Bruce Bittenbender’s impact on the sport of wrestling in Michigan is immeasurable.
And the fact that he’ll no longer occupy a chair next to the mats at Stevensville Lakeshore High School is almost unfathomable after a legendary 52-year career there.
His list of accomplishments over that span is staggering, though the incalculable number of lives he touched — a realization that came from the outpouring of messages from his former student-athletes following his retirement announcement in late March — is what Bittenbender believes is the most important part of his legacy.
“It is absolutely heartwarming,” Bittenbender said at his retirement press conference April 1. “In many cases (some students) are on the edge. I had a guy say to me yesterday, ‘Coach, I didn’t have a father. I want to thank you.’
“How many state titles is that worth? There is a lot of that I appreciate.”
What can be quantified are the competition results during his tenure.
Bittenbender leaves with a dual meet record of 981-270-2 — the most victories in state history and the second most in the country. The program claimed 28 District titles, 13 Regional championships and 33 conference titles. The Lancers were undefeated in duals four times (1976, 1978, 1984 and 1986) and finished as MHSAA Finals runners-up twice (1986 and 1994).
“There are no shortcuts to being successful,” Lakeshore athletic director Greg Younger said. “Coach is always here. He’s probably here more than most teachers (although he retired in 2010). He is in the building early and often. He’s scrubbing the mats. I know it doesn’t magically happen. He’s always here preparing for a match and doing something here, talking to kids in the halls and building those relationships.
“He’s been a testament to hard work and what it takes to really have a goal all the time. When he steps into the wrestling room he’s always prepared, he’s always planning for tomorrow and he’s always planned for what’s coming up next. Nothing has ever surprised him.”
There were a total of 26 Individual Finals champions and 116 state placers under his watch, with Micah Hanau (also a winner in 2020), Zamuel Thompson and Aaron Lucio the most recent to have stood atop the podium and celebrate championships with Bittenbender last month at Ford Field.
Shane Williams (2020), Riley Bettich (2018), Tyler Humes (2010), Tyler Daniel (2009), Ryan Huebner (2002), John King (1992), Scott Mabrey (1992), Mark McKie (1992, 1991), Jason Cluff (1988, 1987, 1986), Dave Strejc (1988), Matt Cluff (1987, 1986, 1985), John Spear (1986), Gary Smith (1981, 1980) John Murphy (1979), Doug Smith (1978), and Rick McGrath (1974) all were guided to the state’s top individual level by Bittenbender.
For his accomplishments, Bittenbender was named Regional Coach of the Year 11 times, Michigan Wrestling Coach of the Year by the Coaches Association (2002) and National Coach of the Year twice, by the National Federation of State High School Associations (2002) and National High School Athletic Coaches Association (2010). His rightful spot in the Michigan Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame was claimed in 2010, and he was inducted into the National Coaches Association Hall of Fame the following year. In 2012, his home state honored Bittenbender with an induction into the Pennsylvania Wrestling Hall of Fame, and Milligan University (Tenn.), where he wrestled four years, did the same in 2019.
“We went through three years of pulling teeth and hard work,” said Bittenbender, who took over at struggling Lakeshore in 1970. “Finally, we hit pay dirt. We got a kid to be state champion (in 1974), Ricky McGrath. This guy opened it up. After that, kids wanted to be Lakeshore wrestlers.”
But there were thousands of others that also laid bricks over the years to help build the program up to where it is today.
“There were a lot of kids that weren’t state champions here; there were a lot of kids that weren’t District champions or Regional champions or even conference champions,” Bittenbender said. “But they were here everyday, they were working everyday, they were part of this program and you’ve got to give those kids credit.”
Ryan Quinn takes over the program after serving as assistant coach.
“I’m incredibly blessed, grateful and humbled to be part of this school, to be taking over the reins of such a successful wrestling program,” Quinn said. “It is truly an honor to succeed Coach Bittenbender. He has made such a lasting impression on my life in such a short period of time. I know with confidence he has made lasting impacts on all who are involved in his as well. His fingerprints will forever remain on this school district and wrestling program.”
Bittenbender thanked his family, all the parents, volunteers and sponsors that supported the program over the last 52 years.
“It was a great place to live; it was a great place to coach. I’m lucky. It is a great community, my kids got a great education here, and it has been great to see kids go on to be good fathers and go to work every day,” he said.
“I want to thank my family over the years. If you’re going to be a wrestling coach’s wife, you’ve got to be something special. We’re going to spend a lot more time together.”
When Bittenbender was named 2010 National Coach of the Year, Nebraska’s Tom Osborne was the keynote speaker. Bittenbender recalled him saying: ‘If you want to know if you’re a good man, write down the 10 things you want the guy to say in your obituary. If he says eight of them, you’re a good man.”
“I hope I’m a good man,” Bittenbender said.
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Retiring Stevensville Lakeshore wrestling coach Bruce Bittenbender, right, embraces Zamuel Thompson after Thompson’s Individual Finals championship win last month at Ford Field. (Middle) Lakeshore’s Matt Cluff lifts Eaton Rapids’ Scott Bolin during their 1986 Class B championship match. (Top photo by HighSchoolSportsScene.com, middle photo courtesy of the St. Joseph Herald-Palladium.)
ROCKFORD – Ben Bennett knew from an early age what he wanted his career path to be.
“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.
“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.)