As far back as I can remember, my favorite word was why. I’m not sure what caused it, but I’ve never stopped asking why things work the way they do; or don’t work; and then create work arounds to improve outcomes.
Zeroing in on the sport of wrestling, what I found given my forward thinking, slash creativity, slash curiosity, is a whole new way of approaching success by debunking what others think is best, at least by our current standards of thought that began around the time of prohibition.
Enter garbage wrestling.
For the latter portion of the 1960’s and most on the 1970’s, I knew there was so much more to our sport than what I was seeing, or being taught. Why couldn’t I dive between an opponent’s legs, why wasn’t I allowed to step over a whizzer, or reach back from underneath?
All I ever heard was, that crap doesn’t work; you’ll never win doing it. But then, toward the middle portion of my career things began to change. What was originally known as garbage wrestling began to morph into what some said was funky. Then several years later, and with a dozen or so national titles under my belt, I suggested to the sport that maybe they should consider dropping the y from funky.
And now you know the rest of the story; and where the word funk comes from, and why I’m considered to be the Father of Funk wrestling. But believe me, it wasn’t easy for all those years hearing that kid’s a garbage wrestler. I guess they were right, and the Guinness Book of World Records was wrong when they confirmed, with support documentation provided, that I have more wins, and more pins, than anyone alive or dead.
But as the sport became more and more exciting to watch, and the naivety of my detractors became more and more apparent, it only confirmed that asking why made perfect sense, even if it was insulting to those my senior.
Fast forward 50 years, I’m still asking why of the sport, and its leadership. Why aren’t we at least a mid-major sport? Why aren’t our bleachers full, why isn’t ESPN knocking down our doors to be the sports official broadcaster? Why, of all the Division I schools, only one-fifth of them have a wrestling program? And why aren’t we a billion-dollar enterprise like the UFC, who, by the way, uses what we do, and teach, as their base?
I have the answers, just like I did when I asked why during the earliest stages of my career.
Or, could it be that you’re just full of yourself Wade?
That’s probably what some members of our sports leadership team are thinking right about now. And I wouldn’t blame them, for they are most likely the same ones who have never asked why, or understood how forward-thinking transforms that which is average into remarkable.
And yes, by the way, I am.
But let’s look at all the other times when I asked why and came up with things that made the sport better. Besides the excitement of funk being the most enjoyable aspect of the sport today.
In the late 70’s when I was coaching at Clemson, I asked, why did professional boxing stage their events in arenas that were darkened with a large lamp illuminating just the ring, spotlighting the action? The answer was so obvious that I couldn’t ignore it. So, I mentioned it to many of my colleagues and they all thought it wasn’t needed. But I did it anyway because it couldn’t possibility be classified as garbage. Clemson fans loved it, and with it, no one ever knew how many people were, or weren’t, actually in the stands.
Now we’re seeing more and more schools using overhead lighting, Penn State being the torch bearer. And people are wondering why we haven’t been doing this all along? But I started the idea 40 years ago, because if it didn’t make sense to wrestling’s leadership, I knew it was worth trying.
Two years later I accepted a different position as the new head coach at Old Dominion University. There, trying to create a much larger fan base, I began having half times during our dual meets. Damned if I didn’t catch hell for that from the opposing coaches. “Who ever heard of half times in wrestling? Schalles, you’re losing it!”
But we didn’t just have 15 minutes of dead time. We scheduled entertainment. I started by asking an elementary gymnastic troupe to be our first guests. And of course, with each young man and young lady who were part of the evening’s performance, came Mom and Dad, two Grandmother’s and Grandfather’s, and multiple Aunt’s and Uncle’s to watch their little darling(s) perform. We also had a tailed tuxedoed ring announcer who would introduce each athlete as they took the mat. Within a month we began to fill the stands; and with that, we were bringing in enough revenue to offset the programs expenditures. The second half time show we had, we brought in a barbershop quartet who were fabulous. And the crowd loved them. Then I went a little overboard for the third home meet and held a fashion show with professional models displaying the latest trends in clothing. The AD wasn’t too crazy about that one; oops. But it worked.
There’s little doubt that the Norfolk faithful knew Schalles to be a little crazy. But we also won a lot of matches, and improved our attendance numbers four-fold by the end of the first season. I guess they liked crazy, and enjoyed watching us win?
Now, half times are an accepted part of the sport, a way for the fans to discuss what they saw in the first half of the meet, and what they might see in the second half while they bet among themselves, visit the restroom, and still have enough time to grab a coke.
All this happened because I asked why, and better yet, why not?
It was during this time when I started thinking about hosting a national event in the Tidewater area. I asked John Graham, “Why not? Sure, it would be a lot of work, but it might turn into something very special for all of us.”
