Roberts Drives Dundee to Chase Dream

January 8, 2019

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

DUNDEE – The thing that keeps Dundee wrestling coach Tim Roberts motivated isn’t another dual meet victory, matching up with state powerhouse Hudson in a conference meet or hanging another banner inside the Vikings’ gymnasium.

Those things are nice, but what keeps Roberts going in his 20th season as the Dundee head coach is a certain two-time MHSAA Finals-qualifying wrestler from the mid-1980s who won 120 matches for Dundee but ultimately fell short of his goals.

That wrestler was Roberts.

“I’m always trying to prove myself, and I’m always trying to get better,” Roberts said. “When I think of myself as that kid who didn’t place at state, I do much better because I keep that hunger and desire. I need to learn more. I’ve got to get better at this.”

Roberts is already pretty good at what he does – a hall of famer, says Hudson coach Scott Marry, a seven-time MHSAA championship-winning coach himself.

“Coach Roberts is one of the best coaches I’ve ever coached against,” Marry said. “He gets his kids ready mentally and physically. You better have your team ready if you’re going to wrestle Dundee.”

Earlier this season, Roberts reached a career milestone – 500 career wins. He’s led Dundee to six Finals titles and six runner-up finishes, 19 District and 18 Regional titles. He’s coached 32 Individual Finals championship wrestlers and more than 140 all-staters. Under his leadership, Dundee also is approaching 20 Lenawee County Athletic Association titles.

The numbers don’t tell the full story about Roberts, however.

“I could write a book about Tim and how great a coach he is,” said Dundee athletic director Tom Oestrike. “His coaching profile speaks for itself, but what is even more impressive are the type of young men he has helped build in his career – men of selflessness, character and discipline.”

When Roberts wrestled at Dundee, he was a 98-pound freshman who grew to compete in the 126-pound weight class as a senior.

“We were a solid program at the time, (but) winning state was an impossible dream back then for sure,” Roberts said.

“I wasn’t bad at wrestling. I was pretty good. Compared to the guys we have now – I wasn’t as good as them. I thought I was pretty good, but I didn’t accomplish the goals that I wanted to.”

After high school, he enlisted in the Army. It was during that time that he got the coaching bug. He realized he wanted to help young student athletes learn how to get the most out of their careers.

“When I was in the military, I learned a lot about building myself into something and I wanted to share that information,” he said. “I thought about wrestling a lot and how I really didn’t accomplish the goals that I would have liked to, and I wanted to help other people. I had this desire to try to help. I felt like I had a knack for it.”

After his first year as an assistant coach, Dundee changed wrestling head coaches and Jim Wittibslager got the job. Roberts asked him if he could stay on as an assistant.

Wittibslager is a hall of fame coach in his own right. He compiled a record of 333-36-3 in two stints as the Dundee head coach. The Vikings won four straight MHSAA Finals titles during his tenure, from 1995-98.

“We went from a team 4-21 with zero state qualifiers, and by the fifth year we were state champs with 14 state qualifiers,” Roberts said. “It was quite a building process. It was lot of fun to go through and learn. Winning state went from an impossible dream to something that ‘Oh yeah, we could do this.’ We built ourselves into that level.”

Coaching with Wittibslager was a career-changer for Roberts.

“That was crucial in my development in how to coach,” he said. “I thought I had a knack for helping people and I had a little talent in that area, but I learned so much about what it takes, the work ethic and how to win and how to think like a winner.”

Admittedly, Roberts isn’t the same coach he was two decades ago. The sport has evolved significantly.

“I don’t coach now like I did 20 years ago, I’ll say that,” he said. “You grow with the times or you get left behind.”

What hasn’t changed during that time is Roberts’ attention to detail, his passion for coaching the right technique and getting his team ready for meets. Practices now include time in the weight room, warming up with some gymnastics moves such as back handstands, leaps and cartwheels; and, of course, technique.

“We still do conditioning,” he said. “We do quite a bit of that.”

Roberts believes one thing that sets wrestlers apart from each other is how far they can push themselves on the mat – when they reach the point where they feel they don’t have any more strength or ability, they find it.

“The only way you know if you can (push yourself) is by getting (to that point). That, as much as anything, will win you matches,” he said.

Maintaining that success has never been easy. Dundee typically has about 20 wrestlers out each year, a comparably low number to some other high-level programs. But that is where Roberts does his best work. Coaching at the high school level, he said, isn’t about coaching extraordinary athletes – it’s about coaching the average ones.

