Cheshire resident Drew Black is well aware of the impact that the sport of wrestling has had on his life. Over his 23 seasons as head coach at Wesleyan University in Middletown, he has enjoyed attending the annual Connecticut Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dinner to listen to many of his colleagues share their similar stories of determination and perseverance.
“They always do a great job at the event,” stated Black. “I always thought that it would be good to one day get honored. When you’ve done something for a long time, it is always nice to be recognized for your hard work.”
While having to wait an extra year, he recently learned that he will get his moment in the sun. Among a group of seven men, Black was chosen to be inducted into Connecticut’s 2022 class of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
He received the good news in letter from Leroy Smith, the brother of Oklahoma State University Head Coach John Smith.
“They are a big family in wrestling,” stated Black. “It is an honor that they thought of me for this honor.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the induction event has been pushed back to April 30, 2022, in hopes of having a live ceremony at Foxwoods Resort Casino.
“During these COVID times, it has been good to reflect on the people who have helped me in wrestling. The sport has helped me further my education, meet my wife, and start a family and a career,” explained Black, who lives with his wife Jennifer, son Sean, and daughter Leah in Cheshire. “For the next year, I’m going to look back on my journey.”
After coaching at Phoenix College (Arizona) from 1995-98, Black came to Wesleyan and built the program into a title contender. Along with setting the school wins record (211), he has twice been named New England Wrestling Association Coach of the Year, in 2010 and 2012.
“I’ve coached so many great wrestlers. They are even better people,” said Black, who has been inducted into the NEWA Hall of Fame.
Before becoming a coach, Black developed a passion for wrestling. After his family moved from New York to New Jersey, he picked up the sport as a freshman at Mahwah High School.
“In the locker room, I saw the wrestling coach and told him that I was going out for the basketball team. He said that he didn’t know how good I was, but suggested I try wrestling instead,” said Black, who was only 4 feet 8 inches tall at the time. “I came to my first practice in high-top sneakers. When I switched to wrestling shoes, I fell in love with the sport.”
He enjoyed wrestling with his older brother Sean.
“He was blazing the trail for me,” stated Black.
Wrestling at 71 pounds, Black won all of his five matches as a freshman.
“I won 5-0 in my first match,” reflected Black. “I had to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to make weight and wrestle a guy weighing 108 pounds.”
Black also participated in football and track as an underclassman, but felt that he had the most potential as a wrestler and decided to focus on that sport for his last two years.
“I liked the physicality and being able to get in the middle of things,” explained Black. “I loved learning new techniques.”
After placing third in his district as a sophomore, he broke through in his junior year to take first place and then finish third in the state. To cap his career in 1987, Black went 33-0 and captured the state title by pinning his top rival, Frank DeMary, at 108 pounds.
“I was seeded number one in the state and he was number two,” said Black. “We were both undefeated coming into that match, so to come out on top was a great feeling.”
Black went on to become a three-year starter and co-captain at Syracuse University in New York. He helped the team win two conference crowns.
“Overall, it was a great experience wrestling and getting my education,” stated Black.
After graduation, he thought that he would pursue athletic training, but instead chose to go into teaching. Black went to the University of Florida for his certification and then moved to Ohio to earn his Master’s degree at Kent State University.
In becoming a student teacher at Stowe-Monroe Falls High School in Ohio, he coached the junior varsity wrestling team.
“I was paid $2,000 and, for a starving college student, that was a lot of money back then,” said Black.
After meeting his wife, the couple looked for a warmer climate and drove out to Arizona where they spotted Phoenix College. After learning that the school was looking for a wrestling coach, Black rushed out to send in a resume.
He was initially bummed when Phoenix contacted him to say that they had hired someone, but soon after, the school called back to say that the head-coaching position had opened up.
In his third and final year at Phoenix, Black coached his team to an 11-3 record.
“We had a diverse team with Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics,” reflected Black. “The guys had talent, but faced a lot of challenges from the areas they grew up in.”
After getting married, Black and his wife looked to move back east. In 1998, Drew accepted the position of wrestling head coach and associate professor of physical education at Wesleyan.
“I hadn’t heard of the school until applying for the job,” recalled Black.
Since Wesleyan wrestling been led by four coaches from 1990-98, he wanted to bring stability to the program. In his first season, Black recalls how the Cardinals started 2-0 and then lost their last 12 matches.
“From the start, I wanted to build up the team and keep getting better,” Black explained.
To keep track of the program’s progress and garner recognition, he started the Wesleyan Wrestling Hall of Fame. To start off, he chose to honor the 2001-02 team that went 17-2 and set the school’s single-season wins record.
“We had a special group that year,” recalled Black.
In one of his favorite moments, the Cardinals earned their second NEWA title in 2012. Hosting the tournament, Wesleyan won three of the last four bouts to clinch the crown.
“It came down to the 197-pound class. I remember when the tournament director announced that we were in first place, the gym went crazy,” recalled Black. “John Biddiscombe, who coached the first NEWA title team in 1984, assisted me on that squad, so he is in both championship pictures.”
In 2013, the Cardinals shined in the National Duals in Springfield, Illinois.
“We came in unseeded, but ended up placing sixth against Division II and III teams,” Black said.
Individually, Black has had wrestlers shine on the national level. In the 2017-18 season, Isaiah Bellamy led Division III in pins and Devon Carrillo finished third overall.
“With those guys, you felt that you had automatic victories every meet,” reflected Black.
A 2013 graduate, Howard Tobochnik earned the program record for career wins (119).
“Howard had a 3.9 grade point average. He taught math to inmates at the prison in Cheshire and served as the head RA (resident assistant) at Wesleyan,” said Black. “He was so coachable, too. Every drill, he would work to perfect his technique.”
Off the mat, Black takes pride in his wrestlers’ academic success. Wesleyan has earned Scholar All-American status for 20 years in a row.
“When I recruit, I look at the SAT and ACT scores and GPA before checking out a wrestler’s moves,” said Black. “Academics is always the number-one priority.”
Black enjoyed sharing his passion for wrestling with his son Sean. After starting to work with family friend Mark Fong at age 5, Sean was coached by his dad for three to five years in Middletown.
“I know the sport is hard, so I didn’t want to say that ‘You need to be a wrestler,’” reflected Black. “I wanted to show him wrestling and have him make up his own mind.”
When Sean was in eighth grade, the Black family moved to Cheshire. At Cheshire High School, Sean led as a wrestling and lacrosse captain, along with playing soccer.
After graduating in 2017, Sean has gone on to play a key role in Merrimack College (Massachusetts) men’s lacrosse winning their first two NCAA Division II titles.
For Black, the 2018 championship was one of his most memorable experiences. Not only did Merrimack take home the title in Foxborough, Massachusetts, but Wesleyan men’s lacrosse also earned their first national crown in any sport.
“It was so amazing. At the game, I had my Wesleyan jacket on top and my Merrimack coat underneath it,” recalled Black. “Wesleyan Coach John Raba is also from Cheshire and coached Sean in lacrosse growing up.”
In wrestling, Black still aims to bring a national title to Wesleyan. With the pandemic still ongoing, he doesn’t expect the Cardinals to wrestle this season, but the team continues to stay in shape. For a span of 10 weeks last year, the squad set up an outdoor weight room.
“The guys want to wrestle, but they understand the health situation right now,” said Black. “We want them to think that I’m going to make the best of the situation and be a leader.”