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Whitman departs wrestling a true winner

Tommy Elwood, medford, wrestling, minnesota, Whitman, retirement
Whitman hugs Medford athlete Tommy Elwood immediately following Elwood’s 160-pound state title win this March. Elwood’s state title match was the last match of Whitman’s coaching career – quite a way to go out on top. Submitted photo
Johnnie Phillips, Sports Editor

When Dennis Whitman first stepped onto the Medford High School campus 27 years ago, he had never heard of the town before, but he did know one thing: He wanted to be a head wrestling coach.

The Grand Forks, North Dakota native jokingly remembered having to open up his map and follow the roads to the place he would eventually call home.
“There was no Google, so I had to get out the map. I remember getting there, signing my teaching contract and being told that I would be the head wrestling coach. I was pretty excited about it. I walked by a plaque of Jim Slifka, who coached for 36 years, and thought, ‘Man, that isn’t going to be me.’ Last season was my 30th total season coaching though, so not quite there, but I got close,” said Whitman.

Across his 27 years with Medford, Whitman created a program that took pride in developing athletes to be better day in and day out.

The result of the process was a winning culture that quite literally put the Medford Tigers on the Minnesota state wrestling map.

Whitman finished his career with a resume that includes a dazzling 301-204-4 duel record, 126 state qualifiers, 61 state place winners, 14 state champions, as well as being the Class 2A Coach of the Year five times, and the Class A State Coach of the Year in 2001.

According to him, the secret to success was sacrifice and a serious belief in his athletes – no matter the circumstances.

“Nick Neumann was my assistant coach for 26 years up until last year, and I remember us having the same mindset from day one saying, ‘Man, if we’re going to have a summer camp and one kid shows up, we’re going to have that summer camp. If we start up the season in the winter and we have six kids in the room, we’re going to make those six kids better.’ It wasn’t just me, it was my assistant coach, too, who had a passion for making kids better. We wanted everybody to be as good as they could possibly be,” said Whitman.

According to him, small-town wrestling can be difficult to navigate numbers-wise on a year-to-year basis, but the idea of becoming a co-op team was something that never crossed his mind.

His mentality melded perfectly with his community.

“It’s a big part of our community pride, being by ourselves and doing it alone. Our parents always talk about how we’re a small town, but we dream big. It’s from the sense of community that we can stand alone and do this, and I think we’ve proven that,” said Whitman.

As the years flew by, Whitman noted that the reason for his retirement came down to the grueling nature of the sport “wearing him down” over time.

“I was going into tournaments, and I could feel myself thinking like, ‘This could be the last time I coach here.’ It wasn’t until I was driving home the night of Tommy Elwood’s state title match that I realized that was probably the last match I would end up coaching. To end my career coaching a state championship match, it’s kind of a bittersweet way to go out, I guess,” said Whitman.

While walking away is bittersweet, one thing is for certain: He won’t be going too far from the mats.

“I don’t really feel like I’m leaving the program. I’ll be ice fishing a whole lot more,” said Whitman with a laugh. “I might not be the wrestling coach anymore, but I will probably be their biggest fan. It’s time for me to be a fan and sit and relax in the stands.”

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