September 17, 2014
Dillingham dedication gets rewarded
Gary Dillingham will be honored Sunday for his long-time dedication to the sport of high school wrestling.
Dillingham, the highly successful varsity coach at Cortland High from 1962 to 1980 who is still involved with the program, will be inducted into the Upstate New York Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Sunday at the Doubletree Hotel in East Syracuse.
The honor, which is termed a Lifetime Service Award, also means that Dillingham’s name will be placed on the State Room wall at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, alongside inductees from each state. He might also be nominated as a Distinguished Member of the National Hall, an honor that has been bestowed on, among others, former Cornell wrestler Dave Auble, a two-time NCAA champion who was named Most Outstanding Wrestler at the nationals in 1960 and was an member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic wrestling team.
“I don’t know what to say except that it’s an honor,” said Dillingham, who also wrestled at CHS and SUNY Cortland, where he won the SUNYAC championship at 157 pounds in 1962. “I’m honored and humbled at the same time. I’ll be going in with two coaches I know, the late Ken Spenard from Chenango Forks — we had some good battles — and Tony Policare from Vestal, which Cortland has had some good matches with lately.”
The other inductees are Donald Blaine from Cornwall, Michael DeBarbieri from Portville and Williamsville South’s James Lamb.
Also to be honored Sunday is former SUNY Cortland wrestler Thomas Green, who will receive the Upstate Chapter’s Medal of Courage Award. Green is currently the varsity coach at Port Byron after overcoming the numerous effects of a work accident in 1997 that resulted in chemical burns.
Each honoree will be presented with a letter of recognition from the office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Making the honor even more special is the fact that Dillingham was nominated for the Upstate NY Chapter Hall by selection committee member Orlando “Harpo” Turco, the long-time coach at Ithaca High and one of the area’s wrestling legends. In addition, one of Dillingham’s best wrestlers, Dick Meldrim, wrote a letter of support in his capacity as the president of the NYSPHSAA Wrestling Officials Association.
Dillingham started coaching the Purple Tigers right after graduating from SUNY Cortland and stayed in that position for 19 seasons. He then coached the Modified team for three seasons and has been part of the program on a voluntary basis since then.
He had no idea of his dual-meet record over his 19 seasons, noting that “I was never too concerned about that. I thought of myself more in terms of being a tournament coach. To me, dual meets were more like scrimmages to get ready for the sectional and state championships.
“They don’t go just by record in determining who to induct; a lot goes into it. There are coaches with great record who didn’t have much tough competition and others who went up against tough teams but whose records aren’t as glossy.”
Dillingham’s squads won Section 3 championships — when a total of 81 programs competed for one title — in 1967 and 1969, finishing second to Watertown by three points in 1968, when a team member failed to make weight in time to compete. His wrestlers won a total of 13 individual sectional weight class crowns, six of those champions placing in the state meet — three runners-up and three third-place finishers.
Dick Hartford was third in the state at 183 pounds in 1963, while three-time sectional champion Ben Mastronardi took third in the state at 133 in 1966. Charlie Wright was the state runner-up at 167 pounds in 1970 despite an ankle injury, while in 1972 Meldrim was third at 119 and Larry Hinkle second at 177, the duo accounting for most of Section 4’s points at states. John Kaminski was also a state runner-up, at 177 pounds in 1975.
“I stressed the fundamentals,” Dillingham said in discussing the underpinnings of his success. “I tried to follow Vince Lombardi’s theory that good fundamentals give you a good chance to win. I took a team that was a doormat — they were 1-13 in dual meets the season before I started — and in three years we were winning championships.
“Discipline was a key as well; anyone who wrestled for me will tell you that I was a disciplinarian.”
Meldrim was one of Dillingham’s most successful wrestlers, winning Section 4 titles at 119 pounds in 1971 and 1972, taking third in the state in the latter season. He noted that “The Upstate Chapter Hall of Fame is a service award, and you can’t take away from Gary’s dedication to the sport. No one is more dedicated; he’d go through a glass door if he had to to be successful as both a wrestler and a coach.”
Not surprisingly, Dillingham has a good handful of standout memories that jump out at him when he contemplates his career.
“Winning the two sectional team championships in three seasons was one of my biggest thrills,” he said. “I also remember that in 1971 we trailed Fulton heading into the the finals of their Christmas Tournament and had five boys in the finals to there seven. All five of ours won, three head-to-head against Fulton boys, and we ended up winning the tournament.
“In 1972 we tied Union-Endicott, which was ranked first in the state, for the Southern Tier Athletic Conference tournament championship (with Homer third a half-point behind). In 1973 we went up to Peru after seeing in a wrestling magazine that they were looking for competition, and beat them to end their streak of 123 consecutive dual-meet wins.
“We were something like 8-5 then, a mediocre team, and we went up and defeated them.”
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