An honor of a lifetime will be awarded Thursday in Cleveland to a Gannon University coach who completely transformed a lifeless program into a perennial wrestling contender.
Don Henry, the wrestling coach, intramural director and Carneval Athletic Pavilion director, will be inducted into the Division II Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The accomplishments in Henry’s ongoing 30-year career allowed him to be among seven individuals recognized in his induction class.
Henry said while he was growing up his small frame and endless energy led him to fall in love with the sport.
“Before I was allowed to compete in organized wrestling, I was wrestling the kids in the neighborhood and at recess,” Henry said. “It was a sport made for me.”
Henry’s love for wrestling and desire to compete guided him to a four-year wrestling career at Slippery Rock University. His leadership abilities were also on display when he was named team captain for his final two seasons.
When he was a senior at Slippery Rock he finished second in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship and advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I National Qualifier at the 142-pound weight class for the second time in his collegiate career.
Henry’s desire to lead others propelled him to be hired by Gannon in 1984. It was then that he received a daunting task to rebuild a program that had been discontinued in 1971.
“I had about three months to recruit wrestlers to the team and learn as much about Gannon as I could,” Henry said. “We started with 13 wrestlers and had growing pains, losing all of our matches our first season.”
Henry said that it was at that time that he experienced the most growth as a coach.
“We really do learn from our mistakes,” he said.
Henry said one of the biggest challenges he faced was reprogramming his team’s attitude and the general atmosphere surrounding Gannon’s wrestling.
“We had to change the culture from expecting to lose and accepting it, to expecting to win.”
Henry said he also watched the sport develop during his time at Gannon.
“During the 1997-98 season, the NCAA changed the rules and the culture of weight loss,” Henry said. “Midway through that season, the NCAA added eight pounds to each weight class, forbidding any wrestler dropping to the next lowest weight class.
“In addition they made it illegal to use plastic impermeable ‘sweat tops and pants’ and the use of saunas to lose weight as well as changing the time of weigh-ins from five hours to just one hour before competition.”
Henry said these changes were important in developing the sport in a positive way. He added that the rule changes and a winning attitude aided in Gannon’s wrestling success.
Henry is responsible for coaching 31 All-Americans, 22 regional champions and one NCAA Division II champion during his Gannon coaching career. He did not experience a drop off this season, guiding Matt Turek and Zack Zelcs to compete in the NCAA Division II tournament, which begins Friday in Cleveland.
Henry said there were too many people that he wanted to thank for helping him along his journey to the Hall of Fame, but he mentioned a few.
“My late wife probably more than anyone. My college coach, and all of the wrestlers who were part of the experiment in the first years of the program.”
Despite all the accolades and helping so many young men achieve their dreams, Henry remained humble about his immortalization Thursday.
“I am not sure if I have accomplished as much as some of the other coaches that were selected before me,” Henry said. “It is very humbling to be recognized for contributing to the sport that you love.
“I hope I will continue to achieve success with my team and feel worthy of the honor.”