Eugene Hildebrandt, legendary wrestling coach at St. James High School for over three decades, will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association April 30 in Benson.
His award will be part of the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Hildebrandt was inducted into this HOF in 2003, and he knows almost all of this year’s eight inductees (Paul Cyr, Brad Pike, Lyle Freudenberg, Eric Sanders, Tom Keating, Paul Vaith, Al “Swede: Olson, and Joel Viss).
“That’s what happens when you get old, I guess; you know pretty much everybody,” he said. “It’s a really good group.”
He was eligible for the Lifetime Achievement Award because of his 30-plus years coaching wrestling. His longtime assistant and friend, Dwight Burman, got the same award in 2003.
Though Burman received his Lifetime Achievement alongside a stacked class of HOF inductees, he was the only one to receive a standing ovation, Hildebrandt said. Burman certainly had a speech prepared, “but he could barely get through it--it was overwhelming.”
“It was a very emotional day, it means a lot to be honored by your fellow coaches,” Burman said. “You put all that time into (coaching wrestling), you take ownership of it.”
Coaching wrestling for over three decades might seem like an opportunity for burnout, but Burman said there was never a dull moment with Hildebrandt. “We were always doing something.”
“We tried make practice fun, even though it’s often not fun, especially the conditioning--he made up a lot of games,” Burman said. Hildebrandt is “a legend, he’s known statewide, we had fun.”
Burman and Hildebrandt joined forced in 1981 and were in lockstep ever since, a regular Damon and Pythias. They were together on the Railroad Days committee for years, and spent numerous hunting and fishing trips together.
“We’d have a meet, and then we’d go out and hash over the meet,” Burman said. “We were always trying to get better.”
Hildebrandt was Minnesota Coach of the Year twice, and he coached state champion teams in 1989 and 1998. He also served as president of the MWCA.
The MWCA doesn’t bestow a Lifetime Achievement honor every year, because there’s a paucity of coaches who have coached wrestling 30-plus years, Hildebrandt said. He attributes his longevity to myriad factors.
One key is “surround yourself with good people.” In addition, “You also need a lot of give and take, and you need to realize you’re not always right.”
“Getting along with people” is also paramount, he added. “I always liked people.”
Burman said Hildebrandt was definitely “a people person” as well as a master “motivator.” He was “always guiding.”
Hildebrandt also had “tons of support at home, I never had an issue there,” he said. His family was understanding of the time he put into coaching.
It takes copious amounts of time and effort to be successful, he said. It takes “so much energy to do the job right, it becomes part of your life.”
Though he coached multiple sports for many years--he has 85 total seasons under his belt--wrestling was always Hildebrandt’s raison d etre. “I never was going to do something I didn’t like doing; one year just flowed into the next.”
He took it personally whenever any student quit wrestling, probably “too personally,” he said. His goal was always to “keep kids out for the sport” whenever possible, because as long as they’re in the program, they can absorb life lessons.
Hildebrandt “never gave up on anybody,” Burman said. “Kids are kids, and they make mistakes, but we always tried to keep them alive” in the sport.
Burman will certainly be on hand to see his friend receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. “He was always there for me for every award I’ve ever gotten.”
The wrestling audience is a discerning one, not easily fooled, Hildebrandt explained. “They know if you were doing it right all these years, and I always tried to do it right.”
Hildebrandt was actually a basketball player before he was a wrestler. As a high school freshman, however, he manhandled the school’s presumptive 95-pound wrestler, and the wrestling coach came in to basketball practice to recruit Hildebrandt.
The coach asked him whether he wanted to wait to be a junior or senior to play on the varsity basketball team, or wrestle varsity as a freshman, he said. It wasn’t a tough call.
He won his first four matches, easily dispatching opponents with his signature headlock move, but then he suffered a losing streak as opponents figured him out. He quickly realized he needed to adapt--and did so with aplomb.
“I definitely knew I wanted to coach wrestling,” Hildebrandt said. In college, he double-majored in physical education and special education while procuring coaching certificates in wrestling, football, and baseball.
Paul Krueger was the athletic director when Hildebrandt first arrived in St. James, and “I talked to him a lot.” “He never preached, he just gave ideas.”
In addition, the wrestling coach at that point was Roger Johnson, “a very good technician.” “I picked up a lot from him.”
As a coach, “you figure the sport out” pretty quickly when “you go to so many clinics, read so many books, and talk to so many coaches,” he said. It’s the psychology of dealing with wrestlers that is more daunting.
“You’ve got to get the kids to believe they’re better than they are, and that’s what I tried to do,” he said. When persuading a wrestler to cut weight or increase weight, he had to convince them it was the best thing for the team and for them as an individual.
And methods of cutting weight could be unattractive, he said. For example, “We had a sauna--that’s illegal now.”
In the late 1990s, there was a concerted push toward encouraging wrestlers to go up in weight through lifting, rather than slashing pounds, he said. And, if a wrestler was losing weight, the process grew much more humane and sensible, involving doctors, coaches, parents, and the wrestlers.
“I’m glad (those old ways are) done,” he said. “That’s the best thing that’s happened to the sport.”
Still, conditioning was always at the forefront of Hildebrandt’s wrestling practices. There was certainly “more doing than talking in practice.”
There was also lots of goal-setting, he said. “We always wanted to be at our best at the end of the season.”
The wrestling milieu is comprised of loyal individuals, he said. “I have friends for life, I still get invited to weddings of former wrestlers of mine.”
“It’s fun to look back; I sure got a lot out of it, I hope everyone got as much out of it as I did,” he concluded. “I wouldn’t go back and do it any other way.”
Ryan Anderson can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @randerson_ryan