Don’t Call It a Comeback

During Homecoming Weekend, the WPI wrestling alumni family gathered in Alumni Gym to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the university’s first New England Championship in wrestling, won in 1985, and to share fond memories of their time on the team.

On Oct. 2, during Homecoming Weekend, the WPI wrestling alumni family gathered in Alumni Gym to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the university’s first New England Championship in wrestling, won in 1985, and to share fond memories of their time on the team. The celebration was an extension of the wrestling alumni’s traditional gathering on the Quadrangle during Homecoming and provided an opportunity to reflect on the program’s storied history as well as its future.

While the level of success for the wrestling program has waned in recent years, it remains a revered tradition upheld by many talented and dedicated athletes today. New Head Coach and wrestling alumnus Steve Hall ’87 is committed to rejuvenating the program.

“The student athletes who are here now, I want them to experience what we experienced,” Hall says, referring to his WPI wrestling days when Alumni Gym was packed to the rafters with fans. “I want them to feel they are part of something bigger than themselves, on campus and with alumni.”

Several initiatives are underway to help connect today’s wrestlers to wrestling alumni and to energize the program. First, Hall has connected each student wrestler with an alumnus who can offer guidance about the student’s education and career options. Hall is also working toward strengthening the connection between wrestling alumni and the university, through activities such as the celebration during Homecoming. In addition, wrestling alumni have launched a special fundraising initiative to establish a new endowment. Named the Grebinar Wrestling Endowment Program, the new fund will support the wrestling program’s annual operating expenses, important renovations to the wrestling practice room, and other wrestling program priorities. One hundred percent of the funds will go to WPI wrestling.

The endowment is named for former Head Coach Phil Grebinar, who built WPI wrestling into a powerhouse that dominated New England collegiate wrestling for more than two decades. But it wasn’t easy. When he joined WPI in July 1972 as the head wrestling coach, Grebinar was the fourth to lead the team in four years.

“The program was in a shambles because of the lack of coaching continuity and recruiting,” Grebinar recalls. Only four members of the team had any wrestling knowledge and, as Grebinar notes, “you have to put 10 guys on the mat” to compete.

His highest priority at that time was recruiting, both quantity and quality. Patience was key. Grebinar started with four consecutive losing seasons. Yet, he was still able to sell the program to prospective students.

“In the  beginning, I was selling the school, I was selling myself, and I was selling the opportunity,” he explains. Importantly, a high school wrestler could come to WPI and be a starter. “At the same time, WPI has always been an easy sell,” Grebinar adds. As WPI’s reputation as an outstanding university for engineering and science spread more widely, and as Grebinar met more and more students and families through officiating at any and all high school matches, it became easier to attract students to the wrestling program, even with a losing team.

Several wrestlers, Grebinar says, were critical to turning the program around: Michael Beaudoin ’78, and John Contestabile ’78, Duane Delfosse ’80, Tony Masullo ’80, Thomas Pajonis ’77, and Dave Wilson ’80. In 1974-75, Grebinar’s team celebrated its first winning season, and success began to breed success. Recruiting talented wrestlers was no longer a challenge, and the team mushroomed—with more than 40 members at its height. The campus community rallied around the team, packing Alumni Gym for home contests and following the team to away meets.

Grebinar coached his wrestlers to build on their individual strengths. “I didn’t try to change people’s styles,” he says. “But I did throw everything at them that I knew about wrestling so they could handle whatever was thrown at them in a match.”

With a rigorous training schedule and an emphasis on team work—even in such an individual sport—Grebinar and his wrestlers accumulated 25 consecutive winning seasons, four New England championships, four New England runner-up finishes, 11 All-Americans, 29 New England Champions, 149 All-New England, and 17 Scholar All-American wrestlers.  With an overall record of 499-286-11 (.634), the wrestling program is the most successful athletics program in the history of WPI.  The program has also placed 14 athletes into the WPI Athletic Hall of Fame.

“We had kids who bought into our philosophy and who were willing to work year-round,” Grebinar says. “Once you convince your team this is the way to have success, they follow it.”

Rekindling the WPI wrestling experience

That’s the history, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Wrestling alumni from the Grebinar era describe not a team, but a family; not a sport, but a philosophy for life.

“It can’t be overstated that this was the single most important decisions that I made in my life—coming to WPI and being part of the wrestling program,” says Steve Hall. “I came out of here with a full tool box, from my education and being part of the wrestling program.”

Hall came to WPI from his hometown in New York state, where high school wrestling can galvanize a community as much as high school football does in Texas. Hall had wrestled “as a kid,” but turned to football in high school.  Hall had wrestled since he was a little kid and finished high school as an all-state wrestler. He was recruited to WPI by the football coach, however, and had set his sights on a college athletic career on the grid iron. But wrestling seemed to follow him.  Hall’s work study job was in the weight room, where two members of the wrestling team encouraged him to go back to the sport of his true calling.

