Founding Father; Bob Wittneben launched a program and set the standard for wrestling

By John Goralski

Sports Writer

When Bob Wittneben entered the high school in 1973, the Blue Knights were already established as a baseball and football power. Golf had already claimed its first state title, and softball was ready to launch a dynasty.

Sports were already well-established in the blue collar town, but Wittneben had something else in mind.

He rolled out mats in a large closet and spent much of his day explaining the sport of wrestling to any one who’d listen. He scheduled split session practices to fit a whole varsity roster into the cramped room off the Derynoski School gym with young kids in the morning and the older kids in between classes.

It was to a skeptical audience that Wittneben unveiled his new varsity team, but it didn’t take long for people to notice Southington’s newest athletic addition.

“I was given a terrific opportunity. How many people get to start their own program?” said Wittneben almost 40 years later. “I was very fortunate because everyone was so supportive, and the school gave me anything I needed for the program.”

School officials even scheduled an assembly so Wittneben could showcase the new sport at the school. Coaches began herding their athletes to the mat for off-season conditioning, and a few experienced transfer students popped their heads into team practices to throw their hats into the ring.

Wittneben didn’t turn anybody away, and they quickly adopted his love of the sport.

He may not look like the prototypical wrestler, but the Long Island native grew up in wrestling’s eastern cradle where he rose to prominence as a captain and league champion. He continued after graduation at Central CT State College where he dominated the gridiron in the fall and the wrestling mat in the winter.

Still, nobody had heard about wrestling when Wittneben christened his new team in the Southington gym.

It didn’t take long for them to take notice.

Jack Alkon was one of the first to join the fledgling program as an assistant coach in the third season. Right away, he was drawn to Wittneben’s excitement and knowledge.

“He knows the sport really well, and he’s such a good teacher,” he said. “He wasn’t just able to teach the kids to wrestle. He was a very good motivator. He was always positive. He didn’t have to berate the kids. He didn’t have to intimidate them. He just has a strength that is contagious.”

Winning wasn’t the only thing. Discipline, practice, and effort were Wittneben’s measures for success. His teams struggled at times, but it didn’t matter to the young coach. His athletes bought into the grueling practice schedule and the challenging season, and the locals started to have some success against the established programs on their schedule.

“I was lucky because I had coaches that didn’t put winning over everything else, so winning was never their ultimate goal,” said Wittneben. “They just wanted to build good programs. Obviously, everyone wants to win, but to what end? They were gentlemen, and they knew the game. They didn’t have to yell and scream. They taught you how to do things. That’s why I went into coaching. I was fortunate. Some kids aren’t that lucky.”

Wittneben followed the example set by his own coaches as the began to build a program around him. He stressed fundamentals in practice with a lot of drills. He enlisted assistant coaches like Mark Mongillo and Alkon so that they could focus on every wrestler. To develop his own coaching skills, Wittneben returned to the gridiron as an assistant coach for Southington High School. In the spring, he joined John Fontana’s baseball staff.

While his athletes were making strides as wrestlers, he was working on his coaching skills so that his team could rival the more established programs at the high school.

“It was a great experience. I was always on the football field since I was a young kid, and I had the opportunity to work with some really good people there,” he said. “Baseball was probably my weakest sport, but they showed me what to do, and I enjoyed it.”

When it came to wrestling, he treated it the same as those other powerhouse teams. He never shrank from a challenge, and his fledgling squad crisscrossed the state to face anybody that would accept his challenge.

“We won a couple of matches. We got trounced in a couple of others because we’d go wrestle against a school that had an established program, and we’d get beat,” said the coach. “It was still okay. We took it all in stride. Then, the next year we were at the high school with the auxiliary gym, and it felt like a huge showcase.”

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