building Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington wrestling program basically from scratch, Jones won five team state championships in seven years, along the way coaching Oklahoma State University and U.S. Olympic champion Kenny Monday. He followed that stint up by coaching multiple champions at Tulsa Webster. Following a brief retirement, the allure of the sport drew him back to Cascia Hall, where for the second time he has built a program from scratch.
Being raised and coached by his father has allowed Shawn and his brothers to develop the skills to become not only championship-level competitors, but also championship-level coaches. This year Shawn’s Broken Arrow team will be gunning for its fourth consecutive state championship in class 6A. Assisting Shawn on his coaching staff will be youngest brother Rodney. Across the Arkansas River, middle brother Biff has Sapulpa High School poised to challenge for the crown.
“It’s almost as if we cheated because we were given the base that our dad provided growing up,” Shawn says. “He’s definitely done a really good job of brainwashing us. Sometimes we wish he had been a lawyer or a banker. We’d all be a lot richer because we were always going to follow in his footsteps.”
The fact that the Jones boys have become so enamored of the sport of wrestling is not surprising if one considers the state in which they were raised. In Oklahoma, wrestling, maybe more than any other sport, is a legacy. All fathers wrestle with their kids. The fathers who wrestled competitively teach their kids from an early age how to wrestle them back.
“We see a lot of kids start in our takedown club at 3 or 4 or 5 years old,” says Cass Cagle. “I started wrestling when I was 3.”
Cagle has volunteered as a little league wrestling coach in Wagoner for the past four years. He knows the value of working with children at a young age in teaching the nuances of the sport.
“We play a lot of games when they’re that young,” Cagle says. “They don’t do any conditioning. Just some games to help learn techniques. Technique can beat strength. Starting from a young age was a big deal for me in learning the techniques. It made it a lot easier.”
What may sound to some like a bad case of stage parents hoping to live vicariously through their destined-for-greatness young wrestlers becomes something altogether different upon closer inspection.
“We try to get most of the little ones to only come about half the season,” Cagle says. “But a lot of the time their parents will tell me they just begged to come back. We try to make it fun.”
There are volunteers in nearly every junior level wrestling program across the state doing what Cagle does. It’s that kind of dedication to the sport that professional coaches like Ernie Jones and his sons find invaluable to sustaining the success of their programs.
“I have a ton of respect for the Ernie Joneses of the world who’ve built these dynasties,” says Dr. Brett Gray, “but the unsung heroes in wrestling are the volunteers who put in the time with the kids to help them build the foundation to be successful.”
Gray, a three-time state champion from Stilwell who wrestled at OSU, has volunteered as coach of the elementary wrestling program in Pryor for the past eight years.
“We just go over the basics, learn the techniques,” Gray says. “There’s a lot of different styles, you just try to guide them to their strengths.”
Volunteers who instill fundamentals at the elementary level are key ingredients in building success. Another ingredient is a high school coach who can build confidence in the athletes within the program so they can reach their own potential. For Gray, that coach was Greg Henning.
“One of the biggest things he did for me was help me find that inner drive,” recalls Gray. “I had a pretty solid foundation when he came to Stilwell, but he really made me, not only find my own style, but also to push myself to be as good a wrestler as I could be.”
Much like Ernie Jones, Greg Henning has found success at every school he’s coached, with stops at the University of Central Oklahoma, Sallisaw High School, Stilwell High School and Tuttle High School. Also like Jones, Henning briefly stepped away from wrestling before the urge to return became too strong. Following a six-year retirement, he became the head coach at Norman North this past fall.
“I just got to missing it too much,” Henning says. “You miss the camaraderie; the other coaches. This is a sport in which you truly make lifelong friends.”
Henning, who has coached 43 individual champions and had eight wrestlers named most outstanding at the state tournament, spent 21 years at Tuttle High School building one of the most dominant programs in the state. Again like Jones, Henning coached his three boys, his to 11 individual state championships.
“One more than the Smith boys,” Henning brags good-naturedly, “and there are four of them.”
There is a certain connectivity within the sport of wrestling, perhaps more so in Oklahoma than in other areas of the country. But one doesn’t need a sharp eye to recognize that wrestlers tend to know other wrestlers. They may go into a match as competitors, sometimes fiercely, but often times they strike up friendships that endure a lifetime.