“It’s been an endless process for 20 years to keep trying to get better at this,” he said. “Average people are who you are coaching. That’s what coaching high school is, I think, learning how to work with the average person. Then, once in a while, you get to work with the exceptional person and that’s fun.”

Despite the enormous success during his 20 seasons at Dundee, Roberts has experienced the same highs and lows as any other coach.

“Lots of highs and lows,” he said. “Lots of times of feeling great, then you get humbled. Then you start feeling great again and then humbled again.”

Roberts coached Dundee to a Division 4 championship in 2001 and Division 3 titles in 2007, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2018. Last year’s team was ranked nationally and had 14 Individual Finals qualifiers.

“Every one of those (championships) is like the best day of my life,” Roberts said. “Every time. It’s such a great feeling in the end that it all came together, and everything did work, and you did get it all done. A lot of things have to go right. It’s not easy.”

Roberts, 50, isn’t planning on stepping away from coaching any time soon. He’s also not stopping to think about reaching 500 career wins any time soon. He’d rather think about that high school wrestler who missed out on winning a state championship – but has had a remarkable impact on so many others.

“That’s for when you are done (coaching),” he said. “Right now, I’m still trying to get better and trying to work on my weaknesses as a coach and always seeking out how I can be better at this. When you’re done is when you get to reflect.”

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: Dundee wrestling coach Tim Roberts and his team celebrate one of the many successful moments during his two decades leading the program. (Photo by David Schankin.)

After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

July 25, 2023

ROCKFORD – Ben Bennett knew from an early age what he wanted his career path to be.

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.“I always wanted to coach,” the former Rockford High School wrestling standout said. “I think I have wanted to coach since I was in middle school. I wanted to be a college wrestling coach.”

Bennett, 33, is currently living out his dreams of becoming a collegiate coach as a member of the Central Michigan University wrestling program.

Bennett, one of the most decorated wrestlers in CMU history, is in his 10th season on 32-year coach Tom Borrelli’s staff.

“I was getting ready to graduate, and a position opened up,” Bennett said. “I think Coach Borrelli knew that I really wanted to stay involved in wrestling and get into coaching. I was fortunate enough to slide into that position, and he had enough faith in me to let me stay here.”

Before getting the opportunity to coach, Bennett amassed eight years of unbridled success at the high school and collegiate levels.

He was a three-time Individual Finals champion at Rockford and helped lead the Rams to a Division 1 team championship as a junior.

“I had a really good high school experience, and I really enjoyed wrestling for our head coach at the time, Don Rinehart,” Bennett said. “He coached for a long time, and we always had some very competitive teams.

“In 2007, my junior year, we won the team state duals, but every year we were really competitive and had multiple individual state champions. Those were the type of teams I was able to wrestle on, which made it pretty exciting and pretty fun when you have those types of guys around you.”

After excelling through the junior ranks, Bennett made an immediate impact for the Rams and captured the Division 1 championship at 140 pounds as a freshman.

However, the following year, he took third at 152 after losing a semifinal match 2-1.

That defeat was humbling for Bennett but also showed him how to handle adversity.

“At the time, in my eyes, the world was ending,” Bennett said. “You look back and it probably was more of a positive. It's good to have those things happen to you, and you face some adversity.

“And I think that's more relatable to life rather than just when you win all the time. I did a lot of winning, but when things are really important, sometimes it's good to fail, for things not to go your way because it will probably happen for the rest of your life.

“You have to learn how to respond and come back from that and handle it the right way and just get back to work. At the time, I remember how devastated I was, but looking back it probably was a positive thing long term.”

Bennett wound up collecting two more Individual Finals titles, at 160 and 171 pounds, to end his high school career and then was named Mr. Wrestler, receiving the award given to the top senior wrestler by the state coaches association.

“I wasn't even thinking that I might get that,” he said. “There are so many great high school wrestlers that come out every year, and thinking about the guys I wrestled … to be singled out as the one chosen for that award was pretty special.”

After graduation, Bennett took his talents to Mount Pleasant. He could’ve gone anywhere to wrestle, but found the right fit at CMU.

“I knew I wanted to wrestle in college, and it was close to home, which I liked,” Bennett said. “I didn't feel like I had to go across the country to have an opportunity to accomplish my goals. I felt like I could stay here and do that.”

Bennett is the only four-time All-American in CMU history and one of three Chippewas to have earned four individual Mid-American Conference titles.

