NORMAN, Okla. – If you coach for more than two decades at the collegiate level, there are going to be some highs and lows.
But if you ask Jack Spates, the highs far out-weigh the lows.
On Sunday, the New York native, who wrestled in an NCAA Division I Championships final in 1974, coached mat-side for the final time in a career that started way back in 1988.
“It’s not going to sink in until a couple of months from now,” said Spates, whose eighth-ranked Sooners fell to Oklahoma State 24-9 on Sunday. “It will sink in when I’m sitting on my couch all alone and I’ll be thinking ‘Wow where’s wrestling?’ I’m retiring from coaching but I’m not retiring from wrestling.”
Spates, a four-time conference champion for Slippery Rock University, won a Division II title at 118 pounds in 1973. A year later he lost in the Division I final at 118 pounds, ironically to the University of Oklahoma’s Gary Breece, who was part of the Sooners’ last NCAA championship squad.
After a successful stint at Cornell – Spates’ teams went an impressive 74-14-1 from 1989 to 1993 – Spates replaced Stan Abel at Oklahoma.
During the next 18 seasons, the Sooners finished among the top 10 at the NCAA Championships 11 times. From 2000 to 2006, OU finished outside the top four just once.
All told, there were 243 wins against only 97 losses and 12 ties. Do the math and you get 317 Division I wins, good for fifth among active coaches.
Two fifth-year seniors – 141-pounder Zack Bailey and 285-pounder Nathan Fernandez – tried to send their coach out in style, but the third-ranked Cowboys won seven of 10 bouts. Bailey, an All-American in 2010, edged OSU rookie Josh Kindig 11-8, while Fernandez beat Blake Rosholt 9-2.
“I’ve been with (Coach Spates) for five years now and we’ve had our ups and downs, but we are excited about going into the postseason and nationals,” said Bailey, who improved to 23-2 with his win against Kindig. “I knew this dual meant a lot to him because he’s done so much for (OU). It was an honor to be a part of it.”
In improving to 19-4, Fernandez avenged a December loss to Rosholt.
“He’s been a great coach,” Fernandez said. “It’s been fun. I’ve been glad to wrestle for him.”
Spates’ career has included a number of highlights. His favorite may be of John Kading.
In 1996 the Chicago native won a national title at 190 pounds. A year later, however, just weeks before the conference tournament, Kading ripped one of his knees to shreds. After escaping the first round with a 12-8 win against Syracuse’s Doug Joseph, Kading limped his way to the final. In the semifinals, he beat Minnesota’s Tim Hartung in overtime.
In the final, Kading dropped a dramatic tiebreaker decision to Iowa’s Lee Fullhart.
“John Kading winning that national title. That was a highlight,” remembers Spates. “But I think a year later when he didn’t win it in one of the most heroic performances in college wrestling really sticks out. He shredded his ACL and we were talking about getting him a wildcard at the Big 12s. He said he was wrestling and comes back and wins the Big 12s.
“I’ve had some guys come up to me and tell me that that performance changed their lives.”
Another student-athlete who sticks out in Spates’ mind is Byron Tucker. Not the best student during his time in a Sooner uniform, Tucker is currently on a post-doctoral scholarship at Harvard.
Some of the low-lights include finishing 39th at the NCAA Championships just three seasons ago. After limping to a 31st-place showing in 2009, Spates’ Sooners were fifth in 2010 behind Bailey’s fourth-place medal and 165-pounder Tyler Caldwell’s fifth-place medal.
This season’s squad finished 13-2 in dual meets and heads into the postseason ranked among the nation’s top 10.
With the 2011 NCAA Championships set for Philadelphia, Spates and Co. are looking to finish with a bang in front of some old friends.
“There are going to be tons of fans in Philadelphia,” Spates said. “I’ve been hearing from so many of them. It’s going to be great at nationals and we are going to play a part in it.”
What’s next for a man who’s been coaching wrestling at the DI level since 1989?
“About eight years ago God, in his grace and mercy, brought me back to my knees,” Spates said. He’s done some prison and campus ministry during his time in Norman.
Whatever the next chapter holds for Jack Spates you can bet it will include the energy he’s brought to the wrestling mat for the last three decades.