“I think a lot of times you can go back to the duels,” Henning says. “At a duel, every time you wrestle that guy you shake his hand five times.”
Henning says his wrestlers will shake hands at each weigh in, again during the introductions as teams are lined up facing one another, before each individual match, after each match and at the end of the duel.
“It helps build respect for a guy,” he says. “Some of my best friends were some of my worst enemies.”
Those relationships make the reasons for Oklahoma’s enduring love affair with the sport of wrestling clearer, but they don’t tell the whole story. It may come down to a simple fact: Oklahomans are just better at wrestling than anyone else.
“Wrestling’s a big deal here because we’re good at it,” Shawn Jones says. “Coach Gallagher at OSU brought a style of wrestling that was unlike anything that had been done. He was an innovator. Then you have all the Olympians from Oklahoma, guys like Kenny Monday and John Smith, who is probably the greatest wrestler of all time.”
Coach Gallagher is Edward Gallagher, the man who introduced college wrestling to Oklahoma State University, setting the program on a course that would lead it to 34 national championships, the most titles for any sport at any Division I school. John Smith? He’s one of the Smith boys Henning mentioned, and a six-time world champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time NCAA champion.
“I think you can trace the relationship (Oklahomans) have with wrestling way back to Coach Gallagher,” says Smith, current head wrestling coach at OSU. “He was so instrumental in making wrestling what it has become. The way he did it obviously created longevity.”
Smith is the winningest coach at OSU, having led the team to five NCAA championships and 12 conference titles.
“What’s amazing about Oklahoma is the numbers compared to places like Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and California,” Smith says. “We’re a pretty low-populated state, but we’ve been able to produce a large number of great wrestlers.”
Smith’s older brother, Leroy, was an NCAA champion at OSU. He is currently executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater.
“We can take pride in an authentic wrestling heritage in Oklahoma like no other,” Leroy Smith says. “There may not be another sport in America in a particular state that can cite the types of numbers and accomplishments that we can when it comes to wrestling.”
The elder Smith singles out Tulsa Central High School, which, before it closed, saw 15 graduates go on to win 25 NCAA wrestling titles, more than any other high school in America, and Perry High School, which holds the national high school record for state team championships.
“And of course you have OSU,” he adds. “It was one of the first sports dynasties.”
“Coach Gallagher set a trend of science in the sport,” continues Leroy Smith. “His influence is everywhere, not just in Oklahoma, but also throughout the sport. That’s why he was known as the dean of collegiate wrestling. That’s why his name’s on the arena. Can you think of any other school where the wrestling coach’s name is on the sports arena?”
The crowds for high school and collegiate wrestling are a mere shadow of what they once were, but as the sport moves into the future, the state of wrestling in Oklahoma is as strong as ever before, and it is evolving. Female wrestling programs are popping up across the country, and while it has been slow to catch on in many high schools in the state, one Oklahoma college is at the forefront of the burgeoning sport.
“There are pockets of participation that are stronger than others in terms of numbers of athletes,” says Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling. “But at the college level, Archie Randall at Oklahoma City University has set the pace for women’s opportunities in the NCAA.”
As some things change, others stay the same. Ernie Jones started the wrestling season shooting for another team championship. If he gets it, he will have won titles at three different schools, tying him with Virgil Millard. In the meantime, he has been nominated for the National High School Coaches Association Coach of the Year award for wrestling. Winning either would be nice, but wouldn’t necessarily be enough for him to call it a career.
“Doggone, I retired from public schools after 25 years,” Jones says. “My brother-in-law got me a lucrative job. I could work when I wanted. But I was bored to death. So here I am doing what I was supposed to do. I told my wife just yesterday, the good lord got me into this situation, it’ll be up to him to get me out of it.”
The young men who have been influenced by coaches like Jones and Henning would agree that the former is right where he belongs.
“The time you spend in wrestling will always stick with you,” Gray says. “You learn discipline on a level that you never dreamed yourself capable of. You learn about sacrifice, endurance and dedication. You carry those things with you throughout your life.”
“There’s a saying you’ll hear from wrestlers,” adds Gray. “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else is easy.”