I’m not saying I had anything to do with the success of the Virginia Duals; other than twisting John’s arm, and asking why not. And please understand, all the heavy lifting was done by John, and his success is why everyone in the sport knows the name Virginia Duals. But I fathered the idea.
A year later I called John and suggested we do lunch. I could tell by the silence on the other end of the line that he was rolling his eyes.
When we met, I said, “let’s take the Virginia Duals to the next level.” John asked, “what does that mean?”
“It’s easy John, the winner of the Duals next year we’re going to advertise as being the National Dual Meet Champions.”
“You’re crazy Wade, we can’t do that without teams like Penn State, Iowa, and Oklahoma State present.”
“And, why aren’t they here,” I asked?
“It’s not that I haven’t invited them,” John responded. “They just weren’t interested in coming.”
“Exactly, so it’s their fault, not yours, not mine. Next year we’ll advertise it as being the National Dual Meet Championships and here’s what’s going to happen. In less than 3 weeks after the event is over, and Amateur Wrestling News declares the winner to be the National Champion, your phone is going to ring off the hook from those teams who didn’t want anything to do with the duals. They’re going to ask; “how can we get an invitation?”
That’s exactly what happened, and the National Duals came into being. Again, John Graham made it happen; along with a friend of his who could see things the way they could be, not the way they were.
In the middle 90’s I talked the Tournament Director at the Beast of the East into allowing me and a fellow colleague to pull two chairs out on the mat a half hour before the finals and do a point, counter point discussion where we’d highlight what the fans were going to see, and then pick the winners. The crowd loved it, and it became, I became, the father of what is today’s NCAA Semi-Final Preview Show.
A few years later I asked the NCAA’s leadership why they were moving weigh-ins to the night before? Although the rules committee had several solid reasons for making the change, my dissenting opinion carried little weight. No one likes a disruptor, at least until that which was being dissented, bites the doers in the butt. I just felt that with an extra 12 hours of recovery time, athletes being as competitive as they are, they would be tempted to drop another weight class for a better chance of success.
It only took the first half of that next season before three college athletes died from trying to make a weight class they didn’t wrestle in the previous year. I never thought for a moment that we’d lose athletes over the rule, and almost the sport because the NCAA was so upset with wrestling’s leadership, but I did feel, and said so, rather loudly, that bad things would most definitely be linked to the decision.
When I joined the Amateur Athletic Union as the Director of Wrestling in the late 1990’s, I had my share of challenges there as well. The word why got me in trouble more times than I can count. But in a short 4-year period the number of AAU wrestling memberships quadrupled, to USAWrestling’s dismay, and we went from hosting two national tournaments to sanctioning twelve.
Our flagship event, the Disney Duals, was my tournament, and you can’t imagine how hard I had to fight to receive buy-ins for change from some of our committee members. I wanted to reconfigure the old way of running wrestling tournaments, and in the process, kill the phrase; but that’s the way we’ve always done it.
Without going into great detail, my goal was to arrange the event so the worse wrestler, on the worse team, would be guaranteed a minimum of 10 matches. I refused to buy into the notion that it is somehow okay to send 50% of the wrestlers at any tournament home after 2 bouts, and 75% of them home after three rounds. That’s just not the right way to grow a sport; or an event.
Today, the Disney Duals is in a league by itself, it’s the largest dual meet tournament in the world and arguably the smoothest run wrestling event in the nation. Kudo’s go out to all those dedicated leaders of AAU programming who made it possible.
In all of the examples I’ve given so far, the sport won each time, because I challenged what was considered to be normal and customary . . . by asking why?
During the end of my tenure at the AAU, I began working with Cornell Bass in Baltimore about an idea we had regarding helping inner city youth through the sport of wrestling. We named the effort Beat the Mean Streets, which took off rather quickly after we eliminated the word Mean . . . given its negative connotation.
Once again, I had very little to do with Beat the Streets programming becoming what it is today; other than asking why, why not, and working with Cornell to create a solid base for the program to stand on today.
Every one of these things are the reasons why I write and have an ongoing history of successful ideas. I ask why, and why not, because I guess it came from my parent’s DNA. The word no doesn’t work for me, nor did it for them. If I can see a better way of improving established failings, I’m all in. That’s why I’ve been successful, and as a natural progression of success, why I have my share of detractors. But when someone starts in on me, please ask them, “but what have you done to make a difference?”
My Dad use to say, “When a zebra is born, he didn’t ask for stripes, but he has to learn to live with them. Or, you can point him in the direction of a store that sells black hair dye.”
And as I get older, I have but one more challenge before riding off into the sunset. Or maybe not. And that’s getting the rule; A Point Earned is a Point Scored through the wrestling rules committee. Of all the things I’ve ever done in the sport, this is the largest challenge I’ve taken on because it means professional status for a sport that’s been hobbling along for decades with amateur thoughts.
For those of you who haven’t heard about A Point Earned . . . you can find it at wadeschalles.com.