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

The only problem was that the team had to set up mats every day and tear them down after practice, but Wittneben wasn’t about to complain. In just his third season, his wrestlers were already showing signs of success. At the 1976 Class LL championships, Joe Stevens rallied to a second place finish in the 167 pound division while Steve Fernandes scored third place as a 98-pounder.

The following season, his wrestlers scrambled for a conference title and a third place finish at the state meet. Three Knights medaled at the Class LL tournament, and Fernandes scored the team’s first individual title. Wittneben wasn’t satisfied.

“We talk a lot about those kids that really rose to the top and all their accolades and stuff, but behind those kids are a lot of other kids that also played in the program,” said the coach. “You don’t usually have 12 superstars. If you’re lucky, you have a couple. Then, you have all those other kids, and they make the team. You have to build them up in practice because you don’t have a good team without good practices. You need the kids to push one another. You can’t ignore one kid to focus on the others.”

Then, like a blinding flash of lightning, his team came together as a hardened unit. In just their fourth year of existence, Wittneben’s 1978 team scrambled to a perfect, 17-0 record and toppled two perennial powers to win the 1978 Class LL championship.

“They didn’t have a lot of experience, but they were athletic kids. They had a lot of determination, and Bob could make them work that much harder,” said Alkon. “I don’t know how he did it, but he convinced them that they could be champions. He wanted them to do their best, and he knew they could win it. He believed in it, and that made the kids believe in it.”

If you build it, they will come. Southington’s excitement started long before that championship run as the Knights began to draw unprecedented crowds. No longer did school officials have to lure an audience to a school assembly. Even on the road, Southington fans often out-numbered opponents.

“We sold out the gym multiple times, and Jay Fontana was ecstatic,” Wittneben said. “He couldn’t believe the size of the crowds, and they’re still there today. That’s the thing about wrestling. When you have that crowd cheering for you, it makes a big difference to the kids. I’ve been to some matches where the only kids there were the ones that were late for their buses. Not at Southington. That helped the program tremendously.”

The excitement was building, and it was unlike anything that anyone could have expected.

“I remember covering him when his wrestling team went over to New Britain to wrestle with Pulaski. They had some sort of a long winning streak with 46 or 47 in a row. Southington went into it with no chance to win, and they did it,” said former Observer sports writer Jim Senich. “It was one of the greatest sporting events that I ever covered…anywhere. It was just phenomenal.”

No coach has risen as quickly to the top ranks. Four years after rolling out a gym in a closet off the gym, Southington wrestlers crowned two state champions and two runners up. Seven wrestlers scored medals and three went on to claim second place finishes at the state open.

“I’m no genius. I had good kids,” Wittneben said. “I had a lot of support from the school and the parents with the booster club and the guys that worked with me. It was all about the kids. I expected my kids to wrestle hard. I expected them to go out and give me 100 percent. I didn’t care if they won or lost. If they went out and did the best they could, that’s wrestling. It takes a special kid to go out in front of his family and friends and girlfriends to wrestle.”

Then, as quickly as it started, it came to a finish. At the end of the 1980 season, Wittneben left the high school program to pursue other interests, but he has never been too far from the mat. Even after he left, Wittneben has continued to offer his assistance when needed.

“He’s come down over the years in his free time to help show different techniques and things in the room, and I’ve learned a lot from his intensity,” said Blue Knight coach Derek Dion. “He’s been a great father figure for the program, and he’s been a guy that I can go to over the years. He’s a winner. It’s in his demeanor, his professionalism, and his intensity. Even if he comes in just to help out, he’s got a quiet intensity that’s impressive.”

Perhaps that’s why the selection committee took notice of the former coach when they chose the Class of 2013. No coach before or since has been able to duplicate Wittneben’s sudden rise to the state championship. No wrestling program has been able to duplicate the efforts of that 1978 team at the Class LL meet or the state open.

On Thursday, Nov. 14, Wittneben will be honored in the same year as his championship team in an induction ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.

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