Pat Pecora took over the fledgling wrestling team at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 1976, a few months after earning his degree at West Liberty College. The veteran coach never left the program he has molded into a perennial top contender in the NCAA's Division II.
And on Feb. 7, Pecora became the leader in coaching victories at any level of college wrestling.
“I was 22 years old when I got the job. I had guys on the team who were my age,” says Pecora, who is in his 44th season as UPJ’s coach. “I was their ‘big brother’ at one time. Then, I went on to be this ‘young uncle’ who could still hang around the guys. Now, I’m going through my ‘father’ stage. The wrestlers are like my sons.” The family formula certainly has had a positive impact on the Richland Township campus.
On the memorable night when Pecora became the sport’s all-time career wins leader across all divisions, fourth-ranked Pitt-Johnstown defeated 11th-ranked Mercyhurst University 22-12 in front of 2,200 enthusiastic fans at the UPJ Sports Center. The win was Pecora’s 617th and put him atop the figurative mountain of college wrestling coaches. Pecora already had been the career wins leader in the history of Division II wrestling. With his Mountain Cats’ win over the Lakers, Pecora passed the late Dale Thomas, who had 616 wins with the NCAA Division I Oregon State University Beavers from 1956 to 1990. “I’ve always said the purest sign of success is consistency,” Pecora says, “and this program has been consistent every single year. We’ve been good for 40-some years. That’s consistency. That says a lot about a program.” The Mountain Cats went 4-12 in Pecora’s first season, in 1976-77. The next year, UPJ reversed those numbers and went 12-4. Since then, Pitt-Johnstown has only suffered one other losing season in 1990-91. Pecora’s teams have had 42 winning records in his 44 seasons and won NCAA Division II team national championships in 1996 and 1999. This season UPJ had a 20-3 mark through Feb. 7.
'A consistent man'
Pecora’s Mountain Cats have produced 14 individual national champions who have combined to win 22 national titles. Greater Johnstown High School graduate Carlton Haselrig won six national crowns – three apiece in NCAA Division II and Division I. “Without Coach Pecora I don’t know if I would have been able to do anything,” Haselrig says. “He is a great man.” Haselrig had a string of 122 matches without a loss during a 143-2-1 career. He never lost or tied against a Division II opponent. He attributes much of that success to Pecora’s guidance. “His main thing is just being a consistent person, a consistent man. It’s daily,” says Haselrig, who went on to a NFL career as a lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets. “(The success) is because of his consistency. I learned the same deal from (Steelers coaches) Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher. You’ve got to be consistent. No matter what, stay even-keeled.” The UPJ program has produced 154 NCAA All-American wrestlers and more than 100 National Wrestling Coaches Association All-Academic Team selections. The program has had 22 NCAA regional championships and 35 top-20 finishes at the NCAA Division II national tournament. There have been 11 top-5 team national finishes. Pitt-Johnstown has won four consecutive Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) championships. “I’ve always felt from the beginning that the dual meet is the center of every wrestling program,” Pecora says. “You first have to develop a good dual-meet program because the dual meet is where you’re going to get your fans, your administration, your students, your community. “Then you start winning conference titles, regional titles, national titles and individual titles.”
'Dad of the team'
Pitt-Johnstown President Dr. Jem Spectar sat at the end of the Mountain Cats bench throughout the historic meet and jubilantly celebrated with Pecora, wrestlers and alumni after the match. The current team posed for a photograph with a large No. 617 as former wrestlers waited to congratulate “Coach.” The large group of alumni on hand to witness history was vocal as former Mountain Cats wrestlers yelled encouragement to the current competitors and Pecora throughout the Mercyhurst match.
“It was little nerve-wracking,” says senior Chris Eddins, a two-time defending national champion who is top-ranked this season. “A really big crowd. I didn’t want to disappoint my peers, my brothers for life. It was very exciting.” Watching Pecora celebrate the win with his wife, Tracy, and four grown children, Cristina, Marco, Maurina and Nico, brought a smile to Eddins’ face. “It means everything to me,” Eddins says. “I just like being a part of Coach Pecora’s journey. I’m trying to make him proud every time I step on the mat. “Everybody that comes through here, we’re all brothers for life,” Eddins adds. “Coach Pecora is the dad of the team. He just takes on the father role really well. He does everything a father does. He’s always on you. He always pushes you to be your best. It’s tough love but it’s good love.” Pecora has had opportunities to leave the Pitt-Johnstown program to coach for a NCAA Division I team. The closest he came to moving was 17 years ago when the University of Maryland offered him the Division I program’s head coaching position. “To see that kind of loyalty to his school, to his communty, to his wrestlers – he’s been at one place for this many years,” says former UPJ national champion wrestler John Strittmatter, a graduate of Cambria Heights High School. “He’s had opportunities at Division I schools and he made a decision to stay back because of his community and his family. In today’s world of everyone going on to the next thing and building their resumes, Coach Pecora is very special. “His wins are very impressive, but his loyalty to UPJ and the Johnstown area are what make it so special,” Strittmatter adds.
Family is 'the core'
Special is an appropriate word to describe Pecora’s career. The is a three-time NCAA Division II Coach of the Year (1995, 1999, 2019) and 18-time NCAA Regional Coach of the Year. Pecora has been inducted into eight halls of fame, including the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame East Boro Chapter (1994); Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame (1998); West Liberty State College Hall of Fame (1998); Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame (2001); NCAA Division II Wrestling Hall of Fame (2003); Pitt-Johnstown Athletics Hall of Fame (2015); Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame (2016); and Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame (2017). “I don’t think you realize it when you’re there or until you step back a few years and you see Pat is the ultimate motivator,” says Somerset’s Sean Isgan, who was the first Pitt-Johnstown wrestler to reach the national final in 1981. “But he does it because he genuinely cares about every single kid on that team. Genuinely cares. It’s evident. The kids feel it. He will go to the wall for you.” Pecora, who also has served as Pitt-Johnstown’s athletic director since 2008, shared No. 617 with his wrestling family. “It’s been coming for a couple years,” Pecora says of the milestone. “I always kept saying, ‘It’s about them. Remember how you got here – what got you here.’ It was about doing things the right way, working hard and loving your guys, making them the best people you could possibly make. Make them the best student so that someday they’ll be great workers, great husbands, great fathers. Family has always been the core.”