Pat Pecora Jem Spectar

University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown head wrestling coach Pat Pecora celebrates his 617th career win with the school's president Jem Spectar, right, making him college wrestling's all-time wins leader, after a victory over Mercyhurst University, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020. Pecora breaks a 46-year-old record.

617. The number carried historic implications on Friday night at the Sports Center.

Pitt-Johnstown coach Pat Pecora became the all-time winningest coach in college wrestling at all levels as his Mountain Cats defeated Mercyhurst University 22-12 as a crowd of 2,200 watched.

“It was crazy,” Pecora said after passing the late former Oregon State coach Dale Thomas’ 616-win mark. “It’s one of those situations where you don’t want to think about it, but you can’t help but think about it. I love this record because it took so many young men to contribute to it.

“It’s not a single person’s record. It’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of young men who put on a UPJ singlet. They were all part of it.”

The fourth-ranked Mountain Cats improved to 20-3 this season while the 11th-ranked Lakers slipped to 10-4.

In his 44th season at Pitt-Johnstown, Pecora already held the record for most wins at the NCAA Division II level. He moved into a tie with Thomas, who led the NCAA Division I Beavers from 1956 to 1990, after a dual-meet victory at Shippensburg University last week.

The opportunity to witness history brought a large contingent of Pecora’s former wrestlers to the Sports Center, as well as fans, wrestlers and coaches from the region.

“Our motto is ‘Brothers for Life,’” an emotional Pecora said, while meeting the media before a reception at the UPJ Wellness Center. “My dad always said he knew he was doing a good job as a father if his children were close. When I started coaching, I was 22 years old. What did I know? I never was even an assistant coach in my life.

“I ran a team like my parents raised a family. That’s all it was. That’s what I try to do in everything I’m in.”

The philosophy has brought success to the Richland Township campus. Pecora led the Mountain Cats to national championship seasons in 1996 and 1999.

Since taking over the UPJ program in 1976, he’s produced 14 individual national champions who have combined to win 22 titles. The program has produced 154 NCAA All-American wrestlers and more than 100 NWCA All-Academic Tea selections.

Now, Pecora’s Mountain Cats can claim 617 dual-meet wins – and counting.

“I’ve always felt from the beginning that the dual meet is the center of every wrestling program,” Pecora said. “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.”

Pitt-Johnstown President Dr. Jem Spectar sat at the end of the Mountain Cats bench throughout the 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 their “Coach.”

On the mat, Pitt-Johnstown built a 22-6 lead through 184 pounds, with Connor Craig clinching the dual meet via his 8-0 major decision over Mercyhurst’s Trever Begin.

“Joining here late – I went from Wheeling Jesuit to here – and becoming a part of this is big,” said Craig, who won a national title with Wheeling Jesuit before the university discontinued its wrestling program. “It’s so special to be a part of not just this victory but to be a part of this program.

“I knew I just had to go out there and do my thing and just get the win for him. Getting the major was a little bit special.”

Two-time Mountain Cats national champion Chris Eddins had a 10-2 major decision over Alex Samson at 149 pounds. The top-ranked wrestler appreciated the magnitude of the night.

“It means everything to me,” Eddins said. “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 added. “He’s 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.”

The Mountain Cats also had wins by 125-pounder Brendan Howard; 141-pounder Jacob Ealy; 157-pounder Nate Smith; and 174-pounder Brock Biddle.

Mercyhurst produced individual wins by 133-pounder Eric Bartos, 165-pounder Logan Grass; 197-pounder Luke McGonigal; and 285-pounder Jake Robb.

“It’s been coming for a couple years,” Pecora said 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. The best student so that someday they’ll be great workers, great husbands, great fathers. Family has always been the core.”

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5083. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.

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