by John Parente
The history of the Johnson & Wales wrestling program begins at a very unlikely place. It was during a baseball game at nearby Coventry High School in the spring of 1997 that Lonnie Morris was approached about helping to coach a new wrestling team at JWU. The former Rhode Island football and wrestling All-Stater didn't have to think twice.
He took on the challenge. The rest, as they say, is history.
That season, the JWU wrestling program was launched. With an original roster of 10 that was whittled down to a hearty four wrestlers by season's end, Morris had already charted a course for his embryonic program. "That first group had average wrestlers at best, but those four guys who finished the year were enthusiastic," he says. "They competed hard. Out of that four, the best was Dave Thanos, a Rhode Islander, from Burrillville.
"I remember saying, 'I need to recruit, recruit and recruit more'," Morris remembers, "and we really worked hard that year. Right out of the shoot in year two (1998), we had all freshmen and a couple of transfers. Roger Williams came to our place ranked fifth in the country, and we knocked them off."
Twenty seasons later, the Wildcat wrestling program has knocked off a lot of teams, leading up to this year's amazing season, in which JWU finished fourth at the NCAA Division III National Championships, the highest finish ever by a New England team at the national tournament.
In 20 years, Johnson & Wales has gone from four wrestlers to the fourth best team in the nation.
Only perennial Midwest powerhouses Wartburg, Augsburg and Wabash separated JWU from a national title this year. After a 23-1 regular season, Johnson & Wales sent an unprecedented five wrestlers to the nationals. All five Wildcats became All-Americans, including 165-pound senior Stephen Jarrell of East Greenwich, RI, and 133-pound sophomore Jay Albis of Fishkill, New York, who became the program's second and third national runners-up in program history. 125-pound Bobby Jordan, 174-pound senior Mike Labell and 133-pounder Joe Ferinde all made the All-American podium, culminating the Wildcats' best season in history.
But even during the 1990s, Wildcat wrestling was on a fast track to the national spotlight, led by a relentless recruiter, a former All-American wrestler himself, and a self-admitted dreamer who had a vision of both programmatic success and the mountains of work that was needed to achieve the dream. Over two decades, Morris' vision has, thus far, played out quite nicely. "I always believed we could be competitive on the national stage," he says. "You have to believe to achieve the dream. We started building new facilities, the new gym and the wrestling room at Xavier was renovated. We knew right then we had something that not many Division III teams had."
Morris is a gifted recruiter, with an uncanny eye for talent with the guile and verve to sell his program and the institution. Relentlessly, almost from the very start, he hit the road selling the story of his young program. Even in those early days in the late 90s, Morris' sales pitch highlighted the best Johnson & Wales had to offer at the time. "We sold the university's upside-down curriculum," Morris remembers. "There was a lot of merit in that concept. I remember hating my gen-ed courses when I first started college. I didn't get involved in my core classes until my junior year. To do it the opposite way was unique to Johnson & Wales. And, naturally, all of our kids loved the fact that they wouldn't have classes on Friday."
Morris also had the knack of attracting quality student-athletes to Providence. The names are a veritable Who's Who of talent—Brennan Ward, now a professional mixed-martial arts prizefighter, who became the program's first national runner-up during his two years at JWU. There are JWU Hall of Famers Steve Martell and Tim Ruberg, and the versatile Kevin Vees. Among the latest are two-time All-American Mike Ferinde, Joe's brother, and the four Lenhardt brothers, all of whom made well-documented contributions to build the program, as well as this year's two national finalists, Jarrell and Albis. In just two decades, there have been so many stars, so many stories, so many remarkable personal and program achievements.
"We're a family," says Morris. "We have a tight-knit group. It's a different leadership style than is prevalent in other programs. It's not a 'my way or the highway' mentality. We love our kids, and it echoes with their parents."
Yet, the program's poster child may be an unheralded youngster from a small high school in Bristol, New Hampshire, who took Morris' vision, ran with it to the national tournament in 2001, and became the first NCAA All-American student-athlete of any kind in university history. Still unwilling to leave the program or JWU upon graduation, James Gilbert became an assistant coach to his mentor, and hasn't left Johnson & Wales since he arrived as a freshman in 1998.
