Drexel's longtime wrestling coach, Jack Childs, will exit on top of his game

Drexel's Jack Childs , in 1981 at left and in 2001 above, is the second all-time winningest college wrestling coach.
Drexel's Jack Childs , in 1981 at left and in 2001 above, is the second all-time winningest college wrestling coach.
Posted: February 06, 2011

Second in an occasional series

The late-1970s photo of him looming between two trim wrestlers in singlets, like the zero in a human "101," illustrated just how long Jack Childs has been Drexel's coach. With his expression fixed in a wrestler's glare, Childs' hair was ink black, his mustache Tom Selleck-thick, his torso bulked, his legs like twin tree trunks.

Thirty-plus years later, with little more than a month to go in his 35th and final season as the Dragons' wrestling coach, time and a good diet have altered Childs. Grandfatherly now at 66, his physique diminished as his reputation expanded.

In those intervening decades, the native of northern Pennsylvania became the winningest active Division I coach and was named to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Drexel's program grew strong and consistent even as the collegiate sport shriveled, those two concurrent developments combining to create a remarkable demand for the job he will soon vacate.

"We've had over 35 applicants for my position here," Childs said Friday from a cramped office in the school's Daskalakis Center. "We've lost more than 100 college wrestling programs over the years and the head coach jobs that open up are few and far between."

Drexel's job will open up after the 2011 NCAA Wrestling Championships in Philadelphia end in mid-March. That March 17 to 19 event, for which Childs will serve as a head-table official and hopes to qualify a Drexel wrestler or two, should provide a fitting farewell to a man who entered the sport by accident 48 years ago.

His pending departure has glazed Drexel's 2010-11 season with nostalgia, so much so that Childs' wrestlers insist their famously intense coach has mellowed.

"He's taking more things in," said senior captain Justin Wieller. "He's trying to enjoy his last year here. He's kind of sitting back and watching more. You get the sense he knows it's nearing the end."

That sentimental-journey aspect should deepen on Wednesday. In a Colonial Athletic Association dual-meet at Drexel, Childs will be matched up with one of his closest friends, Rider's Gary Taylor. With 367 career victories, Taylor's total is second only to Childs' 421 among active Division I coaches.

"We're not that good," Childs joked. "We've just outlasted everybody else."

Headlock over heels

Childs was a 235-pound football lineman at Ithaca College in 1963 when the wrestling coach asked to see him. The freshman team's heavyweight had been expelled from school.

A football and track star at Athens (Pa.) High School, Childs also had competed in intramural wrestling there. He reluctantly agreed to try wrestling if the coach would ensure him a B in a challenging physical education course. The deal was made. The die was cast.

Childs went 4-3 that first season as a self-described "average wrestler." A year later, he transferred to East Stroudsburg and really fell headlock over heels in love with the sport.

"I was just enamored," he said. "I love the individuality of it. You still have the team concept. But each of those 10 or 11 guys is an individual. He's out there on the mat alone with the other guy.

"You learn so much about yourself. You have to weight-train. You have to diet and eat right. You have to lose weight. It keeps you focused. It gives you a purpose."

His purpose clear, Childs, after graduating in 1967, began coaching wrestling, along with football and track, at a high school near Syracuse, N.Y., while he earned a master's degree from nearby Cortland State. A few more high school jobs followed before he jumped to Stevens Tech in Lancaster, then a junior college.

Childs went 89-17 until he took the Drexel job in 1976.

Three years later, by then 35 and 275 pounds, Childs was discouraged when a simple mountain walk during a Vermont vacation wearied him. It was, he decided, time to redo his body.

Weight-loss is a constant concern in wrestling, and back then, before a series of strict NCAA guidelines were mandated, it was up to the individual to decide how to go about it. Wrestlers took daylong saunas, tried fad diets and supplements, exercised in rubber suits, fasted themselves into stupors.

One college summer, Childs had gone on a liquid-protein diet. The liquid protein was cow's blood.

"I could have died," he said. "I lost 50 pounds in a month. Two weeks later, I'd put 25 back on."

This time he went to Weight Watchers and attacked the program the way he had gone after mat opponents. He lost 85 pounds in four months and kept going.

"But I had it to lose," he said.

He was transformed. Neighbors in Wayne who had seen the fat guy raking leaves that fall didn't recognize the thin man shoveling snow that winter. Others had the same difficulty.

