If you can’t beat them, join them.
When Bill Polk was a high school wrestler at Dearborn High School, he lost his last match – at the MHSAA Finals – to a wrestler from Westland John Glenn.
Now, 30 years later, Polk is racking up wins on behalf of John Glenn as the Rockets’ varsity wrestling coach. Earlier this season, Polk collected career victory No. 500 and sees no end in sight for his ultra-successful wrestling career.
“I still have the passion,” said Polk. “About 15 minutes after we lost in the Regionals, I was meeting with our assistants and talking about camps and jotting down our lineup for 2023-24.”
Polk has been a fixture at John Glenn since graduating from Olivet College and landing a teaching job with the Westland district. Wrestling played a role in that as well.
“The head coach that was leaving contacted me and asked if I would be willing to come in,” Polk said. “We got into a conversation about it, and I talked him into staying a little longer and helping me out. It was nice he stuck around for two years and gave me the reigns.”
His first season as head coach at John Glenn was 2000-01, when the team went a modest 9-6. The Rockets won 17 matches both of the next two winters and 27 in 2003-04.
“I thought I would be winning state titles in a couple of years,” Polk said. “I had no clue of the intricacies it took to do such a thing. It’s been a good journey.”
John Glenn has made five trips to the MHSAA Team Finals, reaching the final four once.
And, Polk added, “there have been about a dozen times where we were one match away.”
He’s done a masterful job of putting together a great foundation at John Glenn.
“It’s not easy. It took 10 years before we had our first final eight appearance. There’s a lot that goes into building a program – changing the culture, building a youth program, getting everything set in the summer. It took some time for all of that and to get buy-in.”
The sport has changed dramatically during his 25 years of coaching, from the year-round training to the tremendous impact that youth wrestling has had on the sport across the state.
“Wrestling has changed so much since then,” he said. “About 20 years ago, you took a few kids to camp and had some summer open mats. Now, the kids are coming into ninth grade ready to wrestle. It’s phenomenal. Our youth program has 90 kids involved. I couldn’t imagine that 20 years ago. What youth wrestling has grown into is absolutely crazy.”
Polk has always welcomed his former wrestlers back to contribute to the program, from youth to junior high to the varsity level. In fact, nearly all of the assistant coaches and youth coaches wrestled for him.
“The group I have now, for the most part, all wrestled for me, were super successful, are young guys and they know the system,” Polk said. “I’m there and part of it, but I’m more or less invisible now. They know what they are doing and are super passionate about it and do an outstanding job. I’m very fortunate with that.”
John Glenn won its 18th District title this year under Polk but lost 36-27 to Temperance Bedford in a Division 1 Regional Semifinal. The Rockets and Mules seem to run into each other every year, and there have been some great state tournament battles.
One of Polk’s signature dual meet wins was against the Mules.
“The first year we finally beat Bedford was huge,” Polk said. “That was a big one. That was the 2008-09 season. That was a statement that we made it and our team was known as a competitive team. The best part about that is we’ve been able to maintain that and stay near the top. We really haven’t had a lot of down years from there.”
At first, Polk’s 500th career win came and went without anyone noticing. He saw a local newspaper report about a coach that had won match No. 400, and his assistant coaches began asking how many wins he had. That was about 14 wins after No. 500, which came Dec. 14 against Dearborn Edsel Ford.
“I told those guys not to say anything and, of course, they made a big deal out of it,” he said. “It’s nice. It’s a good milestone to hit. I just didn’t want it to distract from the task at hand. I kind of feel like a small-town celebrity now. The community was pretty excited about it.”
His 2021-22 team won 32 matches, as did his 2009-10 team. This year’s squad went 29-6.
His record now stands at 522-145.
It’s fitting that he has won so many dual meets, because dual meets are one of his favorite parts about the sport. Twenty or so years ago, dual meets made up only a fraction of the season, but today they are a big part.
“It’s my favorite part – the research that goes into trying to bump guys around to win those big meets,” he said. “It’s a chess match. It’s part of what makes it fun.”
The atmosphere surrounding a big dual meet or quad, he said, can be electric.
“You can’t substitute that environment,” he said. “The team aspect is my favorite. Everyone is involved, from your all-staters to your first-year ninth graders. They can all be there and be part of it, not just four or five guys.”
Polk has coached six Individual Finals champions and nearly 90 placers as well.
As a college wrestler, Polk qualified for the nationals three times at Olivet and was team captain his senior season. It was sometime during his junior year that he realized he wanted to remain with the sport after college.
“I just started thinking I wanted to be involved,” he said. “I didn’t know it at the time or what, but coaching was something that started interesting me. I hadn’t been involved in the sport for very long at that time. I wasn’t a youth wrestler or anything. I’m still very passionate about it.”
Polk just turned 49. He has no plans to step away from coaching anytime soon.
“I love it. I’m fortunate to be in a good place surrounded with good people. I’m still having fun. I still really enjoy it,” he said. “I’m going to keep going. I don’t know if I will be one of those guys who are in it 40-50 years, but I’m going to go for a while.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTO Westland John Glenn coach Bill Polk holds up a banner honoring his 500th victory. (Photo courtesy of the Westland John Glenn athletic department.)