Frank "Sprig" Gardner
While some cite Mepham High School's incredible records of the Gardner Era for his fame, many who knew the man realize his success was the result of his personal philosophy and coaching acumen. Sprig coached not wrestling but life. To each boy he imparted a concern for academic, athletic, and civic pride and responsibility. This genuine concern for each team member created a fantastic belief in him as a person and coach, and his system of teaching wrestling as being the best possible. The confidence this belief in him generated was overwhelming.
Sprig Gardner's success was built on innovation. His concepts of the "drill system" revolutionized the sport. But, more importantly, he brought to sports deeper, more lasting values for the individual. While winning was the goal, Sprig stressed humility in victory and quiet acceptance of defeat. These reactions became associated with his boys and they gave the highly competitive and emotional sport of wrestling a dignity that assured recognition to the vanquished as well as to the victorious.
Sprig Gardner spread high school wrestling to the state and to the nation. His efforts effected rules concerning weight classifications, match scoring procedures, and tournament procedures at local, state, and national levels. He opened his practice to boys from other schools and shared his coaching with them. He added a quality to wrestling that went far beyond the unparalleled statistics amassed by his winning teams.
Yet to leave out his record would be to ignore an incredible part of sports history. Having never wrestled and only coached briefly at East Hampton High School, Sprig organized his first Mepham team in 1936-37 in an abandoned elementary school turned into a high school. The ninth and tenth graders comprised a junior varsity that went on to defeat several varsity opponents and place third in the annual South Shore Tournament. The following year Mepham entered varsity ranks and as incredible as it may seem the Pirates would not know defeat in a meet or tournament until January 31, 1946 when Baldwin defeated Mepham 21-15 after an undefeated string of 100 meets and tournaments. Yet that was merely an interlude to greater success. For Mepham would not lose again until January 14, 1955 when Amityville ended the Pirates undefeated streak of 130 by one point.
The same Amityville team was the first to defeat the Pirates in tournament conditions after 18 consecutive years and 37 consecutive tournaments. During this unprecedented span Mepham won 18 consecutive South Shore titles and 17 Sectional Championships. In 1958, his last season as a wrestling coach, Coach Gardner's undefeated team (20-0) won 9 of 12 individual sectional titles, scoring 186 points, which totaled more than the combined score of the next ten schools.
Coach Gardner's overall record of 254-5-1, with 40 tournament titles, 1 co-title, and 3 seconds and his wrestlers have included 106 sectional champions in 22 years of coaching. None of these records have been remotely equaled. But probably the most enduring mark of the man and his records was that these great feats were accomplished against the best competition he could find in 5 states including New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia, and against teams representing city, county, and state all-stars.
The record fits the man - a man to whom wrestling was a part of life and a way to build strong values forged by dedication, hard work, sacrifice, and self-respect.
Author unknown, printed in the program for Sprig Gardner Day, January 17, 1987
While in grammar school I developed a love for basketball. I would practice dribbling the ball for hours in an empty school yard. When I was sure no one was looking, I practiced exotic shots mimicking the stars of the day. Upon entering Wellington C. Mepham High School in North Bellmore, Long Island, I decided to throw caution to the wind. I went out for the basketball team. The basketball coach was quite tolerant. He gave me three minutes to perform. My only shot hit the rim. After the missed shot, the basketball coach called me over. He looked me right in the eye and said, "wrestling is downstairs." Unfortunately, my love for basketball far exceeded my ability.
I felt rejected as only one in high school can feel rejected. I also felt like I was being ordered to go out for wrestling. I wasn't quite sure as to whether the words of wisdom were based upon my short, stocky build or pure lack of basketball coordination. I felt as if I was on a mission.
I had heard that the Wellington C. Mepham High School wrestling team was outstanding because of coach Frank D. Gardner - "sprig."
When wrestling became a varsity sport, Coach Gardner's teams ran up an undefeated streak of 100 matches. Life Magazine came out to cover the 101st and, sure enough, we lost to Baldwin High School and the Life Magazine jinx. Sans Life Magazine, the team went on to win 130 straight matches, before losing to Amityville High School. This had been the longest amateur team winning streak in sports. The streak included both the South Shore and the Long Island Wrestling Tournaments. The statistics are even more amazing than they apnear, because the record included annual matches with perennial Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington D.C. prep school champs.
