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|Charismatic Brinzer still a free spirit, but he's developed into a successful coach|
By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
Junior/Cadet Nationals Coverage Section
FARGO, N.D. - Ray Brinzer remembers it like it was yesterday.
It was 17 years ago and Brinzer was at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, wrestling in the Greco-Roman class of the Junior Nationals.
Brinzer was on a tear, ripping through the bracket on his way to the finals.
Then came the moment that produced his favorite Junior Nationals memory.
"I truly devoted everything I had to winning this tournament - I was dead-set on winning it," he said. "I worked so hard and pinned and teched my way through Greco. I got into the finals and there was a live band playing. It was really neat. I wrestled a guy from New Jersey and I reverse-lifted him twice and on the second one I pinned him.
"As I was standing up from pinning him, the band started playing 'Sunshine of Your Love' by Cream. It couldn't have been a more perfect song because I like old rock and roll, and I was completely into it. I didn't expect the music and it just made it really perfect. That is my best single memory of this event. It was pretty cool."
Brinzer is still the same charismatic, flamboyant free spirit that made him a fan favorite during his days as a Pennyslvania high school star and when he competed collegiately for the University of Iowa. That was evident as the bearded Brinzer, now sporting a few gray flecks in his hair, walked around barefoot as his team relaxed on the floor during a break Friday morning at the Bison Sports Arena.
Now 34 years old, Brinzer is back at Junior Nationals in a different role. As one of the coaches of the team from Pennsylvania, Brinzer will be a busy man the next eight days during the ASICS/Vaughan Junior Nationals and Accelerade Cadet Nationals. He will coach Cadets and Juniors in freestyle and Greco-Roman, and also will coach the women's wrestlers.
The eight-day wrestling extravaganza, which will feature 4,000 kids participating on 23 mats, begins Saturday morning and runs through the following Saturday at the FargoDome. It's the world's biggest wrestling tournament.
When Brinzer isn't working as a computer programmer, he's developing young wrestlers with the Angry Fish Wrestling Club. It's a successful club he and Ty Moore created about five years ago. The club has around 50 members. He lives in Cranberry Township, Pa. - just north of Pittsburgh - and has coached at the Cadet and Junior Nationals for five years.
"This is a great event because there is so much energy in the arena during a competition like this," Brinzer said. "This is the first exposure to a higher level of wrestling for so many of these kids. It's got a neat feel to it because a lot of the kids haven't quite learned defense yet, but they all know how to hit their throws so you see a very aggressive style of wrestling. There is a lot of excitement when you have so many kids at your weight class in such a big tournament. It's neat to see kids develop mentally and mature through this process."
During the winter, Brinzer also coaches junior high wrestling at North Allegheny - where he attended high school. He also is now working with elementary school wrestlers at North Allegheny.
His knowledge and passion for wrestling, along with his infectious personality, have made Brinzer an instant hit with the kids he coaches.
"Coach Brinzer definitely does things his own way," said Joe Waltko, a Cadet wrestler who placed fourth in the Pennsylvania state tournament as a freshman. "He keeps everything interesting. He has so many stories, more than any person I know. We will work hard from 6-8 and then be there until 9 listening to random stories about what has happened to him throughout his life. He's fun to listen to.
"When it comes down to business and practice, he's a great coach and he knows what he's talking about. He's very knowledgeable and he's a great teacher. I love having him for a coach."
Adam Powers, who will compete in Cadets for the Pennysylvania team, responded quickly to what Brinzer is teaching. Powers is in just his second year of wrestling, but already has excelled at the state level.
"Coach Brinzer is a great coach - he definitely gets his point across," Powers said. "His style is unique. He will teach us a move and then give us the history of when and where he learned it. He's wrestled all over the world and had success. He's a great role model for us. I want to be like him and so do a lot of other guys on our team.
"He's a great guy who likes to have fun. He'll show up to practice wearing a pink shirt or some goofy hat. He will come sprinting into the room barefoot and get everyone laughing. You never know what he will do next. He keeps us on our toes, that's for sure. It's great wrestling for a guy like him."
The guy who once lived in the back of a pickup truck, and at times wasn't known for being the most dedicated, disciplined or most punctual of athletes, turned a few heads when he became a coach.
"I seem to do all kinds of things people don't picture," Brinzer said with a smile. "I like coaching a lot and it's very satisfying. I love being around young people and helping them develop as wrestlers and people. It's a blast. I can't imagine not being around wrestling.
"Nobody seems to say they're surprised I'm coaching - they sometimes are surprised at what I'm coaching."
Brinzer competed on the national level in both Greco-Roman and freestyle. He was a U.S. Nationals runner-up in Greco-Roman and qualified for the Greco-Roman Team USA. He was fourth at the 1999 U.S. Nationals in freestyle, as well, and won a number of international medals.
