To the wrestling world, Bill Conrad was a legendary coach and mentor, a crafter of championship teams and shaper of championship wrestlers.
A hall of famer twice over, Conrad’s teams won three state titles at Kennewick High and finished second twice more. Twenty-three different wrestlers won state titles during his 29 years as head coach of the Lions before he retired in 1991.
If anyone can be said to be the patriarch of wrestling in the Tri-Cities, it is Bill Conrad.
But in the days after his death Monday following a recent stroke, Conrad’s family reminisced about the man away from the mat.
“He was a math teacher,” said Dolores, his wife and high school sweetheart from when they both graduated from Kennewick in 1951. “He was so good, when his kids went to school at WSU, the college wrote him a letter saying his were the best prepared math students they received.”
Math teacher, department chair for physical education, coach of every sport from wrestling and football to bowling, tennis and swimming — Conrad made a lasting impression on kids during his 79 years, something his family is reminded of regularly.
“He’s one of my heroes for sure,” said Frank Johnson, one of those 23 state champions who went on to win an NAIA national title in college and is the head coach at Forest Grove High in Oregon. “I can’t even measure the difference he made in my life.”
Conrad’s son, Kurt, who lives in California with wife Lisa Ann, said just last week a former student from Warden, where Conrad got his start, stopped by the family’s house to ask about his former teacher ... from more than 50 years ago.
“We bought my mom a recliner,” Kurt said, “and the woman who sold the recliner, her husband was a wrestler.”
After retiring in 1991, Conrad still could be found in the wrestling room as an assistant coach at Kennewick and Southridge. He finally stopped about a year ago.
“He loved what he did,” said Dave Brown, the former Southridge coach who wrestled for Kennewick from 1977-80. “He told me a lot here in the later years, how much he liked just being around the kids and being able to coach. I wouldn’t even be able to guess how many hours he put in. He would meet up any time, any where kids wanted to.”
The stories are legion — picking up kids for practice, piecing together a weight room, opening the gym on Thanksgiving and Christmas, loading up the motor home with half a dozen wrestlers and heading back to Iowa for a freestyle tournament.
The family spent many summer vacations at wrestling camps, when they weren’t camping for real, Kurt and sister Lisa Marie, who lives in Vancouver, roughing it in a tent.
The man who loved lemon meringue pie and diet A&W root beer also loved hobbies, which generally occupied five-year stretches before he moved on to the next one. Stamp collecting became wine making — his dandelion lion was an international hit — and genealogy became gardening.
And through it all was wrestling.
“He basically was out for wrestling, to help everyone,” said Gary Hackney, a fellow member of the Washington State Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame whose Pasco teams generally got the short end of the stick against Conrad’s Lions.
“For two years I was an assistant for him, and after I got the job at Pasco, he continued to mentor me. ‘The stronger Pasco is, the better it makes us at Kennewick.’ He wanted what was best for wrestling.”
It is remarkable that Conrad knew nothing of the sport when, while he was teaching at Warden in the late ’50s, he was asked to start a wrestling program. Used mattresses served as mats in the early days.
“My dad never wrestled,” Kurt said, “so the first thing he did was what he always did. ‘OK, go get some books.’ Go get some books and figure out what’s wrestling.”
Books and visits to the Moses Lake wrestling room provided the knowledge base, but it didn’t take Conrad long to find his own style revolving around discipline and meticulous attention to detail.
He started filming every match early on — commonplace now, but a breakthrough then. He took notes during each match and handed them to his kids to look over.
“He would stay up late at night, and I would hear that cut, cut, cut,” Dolores remembered. “He was using my sewing scissors to cut the film.”
Conrad was strict — cussing, smoking and rude behavior were given zero tolerance — and his philosophy in practice was do it again and again and again.
“He just believed in a few moves,” Brown said, “and you learned ’em good.”
Kennewick’s program was a powerhouse in the ’60s and early ’70s, winning back-to-back titles in 1970 and ’71. The program suffered for a bit when Kamiakin opened, but Conrad kept building, and the Lions won their third state title in 1982.
“He was the kind of coach where if a kid faked an injury to get a rest, get some ice, Mr. Conrad would pull them out of the match or kick them back out there,” Johnson said. “He was fair minded.”
Johnson recalled a match where a Kennewick wrestler was illegally slammed — unintentionally — and couldn’t continue. By rule, he should have won. But even with a berth to state in the balance, Conrad wouldn’t accept the win since his wrestler was behind at the time. Instead, they started the match again and he threw in the towel.
Johnson also recalled Conrad’s deceptive athletic ability.
“He had a build like Santa Claus, but the guy could beat anybody at horse, at pig,” Johnson said. “He could beat any two of us in tennis. And Ping-Pong, oh my gosh nobody could even touch him.”
He was a student of human behavior, and had a knack for knowing which buttons to push.
“He made a difference in a lot of people’s lives,” Johnson said.
The family is planning a service at the First United Methodist Church in Kennewick for the afternoon of Saturday, May 11.