"I can't be certain that I agree entirely with that statement," Gilbert says, "I wasn't from a strong wrestling state. But I was developed into a successful wrestler at Johnson & Wales and worked hard to make myself an All-American and a good student-athlete. We look for that under-developed talent even now. Some require more work than others. That may be what we're really good at.
"After my time as a wrestler, there were guys that have redefined and elevated our program, like Ruberg and Martell, for example, who got us on the national stage," Gilbert recalls, "A lot of others continued to change the perception and the dynamics of our team and to move us up the ladder to national prominence. It's different again, and Steve Jarrell is probably that guy now."
When asked to compare past athletes with this generation's, Gilbert says, "In certain ways, athletes are the same. Everyone has to balance their athletic and academic endeavors and their social lives. That's not going to change. Now, it's a challenge to make athletes believe that their goals are a product of their work ethic. I can say when I was competing, people seemed to understand that they needed more workouts and stuff in order to make it to the top. That's a challenge for us now. We look for those athletes who want to make sure their goals are the end product of what they put in.
"Coach Morris calls it ruling by love. But I think it's more about caring about them—what they're interested in. It's evident in just about everything we do now. We have a few guys from each class get together every week with the coaches and having a dialogue about concerns they have, how they feel about the program and its direction," Gilbert says.
Associate Head Coach Brian Allen, or "B.A.", is the other integral part of the growth and development of wrestling at Johnson & Wales. As equally tireless and passionate as Morris, Allen's worth to the program is not only contained to imparting the pearls of knowledge he used to become an All-American during his days at Rhode Island College. Allen has helped to transform Wildcat wrestling matches into mega-events which have exposed Johnson & Wales to hundreds of young wrestlers and their families.
"The biggest thing about Brian—he's another head coach," says Morris of his longtime friend and college teammate. "We weren't very close in college. He was a senior, I was a freshman. The lightweights like him never got along with the heavyweights like me. Later, when he came to JWU, I knew I could trust him. He had already coached a couple of high schools. I knew he could come in and run the wrestling room while I got out to recruit and build the program the way it needed to be built."
Allen, who was recruited to come to Johnson & Wales during a chance meeting at a local golf course in 1999, continues to make contributions to the program's success that transcend the mat. Through his efforts, the Wildcats have tapped the state's wrestling community, and have transformed their home matches to bona fide spectaculars which have drawn as many as 2,000 people—among the highest-attended events in the 20-year history of the Wildcat Center.
"At a national coaches' convention, we brainstormed ways to make the sport more successful," Allen remembers. "The national organization asked us to think about ideas that created events—not so much wrestling—but events. People often don't know the intricacies about wrestling. They don't necessarily understand the scoring or the strategies, but they want to see an event. So we started brainstorming how we can do it—the spotlights, the videos, the smoke machines, giveaways, the relationship with Moe's Southwest Grill, the posters—we just started to come up with different ideas. And we came up with a winner.
"The Providence Rivalry (with Rhode Island College) was the first big event," Allen continues. "We thought that, because Lonnie and I were from RIC, it would be a good tie-in. We really hit social media with it, too. We promoted the heck out of it. We went out to the high schools, the youth organizations, everyone we knew."
And they drew almost 2,000 people.
"The following year, we marketed our home match with Roger Williams—the Battle of the WUs—RWU vs. JWU. That picked up some steam because of Roger Williams' wrestling success. There isn't anything like it. And it's helped us turn the corner, too," Allen says.
The dust is settling on the 2017 season. Surely long to be remembered, the Wildcats will bring eight wrestlers back for more next season, in an attempt to carry out what Morris and Allen, and Gilbert and Jarrell, and all the others over two decades have helped to construct. What can possibly top what they accomplished this season?
"We're going to win a national title," proclaims Morris. "I believe that now, and they now believe that it can be done. We've got eight out of ten guys coming back and a good recruiting class coming in. If we get the kids we're going after, we'll be in the mix."
"We are extremely excited for next year," says Allen. "We have high-level high school kids who are contacting us. We have transfers who feel they may not fit in other programs. It's exciting. There's only one thing we've put on the table—and that's to win a national championship. Wartburg and Augsburg have had a stranglehold on the national championship for a long time. I can't think of a better team to take it away."
Who are we to doubt the guy who was recruited at a baseball game, or the other guy who was recruited at a golf course, who pounded the pavement, set the vision in motion, and believed in what could be, every single step of the way?