To the victor belong the spoils. But what if the victor isn’t interested in being spoiled?
Rich Lorenzo entered the National Wrestling Hall of Fame last weekend as a Distinguished Member, yet the very qualities that helped him win such recognition — selflessness, humility and team orientation — also made it hard for him to enjoy the congratulations.
The former Penn State athlete and coach surely earned his enshrinement in Stillwater, Okla. As a Nittany Lion wrestler, he posted an undefeated dual meet record for two years and took fourth place at the 1968 NCAA championships. As Penn State’s head coach from 1978-1992, he guided his men to 11 finishes within the nation’s top 10 teams. As an executive, he led fundraising efforts for Penn State’s $4 million wrestling facility which was then named “Lorenzo Wrestling Complex,” despite his objections.
So there he was in Stillwater, not totally comfortable with the acclaim he received at a Friday night gathering, at a Saturday brunch and at a Saturday dinner.
“You could tell he was happy but also kind of uncomfortable,” says Lloyd Rhoades, a leader in central Pennsylvania wrestling circles. “He’s just not the kind of guy who’s full of himself. He’s always about building up others.”
“He lit up when he was talking to old friends and wrestlers,” says Lorenzo’s wife of 37 years, Cindy. “That’s when he was really getting into it. Because the spotlight was off him.”
Surrounding Rich Lorenzo in Stillwater are from left, brother Mickey, sister Genie and wife Cindy; to the right are daughter Anne and son Michael. (Photo by Larry Slater)
WITH KOLL & SANDERSON
Although Lorenzo would never have campaigned for induction into Stillwater, he certainly appreciated the honor. After all, such friends as his late coach, Bill Koll, and the current Penn State coach, Cael Sanderson, are among the figures who are enshrined in wrestling’s version of Cooperstown or Canton.
And so, for his brief message on Saturday night, Lorenzo dusted off his oratory skills (he was a Future Farmers of America public speaking champion in New Jersey), grabbed a little extra energy from Diet Pepsi (he claims to drink a case each day) and used the opportunity to honor others.
At one point, Lorenzo asked his former assistant coaches, John Fritz and Hachiro Oishi, to stand for recognition and said, “We were all head coaches; I was just called the head coach.” He also spoke passionately about the current Penn State team which has won eight of the last 10 national titles under the Sanderson’s guidance. And, of course, he introduced his family members with great pride and a touch of humor.
“He said that they’re pretty much a by-the-book family,” recalls Rhoades. “He said that his son, Michael, is a state trooper and mentioned that Michael gave a speeding ticket to his sister, Anne. Everyone laughed, so Rich said, ‘He really did. He gave his sister a ticket!’”
I enjoyed the chance to interview Lorenzo just a few days after his return from the Oklahoma festivities. I was not a bit surprised to observe his delight at becoming a grandfather (Michael’s wife, Rachel, gave birth to a little girl named Wren in November). Nor was I surprised to observe his focus on the accomplishments of other people. Here then are edited portions of the conversation we enjoyed at Rich’s Bellefonte-area farm. But first you can watch the full seven-minute video shown in Stillwater, including remarks by Sanderson, right here:
It’s been a few days since you returned from the Hall of Fame activities in Oklahoma. What’s your main memory from those experiences?
Lorenzo: The sincerity of the people there — wrestling people we met or got reacquainted with. It’s just super to see them any time. Nice people, salt of the earth, pretty straightforward. Everybody put a smile on my face, everybody. I was able to take my family thanks to Ira Lubert and his plane. They enjoyed the living daylights out of it, so it was a great time.
You’re not a person who looks to get a lot of attention. How did you feel while being so much in the limelight?
Lorenzo: I don’t like it. I really don’t. Because there’s so many people who helped put me there. If only they could all be there and we shared in it together… And I wouldn’t want to leave out one of them. But I really am very uncomfortable when people start praising you or talking about how great you’ve been. That’s when I want to say, “Stop. It wasn’t just me. There were hundreds of people who helped me to be successful and helped Penn State to be successful.”
Your brother and sister were there in Stillwater, and I don’t imagine they could let their kid brother get all this credit without teasing you. So what did they have to say?
Lorenzo: They were just so impressed by the kindness of the people — the people who toured us around and all the wrestling families that sort of adopted them. I was really happy that they got to go because they both helped me get through school by staying on the dairy farm. They also harassed me a little bit, which they always do. They used to beat me up pretty good because I was a pain in the you-know-where. When I was just 106 pounds my brother was a 167-pounder in high school and my sister was 5’11’ or 6 feet tall and she didn’t fight like a lady. It toughened me up.
Rich Lorenzo as an 8-year-old (photo provided by Lorenzo family) and in his 70s (photo by Darren Andrew Weimert/Town&Gown).
