January 20, 2010 by David Gillaspie
If a great coach is measured by his coattails, then Dale Thomas had a tuxedo with tails over a thousand miles long. From Cornell College in Iowa, to Oregon State, to University of Oregon, the Thomas Men walk the line.
Ron Finley moved from Newberg, Oregon to Oregon State to wrestle for Dale Thomas. He was an Olympian like Thomas. He coached in high school like Thomas. Then he coached in college. Like Dale Thomas, Coach Finley didn’t use Oregon as a stepping stone to a better school; he made Oregon a better school.
Oregon wrestlers learned more about their coach when a new athletic director decided wrestling didn’t matter in his department. A normal person might respond by following the leader, keeping their head down, and do what the boss asked. A retired coach still active on campus has even more reason to toe the line.
Did Ron Finley roll with it? No. He faced the administration head on and said it’s not over.
Did he wonder ‘What Would Dale Thomas Do?’ If he did, then that’s part of the Thomas legacy.
Coach Finley cemented his own legacy by extending the fight to first Save Oregon Wrestling, and now working to bring Oregon wrestling back with the change in administration. He is still thumping in Eugene.
My high school coach, David Abraham, retired after a long run in North Bend, Oregon. Like Thomas and Finley, he stayed at one school for the duration. His effect on young men went beyond the wrestling room. His example made a mark on all those who wrestled for him.
After Abe retired he left North Bend, but didn’t leave wrestling. Instead he took up residence in the Oregon room. He took his game to another level and didn’t need any translation to get his message across to the college guys.
What Abraham told wrestlers was good enough to be written on the practice room walls: “What I had I gave. What I saved was lost forever.”
There’s not a wrestler in the world who doesn’t walk off a mat after a loss and think “What else could I have done?” It’s not the first question the winner asks.
Sometimes the loser knows the answer to ‘what else.” It ranges from ‘better conditioning’ to ‘practice harder’ to ‘nothing, the guy is just better and always will be.’ The last thought is not the highway to success in any sport, but it contributes to pushing more for the first two.
Iowa’s Dale Thomas became the all-time winningest coach in college wrestling during his time at Oregon State. One of his own is the Godfather of University of Oregon wrestling. The apple never falls far from the tree.
Would Dale Thomas stand by while his sport takes one in the back? No, and neither do Thomas wrestlers. With legacies at stake, Coach Finley still swings a bat. He will write the letters and make the phone calls. He will make a difference and wrestling will gain from it.
The message he sends doesn’t get watered down as it travels further from the source. Dale Thomas saw the value in wrestling and left Purdue for Cornell College, then Oregon State. Ron Finley left Newberg for Oregon State, then Reedsport and the University of Oregon.
The roots of Dale Thomas extend to every corner of the state and across the nation. Iowa might be for Iowans, but the spirit of Iowa grows in every wrestling room with a link to the Hawkeye State, none more so than the Beaver State.
Eventually Oregon AD Mike Bellotti will see the error of his former boss, Patrick Kilkenny, and reinstate Duck Wrestling. While Dale Thomas might have stomped a mud hole in Mr. Kilkenny’s back, you have to appreciate the man’s financial skills.
Anyone who gets tapped to manage huge amounts of money, like Phil Knight tapped Mr. Kilkenny when he cashed in Nike stock, is more than a suck-up. Any football coach turned athletic director who reinstates wrestling is more than a stand-in. He is a man creating a true legacy of his own. Mike Bellotti can be that man.