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@example.com 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.)
DUNDEE – How do you replace a legendary coach?
For the Dundee Vikings wrestling program, it takes two.
Nate Hall and Garrett Stevens opened practice last week as the new co-coaches of the ultra-successful Dundee wrestling program, taking the reins from Tim Roberts, one of the winningest coaches in state wrestling history.
“From day one, we’ve done a really good job of pushing each other and staying focused,” Stevens said. “The kids have been getting after it. Things are going well.”
Dundee’s wrestling program is a rich one. Roberts stepped down with a state-record 10 MHSAA Finals titles over his 23 seasons as head coach. In all 23 of those years, Dundee won District championships, and in 22 of those 23 years the Vikings won Regional titles. Roberts not only accumulated 10 Finals championship trophies, but he also won more than 500 dual matches.
Hall and Stevens have coached together for several years on the Dundee staff. Now they are dividing up duties and looking to start the next era of Vikings wrestling.
“We know what we are up against,” Hall said. “We have a strong tradition to keep on. We understand two people going at it is probably the better route.”
The move is not without precedent. In the conference that Dundee competes in – the Lenawee County Athletic Association – Clinton had co-coaches lead the Redwolves to the Division 4 championship two seasons ago. Division 3 powerhouse Richmond has utilized co-coaches in the sport as well.
“We sort of applied together,” Stevens said. “We thought we could do this.”
Dundee Athletic Director Ross Crow said he was hesitant at first to consider the co-coach idea, but after meeting with both realized it could work.
span>“After sitting down with them and having a lengthy discussion, I realized they have an extremely organized and articulated plan as to how they are carrying the torch moving forward,” Crow said. “Whenever I have a question, I either text or e-mail both of them on a group thread. They both chime in and more often than not, the answer is exactly the same for both of them. It's a really good fit, as they are close friends and have no egos.”
Stevens is a 2007 Dundee graduate. He wrestled for Roberts. His dad was a Dundee wrestler as well, graduating in the 1970s. Stevens brings his connection to the Dundee wrestling community to the table as well as years of coaching experience.
Hall is from nearby Blissfield, where he was an all-state wrestler. He wrestled for Grand Valley State’s club program and was a coach there as well. He returned to southeast Michigan to coach with his father – Adrian Madison head coach Scott Hall – and joined the Dundee staff when he became a physical education teacher at the middle school about five years ago.
As co-head coach, Nate Hall handles a lot of the organizational duties, especially anything involving the school district, since he works there. Stevens brings a technical side of the sport with him.
The duo believe they can make it work because of the chemistry between them.
“I was always more of a technical wrestler,” Stevens said. “I think Tim (Roberts) felt I could help connect with the kids and teach them how to do a few things differently.
“After I graduated from high school, I got away from wrestling for a while, but in 2011, Tim reached out to me and asked if I wanted to get back involved and it seemed like a no-brainer. I missed it. I liked being around him and there were some things I could bring to the table. I was chomping at the bit once the opportunity opened for me.”
Stevens said Roberts was wonderful to learn from because he was such a great person and sought out input from his staff.
“Tim’s approach to coaching was unique,” Stevens said. “He’s very open-minded and understands there is so much more to learn. You constantly want your kids and program to grow. Every year I coached with him, he changed something every year. He was constantly modifying, tweaking, and seeking out help and advice from others.”
Hall likes how things have started.
“It’s going very well so far,” Hall said. “Tim didn’t leave the well dry. He’s got an established program and an established wrestling community that has been supportive of both Garrett and I so far.
“We’ve got a tremendous senior class – three state champions and another kid that was third in the state last year. Their leadership is really going to be a huge aspect of our success this year.”
The Vikings also have 14 freshmen.
“We’ve hit the ground running,” Hall said. “We provide a lot of opportunities in the offseason for kids to get into the wrestling room and stay active. Most of our guys are active throughout. The freshmen are a real promising group that we can keep the ball rolling,” Hall said.
The veterans in the wrestling room include Kaden Chinavare, a Central Michigan University signee who won an Individual Finals title as a sophomore; Aiden Davis, a two-time Finals champ headed to Bucknell; and Braeden Davis, a Penn State University recruit looking for a fourth consecutive Finals title in 2023.
“The biggest thing with this group, I would say, is their willingness to push each other in the right manner,” Hall said. “We’ve got a lot of successful individuals, and they are already going out of their way to make sure each person around them is getting the most out of their reps they can get.
“The team chemistry is already a big part of it.”
Both coaches admit there is pressure to maintain a program that is not just known at the state level, but nationally.
“If you’re not feeling that pressure, maybe you’re not taking it as seriously as it needs to be taken,” Hall said. “We are here to help kids accomplish their goals, and pressure is a part of that – especially at the elite level a lot of our wrestlers want to compete at.”
Despite the turnover in coaching, Dundee’s goals remain high.
Dundee opens with the Grappler Gold, will go to Davison, then compete at a big invitational in Ohio. They Vikings will compete at Detroit Catholic Central and the Hudson Super 16 in late January.
“We always want to aim high,” Stevens said.
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 DougDonnelly@hotmail.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Nate Hall, left, and Garrett Stevens walk together during the opening march at an MHSAA Team Finals; retired coach Tim Roberts is behind them, waving. (Middle) Stevens, top, and Hall stand with their retired coach and mentor at various events. (Below) Stevens and son Brady, and Hall and daughter Kimberly, celebrate the 2020 championship. (Top and below photos by Kathy Killion.)