Generally we wrestled two matches a weekend with two different teams. Every week there was a wrestle-off for first and second string. Anyone out for the sport could challenge.
The coach had been known to throw a national AAU champion off the team. Coach had a rule that you were responsible for your school work, and he would take care of your wrestling career.
The story was that the champion was having trouble with a certain course. He asked the coach for help. The coach reminded the athlete of his rule. The athlete responded that for two cents he would join the marines. The coach reached for the phone book and phone, took two cents out of his pocket, dialed the marine recruiter and advised him that the athlete was on his way to the recruiter's office.
Several years later, the coach had a national AAU champ on the high school team. Some universities have never had a national champion.
Coach Gardner never wrestled. He became interested in the sport while attending Franklin and Marshall because his roommate was a wrestler.
He drove a long green Hudson. He chewed tobacco and lived as a Quaker with his widowed mother.
Mepham wrestlers were of all creeds and colors. Coach Gardner did not discriminate.
He once laughed at me for getting pinned in forty-four seconds. I was known as "forty-four second sam" for too long a period of time. Tough love. He never closed the wrestling room to anyone. You were invited if you were in college or our next opponents. During the winter break the room was flooded with college wrestlers and frequently their coaches.
Mepham wrestlers did fit into a mold. We all had crew cuts and a funny way of walking. Sometimes after practice we would play basketball. We looked as funny as penguins playing baseball. Many of us had some state of cauliflower ear. I still show signs of this badge of courage in my right ear.
When facing a tough opponent, Coach Gardner would remind you that the opponent put one foot at a time in his pants just like you. He respected those who worked hard. If you indicated a preference for a college, he would work selflessly to help you.
The only instruction Coach Gardner gave us was to your conduct before a match. You were supposed to look your opponent right in the eye and to give a strong handshake.
He may be the only high school coach in the Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He is, for sure, the only high school wrestling coach in the Hall of Fame who never wrestled. He believed anyone could be a champion and he passed that belief on to us. God, how I miss him.
Sam Schoninger is an attorney practicing in Colorado Springs. He is the author of four books and nationally known as a speaker. He has appeared before a committee of the United States Senate and has been on the Larry King Show. He is active in civic affairs, is past president of Cheyenne Village, Inc. and currently serves on the Board for the Pioneer Museum. (Reprinted with permission from the October, 1992 issue of Steppin' Out Magazine.) Reprinted from Scuttlebutt, June 1993.
Whether in peace or in war, Frank (Sprig) Gardner's life has been one unending tale of loyal, unselfish devotion to a cause. For five years, as athletic director, he worked for the betterment of Mepham, building up an amazing record in wrestling, the story of which is legion.
Though this itself was a major contribution, it is not Gardner, the coach, but Gardner, the man, which should be emphasized. His sage counsel, his interest in the individual, and his annual pep talks made him a Mepham institution, a perfect personnel man.
But, then came Pearl Harbor. A man of strong convictions, Coach unhesitatingly gave up a secure, established position for a naval commission, less than six months after December 7. Again, he could have hidden in the obscurity of a V-5 instructor's job, but instead, true to his nature, he constantly applied for active duty, and finally got it on a carrier destined for the Pacific theatre.
Mepham, peacetime beneficiary of the Gardner talents, has bowed out in favor of Uncle Sam but anxiously looks forward to his return. In recognition of his services, the class of '44 hereby dedicates this "treasure chest" to the fighting lieutenant.
By far the headiest experience of the first semester of my freshman year in college (I didn't meet my wife until the second semester) was sitting next to--and actually conversing with--the legendary Frank "Sprig" Gardner, the first wrestling coach of Mepham high school and the "Father of New York State Wrestling." Our chance encounter occurred at Cornell University, where the 1960 high school state wrestling finals were underway, and a Calhoun wrestler, Tom Schlendorf, was competing in the unlimited weight class. (He won.) Coach Gardner and I had not met before--except when he would visit one of our phys ed classes, where he invariably, and smilingly, referred to all of us as pissmires (which I have subsequently learned is a Chaucerian term meaning diminutive persons or, more accurately, "piss pots.") I was not an athlete; in fact, when wrestling in gym class, I frequently found myself in very awkward positions allowing me to read the sign posted on the wrestling room ceiling: "If you can read this sign, you're in a helluva lot of trouble."
