Gray Simons, A Champion Behind the Scenes
Feb. 4, 2003
"At my age, I'm very careful who I pick on," Old Dominion's wrestling coach Gray Simons said as he leaned back in his chair reminiscing on his glory days of wrestling. "It was a fun thing to do, but there comes a point in life where you have to give up certain things. Wrestling was just one of them."
Throughout his 35-year career and his early dominating days of wrestling, Coach Simons never had to give up one thing-winning. Who would have thought that the man once described by Sports Illustrated as "the best wrestler in America...a bowlegged, scrawny 5-foot 5-inch transplanted Southerner" would consistently dominate wrestling on every level. Simons picked, pounded, and pushed on so many wrestlers during his wrestling and coaching careers that he was voted the 33rd most important athlete of the 20th Century to hail from Virginia by Sports Illustrated.
In his fourteen years under the helm at Old Dominion, Simons has compiled 127-100-2 record, 320-187-5 overall, and has coached 27 wrestlers who have qualified for nationals, and five All-Americans. Simons has been named to the Helms Foundation (1971), the NAIA Hall of Fame (1975), the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (1978), Lock Haven State Hall of Fame (1981), the United States Achievement Hall of Fame (1982), the Pennsylvania State Wrestling Hall of Fame (1983) and the All-Time Collegiate Wrestling Team by Amateur Wrestling News. (1988). Also, in the spring of 1992, Simons was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
Impressive, some may say, and Simons will not disagree. But his career may not have happen if not for the encouragement of his high school wrestling coach Billy Martin.
Martin, the legendary coach of nearby Granby High School (Norfolk, VA), who won state championships 21 out of 22 years, helped Simons not only discover his talent for wrestling, but also find the passion for school.
"I was lucky to have the greatest coach in the world in Billy Martin," Simons said. "He helped me develop my technique and got me ready to pursue my career in college."
"If I had never wrestled under Coach Martin," he continued, " I don't think my brother or I would have gone to college. He was a big factor in both me and my brother's life."
That inspiration to go to college was just enough to jump start Simons career.
Simons enjoyed an unparalleled wrestling career at Lock Haven University in Lock Haven, Pa. During Simons' freshman year, he was defeated twice in his first nine matches, but never lost again throughout his collegiate campaign. He garnered a record of 91-2, including 84 straight victories, before graduating from Lock Haven in 1962. In four years (1959-62), he won four NAIA Championships, three straight NCAA National Championships, was twice voted as the Outstanding Wrestler at the NCAA Tournament and was named outstanding wrestler in six of seven national meets, an accomplishment that has never been repeated.
However, Simons understands that keeping an elite wrestling program afloat year after year is extremely difficult, especially with budget cuts forcing many athletic programs to drop the sport. Simons has already been directly affected by the loss of a collegiate wrestling program. In 1986, Simons was coming off his seventh straight winning season with his eighth ranked Tennessee Volunteers, when the University made the decision to eliminate the program. However, that loss became Old Dominion's gain when he accepted the head coaching position with the Monarchs later that year. Ten winning seasons later, Simons feels confident that wrestling will be apart of ODU's athletics for many more years.
"The University has been very supportive," he said. "They built a new facility for us and are making plans to remodel the ODU Fieldhouse (the home of ODU wrestling)."
It may be even more difficult for Simons to keep Old Dominion at an elite status this year as they continue to rebuild. Currently the team, who has five freshman starters, is 4-6 overall, 1-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), dropping several bouts by just a few points. Even though the team is not at the top of their game, several ODU wrestlers are in the middle of very successful seasons.
Junior heavyweight Derrell Lorthridge (Wilmington, DE) has compiled a record of 21-3 and is a perfect 10-0 in dual matches. He has recorded a first place finish at the ODU Invitational and a second place finish at the highly competitive Beast of the East Tournament. He currently boasts a second place ranking in the conference, the highest of the team.
Senior 174-pounder Ben Summerlin (Lynchburg, VA) also won the ODU Invitational as well as his first state title at the Virginia State Intercollegiate Tournament earlier this month. He was voted the meet's Most Outstanding Wrestler after pinning all three of his opponents, including national ranked Matt Erwin of VMI. He is currently ranked fifth in the conference with a 19-2 record and a team-best nine falls.
Newcomer Adam Wright (Bridgewater, VA) has already made a name for himself compiling a 20-6 record so far this season as the starter at 184 pounds. Wright placed second at the Va. State Intercollegiate meet and third at the Beast of the East.
Even though the team is well aware of Simon's successful record as a wrestler and coach, he doesn't feel his legacy has anything to do with his wrestlers' performance on the mats.
"They know about my past, but that has nothing to do with my coaching," he said. "You can be a great wrestler and not be a very good coach. It's two entirely different things. I understand technique and try to rub it off on our guys."
Even though Coach Simons may not admit it, it's always a little easier to get a point across when you're a champion.