The heavyweight made an impact on WPI and New England wrestling nearly immediately during the 1983-84 season. He tallied 14 wins in 17 decisions en route to a third-place finish at the New England College Conference Wrestling Association (NECCWA) Championships, hosted at WPI.  He didn’t stop there finishing his career as one of just 15 wrestlers to boast four All-New England honors while having his name etched throughout the WPI record book.  Hall’s name can be found in virtually every major category.  “The accomplishments that I am most proud of while wrestling at WPI are having my name at the top of the team point records and the fact that there were a number of matches where I had to win for the team to win and I came through,” says Hall.

In addition to these honors, Hall graduated from WPI with the skills and knowledge in mechanical engineering to embark on a manufacturing career. From a position at Motorola, Hall entered the field of electronics manufacturing. His work to automate certain aspects of electronics manufacturing has been so successful that he is now able to return to athletics. In addition to coaching the WPI wrestling team, Hall heads a consulting firm that runs youth lacrosse clinics and camps.

“The word ‘team’ has gone in and out of vogue in business,” Hall says. “But people don’t necessarily understand what a team is and how to work together. On the wrestling team, it was an atmosphere where everyone helped each other.”

In addition to teamwork, Hall’s wrestling experience instilled in him a willingness to try new things, which has followed him throughout life. During his career, Hall has worked in sales, marketing, and corporate management, all of which contributed to his success. Wrestling also gave Hall “the drive to succeed.”

“I left WPI with the ability not to be outworked by anyone.”

He won’t be outworked as wrestling head coach, either. Hall is eager to give back to the sport and university that have been so instrumental in his life.

“The wins and losses, let’s hope all that happens,” says Hall. More important to him is rekindling the team and family experience he and others enjoyed.

Lifelong lessons

For Tony Masullo ’80, wrestling is “integrated into the fabric of my experience at WPI.” Masullo, who holds the fourth winningest record in WPI wrestling, quit football in high school to dedicate himself to wrestling. He dropped a weight class and by his senior year, broke into the starting line up, took the Rhode Island state championship, and ranked fourth in New England.

“That was a defining moment in my life,” he says. “I learned how, through focus and commitment, you can achieve a goal.”

A self-described “late bloomer” in wrestling, Masullo was overlooked by most college recruiters—but not by Grebinar.  He was recruited by Columbia University at the last minute, but chose WPI for its academic program and the balance between athletics and academics that Division III schools provide. That decision, he says, set the stage for “a glowing experience.”

Masullo started for WPI as a freshman and was part of the team that brought Grebinar his first winning season. He was a four-year starter and team captain for three years. Yet, Masullo never felt pressured to put the sport before his studies.

In his senior year, Masullo recalls taking on the Coast Guard Academy and beating them for the first time in school history—a victory made all the sweeter by his brother, Andy Masullo ’82, opening with an upset pin. He also fondly remembers WPI hosting the New England Championships in 1980—the crowd erupting when he and Dave Wilson ’80 registered simultaneous pins, and erupting again when it was announced that the U.S. Olympic hockey team had defeated the unbeatable Soviets.

Importantly, Masullo credits his wrestling experience, coupled with the skills and knowledge gained through his WPI education, with his professional success in the pharmaceutical industry.

“Athletics can teach you lifelong lessons about the benefits of focus, commitment, and teamwork,” he says. “Applying the same commitment and focus to my career has paid dividends.”

A chemical engineering major, Masullo joined Pfizer after graduating and has remained with the company ever since. He currently serves as Pfizer’s director of enterprise resource planning and Americas deployment manufacturing planning lead. He values not only the education he received in applied science for manufacturing, but also the lessons he learned in problem solving, team work, leadership, and interpersonal skills. These he learned both in the classroom and lab, and in Alumni Gym.

“WPI definitely prepared me for the work I was interested in,” he says.

‘A great life experience’

 “The education and training I received at WPI is second to none,” agrees Rich Testa ’84, a one-time participant at the NCAA Wrestling National Championships. He earned a spot after winning the New England championship as a junior in 1983. He placed second in his senior year and sixth in his sophomore year in the New England championships despite suffering a severe ankle sprain in his first match of the tournament.

Testa credits Grebinar, and his high school wrestling coach, for creating not just a great athletic experience, but “a great life experience.” He remembers teammates who would never be starters, but who stayed with the team because they wanted to share that experience. Testa admits that he never thought he was going to be one of the best wrestlers for WPI. In 2006, he was recognized for his outstanding performance with induction into WPI’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

In addition to a record of achievement, Testa learned about determination and gained a certain mind-set from his wrestling experience.

“I’m usually the guy who says ‘why not?’ And if it’s something I really want to do, it doesn’t matter if someone says I won’t be successful at it.”

Testa came to WPI to become a structural engineer. After earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, he went on to earn as master’s degree in structural engineering from MIT. He was a structural engineer for 14 years and then decided to pursue a career in finance. Testa earned an MBA from Babson College and was a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch for six years. He currently works for an independent broker.

He remembers his wrestling days at WPI fondly—how, during home meets, the bleachers in Alumni Gym were “brimming with people” and the track above was two or three deep, how the fraternities would turn out to support their brothers on the team. And Testa remembers the person behind it all.