Sprig was indeed a legend; he not only sought to develop in each boy who came under his aegis academic prowess but also to instill in him a concern for civic pride and responsibility.
Coach Gardner stressed good sportsmanship, humility and the quiet acceptance of defeat. As Bob Phelps, a long-term phys. ed. teacher in the Merrick-Bellmore district said to me, "sportsmanship was everything to Sprig." Displaying his love of the sport of wrestling, the long-famous wrestling coach even opened his practices to boys from other schools and shared his coaching with them. He never raised his voice and commanded respect by example--his wrestlers came out of the the tunnel in weight order, sat down, stared unsmiling straight ahead and remained utterly silent throughout the competition.
Unlike today, there was no yelling by teammates urging a wrestler on or rendering advice or criticism. A space on the bench was left open between Sprig and his wrestlers, so that after a boy's match concluded, the coach would softly speak to him to offer comments on his performance.
Sprig's belief in the importance of discipline extended to conduct outside school grounds. He was known for patrolling Bill-Mar's and Gray's diners looking for any of his wrestlers who might be in violation of the 10 o'clock curfew he imposed for the night before a match. No matter how skilled a wrestler, if he was caught in flagrante delicto, he would not be permitted to compete the next day even it meant that his stand-in would lose the match (which happened highly infrequently.) Can you imagine how he would have responded were he to encounter one of his wrestlers wearing a tattoo?
There was of course an intimidation factor in the publicly displayed discipline as I, even though not yet in high school, understood when I saw the grave expression displayed by each Mepham wrestler, who was expected--and who himself expected-- to go out on the mat and pin or outpoint his opponent.
A graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, he joined the Mepham faculty in 1936, the school's second year. Sprig remained for 22 years, save three years as a Lieutenant Commander in the navy, serving in the South Pacific, and later left Mepham to become the wrestling coach at Gettysburg College.
Never having wrestled and having coached only briefly at Easthampton High School, he organized the first Mepham wrestling squad in the 1936-37 school year. His teams began to compete on the varsity level the following year and astoundingly went undefeated for 100 meets and tournaments. The team eventually lost to Baldwin on January 31, 1946, ending a winning streak lasting eight years. The Pirates did not lose again until January of 1955, a winning streak of 130 matches. His teams amassed overall a record of 254 wins, 5 losses and 1 tie, for an unbelievable winning percentage of 98.06%. And he did not restrict the team's schedule to Long Island schools: Gardner-coached teams wrestled against the best competition he could find in New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and the District of Columbia, perennial champions all.
In Sprig's final year at Mepham, his squad went 20-0, earning 9 of 12 individual sectional titles, totaling 186 points, more than the combined score of the next ten schools. Two of his proteges, George Creason and Sid Nodland, won National AAU championships while still in high school. It was only after Gardner-trained coaches began to filter into other high schools that Mepham began to lose its predominant position in the high school wrestling world.
Coach Gardner was selected as a member of the national rules committee and was elected to the Sports Hall of Fame in 1992. His efforts helped bring about the adoption of uniform rules regarding weight classifications, match scoring procedures and tournaments.
(Roger Dennis, Bob Phelps and Larry Sorkin were of considerable assistance in the preparation of this article.)
Practices were more like today's sports rather than other sports of that era. Hour upon hour of continuous drills, no slack time. Wrestle against team mates on Wednesdays to determine who would participate upstairs on Friday night or Saturday afternoon. Four people in each weight class would make it, three or four would not. Generally the internal competition downstairs was greater than we would face upstairs in front of an audience.
