Don Elia's career took a detour on its way into the record book.
Elia, coach of the East Tennessee State wrestling club team, earned the 500th victory of his career when the Bucs beat Wake Forest. He became the seventh coach to reach that milestone in all levels of collegiate competition.
Elia previously coached at Carson-Newman and Maryville College.
"That's been kind of a personal goal because it was out there," Elia said. "It was really nice. The really rewarding thing is the guys who have been through the program sending notes."
Elia has been at ETSU for five years, but Johnson City wasn't a stop he planned to make during his career.
In 2009, after 31 years at Carson-Newman College, his program was dropped. Several of the wrestlers transferred, and some wound up at ETSU, figuring their wrestling careers were finished.
They talked Elia into trying to start up a club program.
"I found out when I did retire for that short period of time that I was mowing my lawn two or three times a week," Elia said. "I found out I really didn't know how not to be a coach."
So he took on the challenge, not knowing what was ahead. In addition, at first, he wasn't crazy about the "club" level of college wrestling.
"I never had high opinion of 'club' based on what I saw when I was coaching at Carson-Newman or Maryville," he said. "Then I started reading up on their mission, their rules, regulations, eligibility standards. There wasn't anything wrong with that."
These days, the National Collegiate Wrestling Association has almost 150 schools, including Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Notre Dame.
"It's really something else," said Elia, who has a 501-306-7 record in 45 years as a college head coach.
ETSU hosted the Mid-Atlantic Conference tournament earlier this month, and 22 teams competed in Brooks Gym. Seventy-four wrestlers, including five from ETSU, qualified for the NCWA national tournament.
Elia had 24 wrestlers on his roster this year, including sophomore Markevis Duncan, who went 18-3 at 165 pounds. Manako Peay was 19-6 at 174 pounds and Raul Leyva was 10-1 with eight pins in the 235 division
"We had probably six guys who would have wrestled for me in a scholarship program," Elia said. "I really like the kids at ETSU. Most of them have a part-time job. Quite a few have full-time jobs, are going to school and want to compete in athletics. ... Kids who have a lot of on their plate. They're really strong kids in all kinds of areas.
"And the university has gotten behind us pretty good."
Elia would like to see wrestling elevated to a varsity sport at ETSU, whether it be on the scholarship or non-scholarship level. He had initial meetings with former ETSU Athletic Director Dave Mullins, who laid out some ideas of what it might take to get it done.
"He wanted us to show we could recruit kids and show that there was an interest in East Tennessee," Elia said. "We had to help with the budget and be able to compete on a high level. We have managed to do all of that.
"With football coming back, I don't know where we stand. I haven't met with the new athletic director yet."
Just to be at this point, where they've established a program and are competing against big-time schools, is a major accomplishment for Elia and his athletes.
"You talk about something that looked like a long shot of ever taking hold, this was it," Elia said. "We didn't have much of anything. It just started taking hold. We got a team president from the student population. Administrators were supportive. Next thing I know, we were getting financial support. Our home matches are in the CPA now and they put us in Brooks Gym for the regionals.
"It's going well now."
For more information on the ETSU club team or youth wrestling, contact Elia by email at email@example.com powered by Disqus