“I look at all the other coaches that I’ve seen at other programs, and I’m astounded that I was so lucky to have Phil as my college coach,” he says. Like many other wrestling alumni, Testa and his family remain part of the Grebinar extended family. “It’s those things that make a person. More than a coach, it’s about what kind of person Phil is.”

Aiming high

Early on in his athletic career, Brian Chu ’92 determined that he was “too short to become an all-star center in basketball.” So, he joined his high school wrestling team in his sophomore year at the urging of a friend. Despite his lack of experience, Chu made the varsity team and placed at the state championships as a senior. A teammate gave him a WPI wrestling brochure, and that’s how Chu met Grebinar.

“I didn’t think I’d make the team, to be honest,” Chu says. But under Grebinar’s guidance, Chu achieved beyond his own expectations. He remembers Grebinar telling him as a freshman that he could be star wrestler—a prediction that came true. Chu finished his career as a one-time All-American and three-time place-winner at the New England Championships. He placed fourth in the nation at the 142-pound weight class in his senior year. In WPI's long distinguished wrestling history, there are only eight All-Americans—Chu and his brother George ’95 are one-fourth of that roster.

Among his favorite memories, Chu describes competing at the national championships in his senior year and having 30 or 40 WPI fans attend to cheer on him and one other WPI wrestler.

Like Testa, Chu credits his wrestling career with teaching important skills and lessons about being competitive, building confidence, setting goals, leadership, and aiming high. He took those lessons and forged a successful career through an unconventional path.  After graduating from WPI, Chu focused on IT project management and performing in a rock band. An accomplished musician, Chu not only performed but also took on much of the band’s business management. This experience awakened an interest in business leadership, prompting Chu to pursue an MBA.

Remembering what he learned from wrestling about aiming high, Chu only applied to Harvard and MIT for graduate school and eventually earned his MBA at MIT. He has since developed an impressive career in capital management that includes stints at Harvard Pilgrim, Bain & Company, Sam Adams, and now Bain Capital, where he manages more than $70 billion in assets.

Along with important life lessons, Chu also values the friendship and camaraderie inherent in wrestling.

“There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into wrestling,” says Chu, noting the physical demands of making weight while building strength. Strong common bonds were forged through “pulling together, helping each other, and looking for help when you needed it,” he adds. Those bonds have developed into life-long friendships for Chu that cut across generations of WPI alumni.

Chu is pleased to be part of the momentum building among wrestling alumni to engage in and support the current program. However, he emphasizes the importance of focusing on today’s team.

“The program had a long heyday, and it was a wonderful experience,” Chu says. “But we really want this to be the program for the current students.”

The wrestling family re-energized

Garrett Trombi ’95 shares that sentiment. “Being part of a team that was so well run and so well supported was very fortunate for me,” Trombi says. “We want the same for the students coming up.”

As the assistant wrestling coach at WPI for the last two years, Trombi sees much of himself and his teammates in the current wrestlers. They wrestle in the same room, he says, and struggle with the discipline it takes to make weight and succeed on the mat.

“These guys are going through the same things we went through.”

Trombi hopes that with greater alumni involvement, today’s wrestlers will also benefit from the support, camaraderie, and success that he and his teammates experienced.

Although hampered by injuries, Trombi played a key role in that success, making his mark on the WPI record book, particularly in the takedown category. Three times he cracked the top five in single-season takedowns, including the second most (71) during his junior season. His career total of 215 takedowns are an eye-popping 60 more than the next highest mark in program history. He ended his career with an impressive 41-9-1 record with six wins by pin. In the history of WPI wrestling, 30 athletes have won a total of 37 New England championships. Trombi is the only one to claim the Tournament Most Outstanding Wrestler award.

“The influence on my life is pervasive,” Trombi says of his WPI wrestling days.

Like so many of his teammates, Trombi parlayed the discipline and dedication of wrestling at the championship level into professional success. With a degree in civil engineering from WPI, he went on to work for the largest heavy highway general contractor in the country on major projects—including Boston’s Big Dig—in five different cities over 11 years. He currently works in sales for a rebar fabricator, a position that also gave him the opportunity to be part of the WPI wrestling coaching staff.

Trombi is eager to involve more alumni in the wrestling program and create the same family atmosphere he enjoyed.

“We want to bring alumni back to things they loved about the wrestling program and duplicate that for the students here now.”

The Grebinar Wrestling Endowment Program

This new fund, named for former wrestling Head Coach Phil Grebinar, was launched at a special celebration on Oct. 2, during Homecoming Weekend 2010. The fund will support the annual operating expenses for the wrestling team, important renovations to the wrestling practice room, and other wrestling program priorities. A committee of alumni representing wrestling teams from the last 30 years is reaching out to fellow team members, team managers, and other wrestling family members with the aim of achieving 100 percent participation in the fund.

If you are interested in contributing to the Grebinar Wrestling Endowment Program, please contact Donna Stock, director of development, at +1-508-831-6073 or dstock@wpi.edu.

May 2, 2011