The agony of "making weight." Most of us started off the practice season 10-20 pounds over our "wrestling weight." None of us had much extra weight to loose. To make weight we spent much time in the steam room fully bundled up in layers of sweat suits. Official weigh-in was 4 hours before the meets. We'd weigh ourselves 5 hours before the meets. Four ounces to go... Spit, urinate, spit some more, run around the gym, spit some more, into the steam room... Finally, right on the line. Come in on Monday after eating and drinking normally on Saturday night and Sunday... seven pounds over.
Unlike our opponents, we had no fear. Before home meets our opponents would weigh-in in our wrestling room. Lining the walls were photos of over 100 Mepham Champions, some of whom were on the current team. Doug Hayes, Ray Nickla, Mark Piven... The intimidation factor won us many meets.
The loss to Amitiville, breaking our streak. Monday, the entire school was as if we were at a wake. The determination to prevail at the year-end championships... we worked even harder and prevailed.
Personally, I'll never forget the South Shore Championships my sophomore year, my first year wrestling. I place third in our internal rankings... so I was lowest Mepham seed going into the tournament. I drew the previous year's winner (from Oceanside) in the first round. The expectation was that I would get pinned in the first of the three periods. With 15 second to go in the third period I was ahead 3-2. Then he took me down. A 4-3 loss. I was devastated, until Sprig Gardner pull me aside and told me that now my opponent would be totally intimidated to face my team mate in his next match and thanked me.
The high respect shown to us, wherever we went. During my freshman year as a Cornell engineering student, I had no time for organized sports. However, I did need to work out. I approached the wrestling coach with a proposal that I "spar" with his wrestlers on a random basis. He asked, "On what basis did I believe that I could do that?" My response, "I wrestled at Mepham and was coached by Sprig Gardner and Ken Hunte." He took my hand and said that I was welcome at any time.
One of the greatest joys was a couple of years later when the NCAA wrestling tournament was held at Cornell. Four or five former classmates from Calhoun and Mepham (including Jimmy Murrin and Mark Piven) were participants. What a reunion!
(Hunte/Gardner photo from Friends of Long Island Wrestling)
At Franklin and Marshall College, Sprig Gardner was honored by their Athletic Hall of Fame:
Frank “Sprig” Gardner
Graduation Year: 1930
Induction Year: 1992
Although Frank "Sprig" Gardner did not wrestle at F&M, he was elected to the Sports Hall of Fame for his contributions to that sport. Gardner simply wanted to start a high school wrestling program, and to teach skills and sportsmanship to young athletes. Following graduation from F&M, he organized his first team at Mepham High School, Long Island, in 1937. He remained at the coaching helm for 21 years, except for a three-year stint during World War II when he served as a lieutenant commander on an aircraft carrier.
Later, he spent two years restoring the wrestling program at Gettysburg College. After a year at the junior varsity level, Mepham burst onto the scholastic scene. Not for eight years would Gardner's teams know defeat. In January 1946, Baldwin High School ended a streak of 100 consecutive victories, yet the loss was merely an interlude to greater success. Mepham would not fall again until January 1955, when a one-point loss to Amityville ended a string of 130 triumphs. In 18 years, Gardner's teams won 37 consecutive South Shore and Sectional tournaments. The battle lines spread beyond Long Island. Mepham overpowered the best teams and even all-star squads from five neighboring states. Overall, Gardner's wrestlers won 254 dual meets, lost five, and drew one. His tournament teams won four titles, shared one, and placed second three times. Gardner and his Mepham wrestlers were featured in a five-page article in Life Magazine.
Two of his proteges, George Creason and Sid Nodland, won National AAU championships while still in high school. Eighteen of Gardner's grapplers went on to win EIWA titles during their collegiate wrestling careers. In two decades at Mepham High School, Gardner sent his teams to the mats 304 times for dual meets or tournament competitions. Only 19 times did they fail to finish first, and two of those times ended in ties. Innovation was the key to Gardner's success. His drill system revolutionized the sport. He shared his concepts through books and articles and by turning his wrestling room into an ?open house? where anyone might come and learn. In recognition of his fabulous coaching career, and lifetime of leadership in the development of wrestling, the late Frank "Sprig" Gardner is also honored as a Distinguished Member of the National Collegiate Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Frank "Sprig" Gardner, born April 8, 1907, died in April 1975 in East Hampton, New York