That’s Coach with a capital “C”
By Dick Hirsch
For many of those in the field of sports and physical education, the term “coach” is a job description. For Ed Michael, it’s a compliment.
Even after 37 years, much of that time spent with a lanyard bearing a whistle dangling around his neck, wearing gym shoes, he still gets a pleasant surge of satisfaction and pride when some undergraduate addresses him as “Coach.” That’s Coach with a capital C.
“To me it’s really much more than a title,” he says. “It’s a term of respect and admiration, and even though I haven’t been an active coach on the intercollegiate level for years, it is still very much a part of my life. To me, it’s about mentoring, it’s about motivation; mostly it’s about the voice of experience passing on some specialized knowledge to another generation.”
One recent day, guiding a visitor on a tour of some of the facilities at Alumni Arena, he was greeted in the corridor by a passing undergraduate, a youth he did not know.
“Good morning, Coach,” he said.
Michael beamed and responded:
“Have a great day, son.”
Michael likes to point out that the term “coach” has been adopted by the mainstream, along with other lingo that has percolated from the sporting arenas to the world at large. Nowadays, he notes, with considerable pride, many businesses will assign job coaches to work one-on-one with newly hired staff members, helping them to avoid common corporate pitfalls, training them, raising their skill levels, preparing them to deal with the pressures they will face in “the game.”
“Yes,” he admits, “it’s all I ever wanted to be ... a coach.”
He made that decision while at Ithaca High School, where he may have been better known as a football player than as a wrestler. Then, as now, “burly” is probably the best one word description of Michael’s build. He was a lineman on both offense and defense, playing linebacker early on in certain situations to take advantage of his speed and agility. He remembers one big game against Elmira Free Academy when he chased down and tackled Elmira’s star running back, who later won All-America honors at Syracuse University and eventually became the first African American to win the Heismann Trophy. His name was Ernie Davis.
Michael learned the rudiments of wrestling in high school, and continued his studies and his wrestling and football careers across town at Ithaca College. There he earned a bachelor of science degree in physical education as well as election to the Ithaca College Sports Hall of Fame. He went on to the University of Maryland for his master’s degree and began his professional career at Corning Community College, where he coached wrestling and lacrosse from 1966 to 1970. His wrestling teams’ outstanding record at Corning, 45-5, attracted the attention of athletics directors at various larger schools, among them, UB, where he joined the staff in 1970.
Michael has had a long and distinguished coaching career at the University at Buffalo, coaching the wrestling team from 1970 to 1991, gaining a national reputation by leading his teams to an overall record of 213 wins, against 106 losses. Superlatives can be misleading, but it’s clear that during those years his teams and his wrestlers probably won more championships and collected more trophies than any other athletes in the history of the university.
Without reciting from the record book, a few highlights seem appropriate: The UB wrestlers in 1978 were the NCAA Division III national champions, thus becoming—and remaining, so far—UB’s only national championship team. His teams won the New York State Collegiate Wrestling championship seven different times, and 13 times were listed in the top 20 in the NCAA Division I, II or III national rankings.
To achieve such a record over a period of years requires considerable stamina plus a variety of talents in three disparate areas: recruiting, motivating and instructing. He had the personality of a salesman as he traveled to various high school and junior college matches, on the prowl for talent, and then winning over the wrestlers and, perhaps more importantly, the parents.
Michael tells many recruiting stories, but especially remembers the time when a prospect and his father from New Jersey flew to Buffalo to tour the campus. The university provided a slim recruiting budget, so Michael’s wife, Connie, prepared dinner for the prospect and his father, and they stayed at the coach’s home. Entertainment consisted of a trip to see Niagara Falls.
The next day they all shook hands and the decision was made. He would enroll at UB. His name was Bill Jacoutot, BS ’75, and he became a varsity leader, wrestling on the 1972–73 and 1973–74 teams, and later helped Michael recruit his two younger brothers, Tom and Michael. Jacoutot is currently the wrestling coach at Spencerport Central High School in Spencerport, New York, and in 2004 was honored by a statewide association of journalists assigned to coverage of interscholastic sports for having the finest high school wrestling program in New York State.
Jacoutot, whose teams have won a number of state and regional competitions, is proud to say that he patterns his coaching approach after Michael.
“He was always there,” Jacoutot says. “Early or late, he was always there to help any of the guys on the team, to motivate them, to teach them. He knew when to be tough and he knew when to be understanding. He was a great communicator and a great friend to his athletes. So many of the things that I do every day with my teams, I learned from him.”
One revealing measure of Michael’s impact is the number of his wrestlers who, like Jacoutot, followed their mentor’s career path and became wrestling coaches. Michael is proud to report the most recent total is 28.
In addition to teaching and coaching, in January 1988, Michael accepted the position of associate athletic director for recreation and intramural services. “Then, there came a time,” he recalls, “when I realized that I was losing the will to impose my will on my teams in teaching situations.”
That was in 1991, and Michael then embarked on what amounted to a new career. With the faculty rank of associate professor, he became the full-time director of recreation and intramural services, a position that enabled him to plan and administer UB’s burgeoning program, which emphasizes fitness and learning new athletic and recreation skills while having fun. He has spent nearly 18 years in that role, nurturing the program, exploring every possibility, functioning as administrator, educator and motivator.
Even during his coaching years, Michael always had time for the vast majority of students who had neither the ability nor the desire to compete at the intercollegiate level. Since physical education classes were no longer required, the challenge was to develop a recreational and intramural sports program that would be embraced by all students. Under Michael, UB has developed a schedule of events and classes ranging from racquetball and tennis to Pilates, kayaking, yoga, aerobics and fitness and conditioning. There are literally hundreds of offerings.
“This was a whole new opportunity for me, concentrating on health, fitness and recreation, rather than competition for the elite athlete,” he says. “There is something for everybody in my program.”
That “everybody” includes Michael. A fit 63, with slightly more gray in his goatee than there was a year ago, Michael is retiring this year. But he will still be a familiar figure on the UB campus, adhering to his exercise regimen, a brisk 2.5 mile walk each day, a weekly run of the same distance, and a twice weekly exercise and stretching program.
“I’ve been here since 1970 and it’s my intention to be available if they need me to help in any way that I can,” he says.
In the view of his former wrestlers, Michael had a passion for helping, sometimes with humor, sometimes by example, and sometimes as an unrelenting taskmaster. One result: he coached 39 All-Americans and 105 individual tournament champions.
Erik Drasgow, BA ’77, now an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of South Carolina, summarized the views of many of Michael’s onetime charges.
“He gave me the confidence that I could always do better than I thought I could do, not just in wrestling, but in life. I thought maybe I’d like to be a schoolteacher. It never occurred to me that I had as much potential as Coach Michael thought I did. He convinced me to aim higher, to teach at the university level, and here I am, 30 years later, a professor inspired by his coach. He changed my life.”
That was Ed Michael’s role during his long career at UB: changing lives, one student at a time.
A veteran Buffalo journalist and author, Dick Hirsch writes BfloTales, a column in Business First.