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Ray Nunamaker Will Be Missed As Much For His Class As His Coaching

May 09, 1997 by TED MEIXELL, The Morning Call

To my way of thinking, the ultimate compliment to a high school coach is the statement, "I wish he had coached my kids."

Neither of my sons were wrestlers. Both left high school several years ago. And both do me proud every day.

Still, I wish Ray Nunamaker had coached Tod and Scott.

Saturday night, Ray Nunamaker retired as Nazareth's head wrestling coach after 34 sensational years on the Blue Eagles' bench.

Over that span, Nunamaker led Nazareth to an incredible 468-95-7 dual meet record and became Pennsylvania's second-winningest coach.

None of his 34 teams had a losing record -- a particularly heady accomplishment itself since, prior to his arrival in 1963, the Blue Eagles' 14-year-old program had exactly one winning season.

Under Nunamaker, Nazareth won 20 league championships -- 16 in the Colonial League, including 14 straight from 1981 through 1994, two in the Mountain Valley Conference and two in the old Lehigh Northampton League -- seven Colonial League Tournament crowns and five District 11 team championships (1968, 1990, 1991, 1996, 1997).

Amazingly, Nunamaker had to wait 24 years for his first individual state champion -- Brad Silimperi in 1988. Since then, however, state finalists and champions have become commonplace. The Eagles now have nine. And, in 1992, Ray experienced the ultimate thrill of exhorting his son, Ryan, to a state title.

Two months ago, with rumors of his retirement already swirling, Nunamaker saw Andy Cote and Rob Rohn become his eighth and ninth state champs.

I consider it an honor and a privilege that, since I began walking The Morning Call's high school wrestling beat in 1978, I've been around to chronicle 312 of Nunamaker's 468 victories, 16 of his 20 league titles, four of his five District 11 crowns and all nine of his state champs -- as well as Nazareth's ascendency to statewide and national prominence in the 1990s.

To be sure, winning is important. And, as his record proves, Ray Nunamaker certainly can teach youngsters how to win. But that's not why I'd have liked him to have coached my sons --and to have played a part in shaping their lives.

Above all else, he's a gentleman. In the Lehigh Valley, classy head wrestling coaches abound. They're the rule, not the exception. But Nunamaker defines class. He exudes it. Most importantly, he teaches it.

In 19 years, I've never met a Blue Eagle wrestler who was sullen or unapproachable, or who failed to carry himself with class and dignity.

Oh, yes ... Ray was demanding. He demanded 100 percent effort from every kid, but not a percentage point more. He demanded excellence. He demanded champions. He demanded class.

And then, every day, he showed his kids exactly how to do -- and how to achieve -- all of that.

That's why I wish he'd coached my kids -- even if they never won a bout.

Will Nazareth miss Ray Nunamaker? Did UCLA miss John Wooden?

Will Ray's successor have a tough act to follow? Did Gene Bartow, when he replaced Wooden?

If Nazareth's powers that be ask Nunamaker for advice in their search for his successor, he will recommend Rex Lutz, his assistant the past two years.

"Rex did a great job for me," Nunamaker said Monday. "And he's certainly put in the work, as an assistant for 14 years (12 at Phillipsburg before coming to Nazareth)."

Lutz has indicated he'll apply. But believe this: applications will arrive by the truckload, and the list will read like a "Who's Who" of the sport.

The name of Dave Crowell, another true gentleman who's already worked wonders at both Wilson and Easton, has been bandied about since the recent tournament season began.

And, although he first said, "No one's approached me, and Ray hasn't even announced he's retiring," Crowell admitted to me, "it's certainly something I'd have to be interested in and look into."

Lutz? Crowell? Tom Hutchinson? Dan Gable?

No matter. Whoever takes over in Nazareth faces a tremendous paradox.

On the one hand, he'll inherit a powerful and healthy program.

Sure, the Blue Eagles face an inevitable backward step. No program in the world can simply shrug off the loss of 10 senior starters, including state champs Cote and Rohn, runner-up Chris Vitale, placewinner Jarret Hoff (third), qualifiers Jason Bucchi and Andy Faust, regional qualifiers Chuck Kimble and Marc Aber plus Darren Danner and Jamie Rice.

But the cupboard is hardly bare. The Eagles' junior varsity team lost only once, to P'burg, and won District 11's J.V. tourney. The freshman team was a powerhouse. So the program isn't about to fall apart.

On the other hand, evaluations of the new coach will begin the first time he toots a whistle. Only one yardstick will be used to make the measurements: Ray Nunamaker.

I can't imagine a more daunting challenge.