"A recruit I'd been talking to came by here that fall," Childs recalled. "I saw him peek in my office and keep walking. I asked if I could help. He said he was looking for the wrestling coach. I said, 'That's me.' He said, 'No, Coach Childs.' I said, 'That's me.' He said, 'No, the other Coach Childs.' "

Three decades later, as his trophy case has filled up, he continues not to. He's kept the weight off and has made weight control one of the pillars of his coaching philosophy.

"He's helping us with our nutrition every day," Wieller said.

Childs' trimmer figure has helped him during matches, when he tends to stay on his feet throughout the frequently lengthy sessions.

"He's intense," Wieller said. "His complete focus is on the match. He's very verbal. You always see him yelling, getting into a match. He's constantly on his feet, right up against the mat yelling."

No regrets

It's a style that helped lead Drexel to conference championships, to qualify several wrestlers for nationals, to win him coach of the year honors, to become a respected elder in the sport.

Along the way, he passed on several opportunities to leave - Franklin and Marshall, Gettysburg, Rutgers.

Rutgers offered Childs the job at the same time the school was downgrading its program, turning the coach into a part-time employee.

"I told them, 'No, I'm an assistant professor here who's tenured. Why would I leave for a part-time job?' "

By then he understood he would never win a national championship at Drexel. But, with his career nearly over, he insisted he had no regrets.

"When we hire a replacement," Childs said, "I hope we don't get someone who thinks this is a steppingstone to Iowa or Penn State. We're never going to be an Iowa or Penn State. But when [my wrestlers] go out in the world, they're professional people.

"You're not just a coach, you're an educator. So many coaches don't realize that. Somebody gets in trouble, they cut him because someone else is waiting in the wings. Here, we've tried to work through everything we can."

Childs, whose replacement should be on board by April 1, has seen his sport suffer, victimized inadvertently by the rush to implement Title IX's requirements.

Under that federal edict, schools must provide as many athletic opportunities for women as men. Those with revenue-generating football programs must look elsewhere to balance the equation. Wrestling is often the first men's sport to go.

Childs has been lucky. Drexel dropped football a few years before he arrived. The pressures that killed wrestling elsewhere never surfaced in his little corner of West Philadelphia.

"Here, we're in complete compliance," he said. "But if they would just take football out of the equation, every school in the country would have wrestling. When I was president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association we had 110 programs. At one time, 180 colleges had programs. Now it's something like 81. We've lost over 100 programs.

"Title IX usually gets most of the blame, but I blame athletic directors too. Go out and raise money to support women's sports. Don't ax wrestling. But once it started to snowball, that was that. Look at the South. Alabama, LSU, Miami, they all used to have great wrestling. Now?"

(Locally, Bucknell once dropped wrestling. But thanks to a wealthy donor, it was later restored. His $7 million donation went not just toward reviving the sport but to establishing a numbers-rich women's crew team too.)

Let them enjoy

If there's one other trend Childs wished he could reverse before he and his wife, Anne, begin traveling the world, it's the increased specialization of young athletes. Wrestlers under 10, he noted, often compete far too much and frequently need to lose weight to do so.

"The demands are unrealistic. You have 9-year-old kids who weigh 81 pounds having to get down to 75. By the time they get here, they're often burned out."

Childs' two sons, Michael and Jesse, wrestled at Drexel (daughter Elizabeth was the captain of the school's tennis team). But he pulled Michael, now an assistant coach at Davidson, out of a youth program when he spotted signs of trouble.

"Michael was getting beat, 3-1, 4-1, and I could see he wasn't enjoying it. I asked him what the problem was and he said, 'I'm so worried about everything.' "

"I said, 'You know what, it's not worth it.' I took him out of the program and told him he could start again when he got to middle school.

"Let them have fun. Let them enjoy."

Childs has been doing both for 35 years at Drexel.

His final team is a disappointing 7-14 in dual meets after losing, 20-15, to Boston University on Friday, and beating Brown, 22-14, on Saturday. They might not produce any NCAA tournament qualifiers, though sophomore Joe Booth is ranked in the top 20 nationally at 165.

But that hasn't kept Childs' wrestlers from trying to make his last season memorable.

"We're trying to put together the best season we can for him," said Wieller. "We've had a lot of injuries and this season hasn't gone like we wanted it to. But having the nationals here in his hometown is a good way for him to go out, and we're giving 120 percent for him."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or

at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

 

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