Lloyd Rhoades told me when you were giving your short speech, you seemed most excited while talking about the current Penn State team…
Lorenzo: A lot of people were giving me these honors and saying, “Look where you got Penn State.” And I’m saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Put on the brakes here. Penn State is where they are because of their current coaching staff.” And what I love about our coaching staff is the way they work with people, handle people, communicate with people. They’re not flamboyant. They’re confident, but they don’t push it on you. They are dedicating their lives to Penn State wrestling. It can’t be just a job. If it’s just a job, you’re not excited about it. These guys and their wives are unbelievable. But then again, I have a wife named Cindy who’s unbelievable, too. But I won’t tell her that — I’ve got to live with her and we’ve only been married for 37 years!
But, yeah, I’m so happy with wrestling at Penn State. I’m happy that they’re setting a map for people to follow, you know. They’re able to get those guys so relaxed, so loose and confident and focused. And the focus is if you’re out there for seven minutes, keep trying to score for seven minutes. And we’re setting that pattern for the country. People can say, “We’re going to see this or that team beat Penn State this year,” but they’re never going to take that success and influence away.
We all have egos, and it would be easy for you as a former Penn State coach to feel overshadowed by Cael and his staff. Yet you love what they’ve done…
Lorenzo: It’s like you’re watching your friends succeed... or your daughter or your son or your cousin. I like that. I like positive things. I’m not a negative person. Rich Lorenzo is Rich Lorenzo, and he had his chance to be a national champ and he didn’t make it. And it bothers me even today at age 73 that I didn’t meet the goal that I had put so much of my life into. But I want to help other people reach it. I want to help our kids at Penn State. I just admire Cael and Casey (Cunningham) and Cody (Sanderson) and Jake Varner and all the other guys that help them. I don’t envy them a bit, they’re my friends. I’m just so pleased with the success Penn State’s having and the young people making commitments to the school and to the program. It just makes me feel good.
Your family, including your brother and sister, got to Stillwater because of your old buddy Ira Lubert. What was it like to be on that corporate jet with so many of your family members and friends like Ira, Cael and Galen Dreibelbis?
Lorenzo: It was special, but the conversations were just like us sitting in our living room. We had cards — we were playing Hearts — and we were drinking Diet Pepsi and just having a good time. You know, Ira has been so good to Penn State that it amazes me. I’m a very close friend of his. We went to the same high school where I was four years ahead of him. But he has given so much because he wants to give, not because I have asked him or Cael has asked him. He does it out of the kindness of his heart. You talk about Penn State wrestling… I don’t think Penn State would be where it is if it wasn’t for Ira Lubert.
Speaking of your heart for Penn State wrestling, I understand it all started through your uncle, Fred, who had been the team captain.
Lorenzo: Yes, he started school up here in 1929. And he graduated in 1933. He majored in agriculture and became a county agent in New Jersey for about 50 years. He loved his wrestling, fishing, hunting and agriculture. He took me to my first college wrestling match in 1962, Penn State at Rutgers. And then he took me up here to the EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) tournament in Rec Hall in 1962. That was the furthest west that I had ever been. And I was so impressed with the specimens — the builds on those guys. And the wrestling, they were doing things that were just amazing.
Lorenzo’s work ethic developed through farm chores and award-winning involvement with Future Farmers of America.
Not too many years later, you wrestled right there in Rec Hall.
Lorenzo: Yes, I came to Penn State as a walk-on, and I was given an opportunity by Bill Koll to come on the team. The nice thing about Coach Koll was he taught everybody. He didn’t just pick out one or two guys. He wasn’t a rah-rah guy, either. He was pretty factual. He was a great coach for me. But he had a sense of humor that wouldn’t quit. When I was an assistant coach he used to say, “Well the lighter weights lost this week, and Rich was coaching them. My heavy weights, they won the match.” The next week, he’d say, “Rich was coaching the heavy weights, and that’s why we lost the match…ha, ha, ha!”
And you ended up here in Happy Valley for your entire adult life…
Lorenzo: All those years of coaching. We were at the national tournament one year when I was an assistant coach. It was in Oklahoma. And we got a chance to see some of the coaches being interviewed before the tournament. And they were saying, “Well, there’s some teams that will be up there for a while. But when it comes down to the real fight and the men step on the mat, it’s going to be between three teams — Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State.” Iowa was not really on the scene when I was an assistant coach.
Well, when I heard that, that sort of challenged me. And I said, “That’s the thing that I want. I want Penn State to shut that up.” And you know, we (when he was head coach) came home with seven All-Americans a couple years; we came home with eight one year and we still finished like third, third and third. That’s why I’m so impressed with Cael Sanderson and crew. They’re like Oklahoma State which was so dominant in the beginning and Iowa with Coach Dan Gable, which speaks for itself.
All of this attention at the Hall of Fame was a little hard for you to embrace, but you got to represent Penn State. What did that mean to you?
Lorenzo: That means everything to me. That’s where I spent my life. That’s where I put my work in. And I want to see everybody do better than I did. Because I’m happy when that happens. I’m happy when the coaches put 100 percent into the sport and try to help people. Whether they win or lose, it’s just that they made the commitment. Just like you demand of an athlete or you demand of yourself. Dedication. Hard work. Commitment. Honesty. Humility. All those things. Penn State is where we want to set the example.
Rich Lorenzo was undefeated in dual meets during his junior and senior seasons at Penn State.