Brinzer was a two-time All-American for the University of Iowa, and also competed at Oklahoma State. A top age-group wrestling star, Brinzer was the 1990 ASICS High School Wrestler of the Year. He won Junior Nationals three times, including sweeping the Greco-Roman and freestyle titles in 1989.
Brinzer said he's still the same guy he was when he won Junior Nationals and when he wrestled for the Hawkeyes.
"I'm just being myself and that's what I've always done - I'm really no different now than I was back then," he said. "I maybe don't do quite such nutty things anymore. I can be a little flamboyant and still love to have fun, but I don't want to take attention away from the athletes. I don't want people to be looking at me in the corner instead of the wrestlers. Those are the guys they should be watching."
During his days at Iowa, Brinzer also developed a unique relationship with his coach, Dan Gable.
"We ended up having a good relationship and absolutely nobody expected that," Brinzer said. "People wonder how I put up with Gable or he put up with me, but he's a great guy. He's a really neat, interesting person. People have to remember he was the loner and the weird guy on every team he was ever on. He was self-driven and yet he drives his athletes. It's a natural relationship. We got along really well.
"I think he really liked the fact that I was my own person, so long as it wasn't getting in the way of what he was trying to do, which happened occasionally. I know I frustrated him sometimes, but we both share a love and a passion for this sport. I know he respects people who feel the same way about wrestling that he does."
Brinzer chuckled when asked about Gable returning to Iowa as an assistant coach nine years after he won his 15th NCAA title as the Hawkeyes' head coach. Gable retired in 1997, but he is back coaching again after Tom Brands took over this spring as Iowa's head coach.
"Ahh yes, Assistant Gable, that's pretty interesting. Maybe he'll learn something and move up the ladder and become a head coach again someday," Brinzer said with a laugh. "I haven't talked to Gable about it, but my sense is he really missed coaching and he obviously wants to see Iowa get back on top. I think it's really neat to see him coaching again. And I have to think he will be really happy doing it."
Brinzer also likes what Brands brings to the table as Iowa's new head coach.
"Talk about energy, Tom is like a force of nature," Brinzer said. "He's an extremely ambitious coach. You don't know yet, what he's going to do. He's had some early reasonable success with some individuals, but he certainly hasn't proven himself yet and he is really conscious of that. I do get to talk to him. He's on the phone recruiting a lot. It will be interesting to see how Tom does at Iowa. He's driven and he wants it."
Brinzer said he ran into Gable recently at the U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas.
"They were honoring a bunch of the (past) World and Olympic Team members and he looked at me and said, 'You should've been up here.' " Brinzer said. "And I said, 'Yeah, I know.' He was dead serious and he was right, as usual. I fell hugely short of what I should have accomplished as a wrestler. I don't know if it drives me as a coach, but it certainly has influenced me as a coach and given me a lot to think about."
Among the wrestlers Brinzer has coached are NCAA runner-ups Jake Herbert of Northwestern and Phil Davis of Penn State, along with All-American Coleman Scott of Oklahoma State. Herbert won a bronze medal at the World University Championships this year.
Brinzer also has developed into a top official in freestyle and Greco-Roman. He officiated at University Nationals this year.
"At least if I'm not good I'm reasonably consistent, which is something," he said. "I like officiating. It's really interesting, but in so many tournaments I don't the opportunity because my first responsibility is to my athletes. I have kids in my club in all the divisions and I just can't get the time to be part of a (officiating) team on the mat. There's no way I can do it here."
A busy Brinzer said the eight-day tournament in Fargo can take a toll on the coaches as well.
"My only real challenge is I can't go too hard in the beginning of the week or else I won't have a voice left by the time freestyle comes around," he said. "Every year, I have salt water and I gargle - it's tough making it through this tournament with my voice intact."
Brinzer said it is kind of ironic that he is preaching to kids how to train and prepare for events.
"(Past NCAA champion and new Clarion coach) Teague Moore got a good laugh out of me telling kids to get to sleep early and telling them how to keep their weight under control. Not that I did any of that, but you really should," Brinzer said. "Hopefully, the kids will still listen to me and pay attention to some of what I'm saying."
Brinzer joked about starting to work with the elementary kids at North Allegheny.
"My career is kind of spiraling downward - I keep moving down in the world," Brinzer said with a smile. "Seriously, I enjoy coaching kids at all levels and seeing them develop as wrestlers and develop socially. I find coaching the little kids fascinating and interesting. I'm excited about it. I want to take little kids and see how far I can take them as wrestlers.
"Coaching wrestling is a challenge and it's a lot of fun for me. I've been around wrestling since I was in second grade and I'm still learning important things about the sport on a regular basis. This feels like what I should be doing."