40 Years After His Retirement, Begala's Impact Still Felt
For over 40 years, Joe Begala’s presence at Kent State’s Memorial Gymnasium created a chorus of sound that rang throughout the hallways.
Chanting and cheering from Kent State’s wrestling team bellowed throughout the building. The gut-wrenching sound of bodies hitting the canvas-covered wrestling mat made passersby flinch.
Even more apparent was the sound of a man yelling as the practice ensued. You did not have to be in the dimly-lit room to know every time a wrestler was performing poorly and the match was moving against his favor. Former Kent State wrestling coach Joe Begala narrated every practice that he coached.
If Begala did not like what he saw out of his wrestlers, he would not hide his displeasure. He was known for demonstrating moves on his team, and even had an open challenge out to any athlete on his roster that felt they could take Begala down.
Begala, who coached Kent State’s wrestling team from 1929-1971, was known for his stern demeanor and no nonsense attitude. His wrestlers treated him as a drill sergeant in the military, and respected him like a father.
As the leader of the Flashes’ wrestling squad, Begala produced 10 All-Americans, eight of which finished in the top four at the NCAA Championships. Kent State had eight Top-20 finishes at the NCAA Championships under Begala, including back-to-back fifth place finishes in 1941 and 1942. Seven of his teams went undefeated in dual meets.
Bill Herbert, who wrestled for Begala from 1965-67 and coached under him from 1968-71, said that Begala continues to impact his life decades later.
“Joe was probably the most colorful guy in terms of personality that I ever encountered as a young person, and even after that,” Herbert said. “He could be extremely intense as a coach about the things that he wanted you to master techniques or ways of performing that would improve your success. At the same time, he was a great motivator.”
Begala’s ascension to the top began at Ohio University as a wrestler under legendary coach Thor Olson. He was the captain of the Bobcats’ state championship team in 1929, and recorded ten straight victories with nine falls as a senior. Begala was not your conventional collegiate wrestler though.
A standout athlete at Struthers High School near Youngstown, Ohio, a 5-foot-8 Begala joined Ohio’s wrestling team with no previous experience in the sport. It didn’t take long for Olson to mold Begala into a champion competitor.
Begala wrestled in the 165, 175 and heavyweight classes during his time with the Bobcats, defeating much larger opponents regularly. As junior in a dual with Purdue, he earned the Bobcats’ only two wins at both 175 and heavyweight, earning him the nickname “The Iron Man.” When Ohio visited Kent State during his senior season, Kent State’s wrestling coach, Sellew Roberts, was so impressed with the hard-nosed 175-pound Begala that he offered him his job at the conclusion of the season.
From the first day Begala set foot on Kent State’s campus, wrestling became relevant. He scheduled matches against the nation’s top programs and started training scrawny teens from Northeast Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and Indiana, into champions.
Begala’s first season ended in three wins and four losses, but the young coach won over his team with his unorthodox approach to the sport.
One of Begala’s first coaching decisions was to issue an open challenge to anyone on the team that thought they could defeat him on the mat. The winner can have Begala’s job. The loser learns why Begala earned a reputation for outworking everyone around him. A much stronger Carmen Falcone, who placed third at heavyweight during the 1939 NCAA Championships, was the only one to defeat Begala until he withdrew the challenge in 1956 at the age of 49.
Herbert, whose high school coach John Redford wrestled for Begala in the 50s, said that the legendary coach’s methods attracted him to Kent State.
“He’d get out and if you couldn’t do a maneuver in a certain way that he wanted you to do it, he would go out and demonstrate on you,” Herbert said. “And he did it with intensity so you could feel the way it should be done.”
Begala served as a professor of health and physical education, athletic director, head athletic trainer and coached six sports at Kent State, including 39 seasons as head wrestling coach. He retired in 1971 as the NCAA Division-I’s all-time winningest head coach, which he achieved in 1961.
The accolades accumulated as Begala earned the "Croix of Chavalier of FILA (International Wrestling Award from France)" in 1967 and acceptance into the national "Helm's Hall of Fame" in 1969. He was inducted into the Amateur Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1965. In 1971, Kent State University awarded him "The President's Medal." His professional activities included service as the 1968 State Chairman of the United States Wrestling Foundation and, from 1935 to 1942; he served as the Regional Chairman of the National Athletic Trainer Association. His role on the NCAA rules committee helped bring the NCAA Championships to Kent in 1963 and 1967.
While Begala became a legend on the mat, he did so without having scholarships to give to athletes. Many wrestlers skipped out on scholarships elsewhere so they could come to Kent State and learn under Begala.
As a young coach in the state, he encouraged high schools to add wrestling to their athletic programs and many followed suit. The result was connections across the state that gave Begala the edge in recruiting over other schools.
Many of his wrestler’s went on to become high school wrestling coaches in and around the state. They would encourage their athletes to attend Kent to learn under Begala as well.
It was a cycle that did not stop until Begala decided to retire in 1971.
As a high school senior in 1964, Herbert said he could not pass up the opportunity to learn from the man who originally taught his high school coach everything he knew.
“I wanted to learn more and Joe was probably the best technician, coach and motivator to learn from,” Herbert said. “Wrestling is one of those sports where if you make a commitment and you have some success, it builds confidence that you can do things as long as you are willing to work hard.”
Herbert, who is a professor and director for the Health & Exercise Sciences Laboratory in the Department of Human Nutrition at Virginia Tech, plans on getting together with his former teammates this summer to talk about their days of wrestling for Begala.
“It’s really a bond that I think you connect with those people,” Herbert said. “I still maintain connection with the other guys that were on my team. I think it’s a much stronger bond than in many sports because of the unique things you have to deal with.”
Following his retirement, Ohio Governor John Gilligan declared May 29, 1971 Joe Begala Day. Begala also received a letter from President Nixon and was cited by Amateur Wrestling News as having improved the quality of wrestling in Ohio by producing many outstanding high school coaches through annual clinics.