A New Direction for Gary Franke
After a career spanning 38 seasons, 7 University presidents and 5 athletic directors, Gary Franke has stepped down as W&L’s head wrestling coach.
“I just felt like it was time,” said Franke. “I realized that the older I got, I couldn’t wrestle with the guys anymore, and it’s just become more challenging. So I was doing more of the instructing from the sidelines. I’ve also found some things that I like to do in the summer, and it felt like it was a good time to turn it over and let someone else direct the program.”
Franke’s path to W&L included a standout collegiate wrestling career at Mankato State, in his native Minnesota; Army service as an assistant wrestling coach at West Point; and a bronze medal from the 1972 World Military Games. He heard about W&L from a West Point friend of W&L’s athletic director, Bill McHenry. Each W&L coach then had two responsibilities. And so, in 1973, Franke started as head wrestling coach and assistant athletic trainer.
“I had taken an athletic training course in college,” said Franke, “and then athletic trainer Tom Jones more or less took me under his wing and introduced me to the world famous ‘Franke Tourniquet Wrap.’ “
At age 23, he was the youngest head wrestling coach in the country. After a 7-11-1 record in his first season, Franke saw his teams enjoy success in his second season, the first in five straight winning campaigns. Over his first six seasons, he led the Generals to three ODAC titles and gained two stints as ODAC Coach of the Year.
In 1979, Franke jumped all over a new challenge. He dropped his athletic-training post, learned to play tennis and became the head tennis coach. That spring, he led the Generals to the 1979 ODAC tennis title.
“It was a new learning experience for me, learning how to teach and direct,” said Franke of tennis. “In the very early years, it was kind of a trial-and-error, and I sort of developed as time went by.”
Franke recruited top-notch talent to the tennis program and went on to win 17 conference titles over the next 21 seasons, earning the conference coach of the year award nine times and being named the National Coach of the Year in 1987. His most significant accomplishment was guiding the Generals to the school’s first-ever Division III Championship in 1988.
“I didn’t know where this experience would take me,” said Franke. “One thing led to another, and we just kept bringing some outstanding players to campus who loved the game, were real competitors, who kept developing and wanted to get better.”
Despite his aces on the tennis courts, it is wrestling that has shaped and defined Franke’s career, which is twice as long as any coach in the program’s storied history. His 196 career victories are the most in program history by 118 wins. His teams claimed a .500 or better record 19 times, led by the 1983-84 and 1984-85 teams, which went a combined 24-4-1 overall. He has coached 24 Academic All-Americans and the program’s only Division III All-American, Richie Redfoot ’89.
The accomplishments of his athletes away from the courts and mats, however, have cemented Franke’s legacy. “Some are now lawyers, doctors, preachers and professors, and others are on Wall Street or serving in the military,” he said. “They have gone off to accomplish a lot.”
Franke has also left a significant mark on the sport overall. He was a volunteer assistant for the 1976 U.S. Olympic wrestling team and served on the National Wrestling Coaches Executive Committee. He worked as a wrestling official for 20 years and serves on the NCAA Division III Wrestling Committee.
“These have all been such great learning experiences for me,” noted Franke. “I look at the people that I’ve been able to meet and interact with, and I feel fortunate for the relationships. I’ve also had some tremendous experiences in learning how to promote the sport. And having a role in several rule changes on the scholastic and collegiate levels has been rewarding.”
For all the successes, Franke finds the most basic of lessons have shaped his athletes’ lives and his legacy. “When I first got to W&L, I started writing on 3×5 cards all the things that I needed to do to be a successful coach,” he recalled. The one he’s used the most reads: “To teach leadership to these young men and women and give them direction.”
“This not only applies to the mats or tennis courts,” said Franke, “but also to all aspects of their lives.”