Bennett twice earned the Chick Sherwood Award as CMU’s most valuable wrestler and was named the MAC Wrestler of the Year in 2012. He also had earned the MAC Freshman of the Year Award in 2010.

Bennett ranks sixth in CMU history with 121 career victories, and his career win percentage of .834 is fourth all-time. In 2013, he finished 31-2 for a .939 win percentage, the second-best in program history. He also won a school-record 30 consecutive matches during that season and finished a personal-best fourth at the national tournament.

Bennett wrestles Clarkston’s Adam Lauzun for the Division 1 title at 171 pounds that season.“At the time I was disappointed with how my career went, because I was never a national champion,” Bennett said. “But I think looking back on it, I have a lot more appreciation for what I did.

“As a coach, I realize how hard it is to have success at the college level, and every year you see great wrestlers not make the podium. Sometimes I’m shocked when certain guys don’t place, and it makes me appreciate how hard it is to be a four-time All-American, let alone place one time or multiple times.”

The transition to the coaching side was a difficult process for Bennett, but he knew he wanted to mentor other wrestlers the way his former coaches did with him.

“You put so much into the sport and you realize how much time other people invested and how important it was for me to do well, and so I guess for me it was a hard transition to make,” Bennett said. “You’re so competitive and so focused on yourself, but then being able to help these guys improve, get better and hopefully accomplish their goals was something I was looking forward to doing.

“I had so many people help me do that, and then I was able to be in their shoes and give back to these guys.”

Coaching has kept him involved in a sport he loves.

“And I get to continue to learn and grow and develop in different areas, not just wrestling-wise,” he said. “I get to meet a lot of great people through wrestling and coaching. The guys who come through our program are pretty awesome people.

“I’m pretty fortunate, and I've really enjoyed the coaching side of it, being in the wrestling room with these guys. Getting them ready for a match and going over things after a match. There is a lot that goes into it, but I really enjoy it.”

The love of wrestling for Bennett began at 6 years old, when he was coached by his uncle Tom Bennett – a former Division III All-American – and dad Doug.

“My uncle did a ton for me wrestling-wise, and my dad was the conditioning and discipline-type guy,” Bennett said. “Together it was a good mix. For as long as I can remember, I was always in really good shape. I loved wrestling right away.”

Bennett admits that he probably missed out on a lot when he was younger because he was determined to be the best and his life revolved around wrestling and training.

“It can be a tough way to live, but at the time that's what I wanted to do so that's what I did,” Bennett said. “When I was little my dad always told me that I'm not going to take you across the country to these tournaments if we are not training to win the tournament, not going to fill out the brackets, so my whole life the goal was always to be a champion.

“Going into high school my goal was to be a four-time state champion. I wanted to win the senior nationals, the junior nationals, and I won all those things. Going into college, in my mind, the next step was to be a national champion, and I don't think you realize how hard it really is, and I don't think I realized how hard it was to be an All-American.”

Bennett was promoted to CMU associate head coach last June after spending nine seasons as an assistant. He said the biggest difference with his new position is on the administrative side.

“I do a lot of scheduling and budgeting, things I didn’t do as much before in my years as an assistant coach,” he said. “I’ve taken the reins on some of these things, and it’s good for me to learn.”

Bennett is content with his current role at CMU and continuing to evolve as a coach under Borrelli. However, he hopes to one day take that next step as the head coach of a collegiate program.

“That’s my ultimate goal with coaching,” he said. “When that will happen, I don’t know. I guess I’m not in a hurry. When it happens, it will happen. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can right now.

“Coach Borrelli is an unbelievable coach, leader, mentor and role model, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him and soak up as much as I can from him until I get an opportunity somewhere to be a head coach. Right now I'm happy with where I'm at, and when that time comes, it will come.”

Bennett, 33, is engaged to former Chippewas field hockey player Erica Garwood. The couple has been dating for seven years and will get married next month.

“We’re excited, and I’m sure life will really change when we start having kids,” Bennett said. “But it’s good right now. We both went to school here, and she has a good job at an elementary school in town. We enjoy it up here.”

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PHOTOS (Top) Rockford’s Ben Bennett stands atop the podium at the 2008 Individual Finals, and now with fiancé Erica Garwood. (Middle) Bennett wrestles Clarkston’s Adam Lauzun for the Division 1 title at 171 pounds that season. (Current photo courtesy of Ben Bennett; 2008 photos from MHSAA Archives.)