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May 23, 2011 4:44 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A Legend On The Mats And Sidelines Is Inducted Into Hall Of Fame

May 24, 2011 8:12 AM

John Tobin’s first encounter with Mike Fitzgerald happened on an otherwise ordinary autumn day back in 1975—but it’s a day that has been seared in his memory because of what followed.

Walking the halls of Hampton Bays High School as a seventh-grader, Tobin bumped into Fitzgerald, the school’s physical education teacher, who asked him if he would attend the upcoming wrestling meeting. Tobin knew nothing about the sport and didn’t feel a desire for that to change—until Fitzgerald asked him about the meeting again, and then again. Eventually, Tobin showed up and parked himself in the back of the room, without any plans or expectations.

Until Fitzgerald started talking.

“He spoke about what it takes to be a champion, the dedication and the work ethic,” Tobin recounted while speaking about his former high school wrestling coach last week. “There was something about his passion and his words—it inspired me so much in just a 15-minute speech that I ran home and told my parents, ‘I’m wrestling,’ and that was it. I never looked back.”

From that point on, Tobin said, the basketball hoop in his driveway was a relic. And by the time he was an eighth-grader, Tobin was on the Hampton Bays varsity squad, becoming part of a team that won 11 league dual meet titles and nine league tournament titles during Fitzgerald’s tenure, despite being one of the smallest schools in Suffolk County.

Wrestling, Tobin said, became his life—and for that he gives full credit to Fitzgerald.

A David Among Goliaths

Unlike today, when teams are divided into divisions and leagues where they compete only against schools comparable to their size, in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, Hampton Bays regularly took on programs with student populations five or six times bigger than theirs and, more often than not, beat them. For 26 years, the driving force behind that success was Fitzgerald. A legend in the world of wrestling, Fitzgerald was a Nassau County and New York State champion during his days at famed Mepham High School in Bellmore in the early 1960s before becoming a college All-American at Moorhead State in Minnesota. Fitz won the New York State championship in 1965 at 133 pounds and as a college wrestler placed in the national tournament in 1969. His reputation as a fierce and talented wrestler preceded him at Hampton Bays, and he achieved even greater acclaim when he made the transition to the mat sidelines.

Fitzgerald’s body of work was recognized and lauded on April 29 when he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was one of the most successful high school coaches in Long Island history during his 27-year career—26 years of them at Hampton Bays. In his years coaching the Baymen, the team had a 205-127-3 record and won a league dual meet title or league tournament title a total of 20 times. Fitzgerald coached 90 league champions and 35 All-County wrestlers. Seven of his wrestlers won county titles, and six went on to place in the state tournament.

Those numbers are impressive enough on their own but stand out even more when the size of Hampton Bays High School is taken into consideration. The school had fewer than 100 boys from ninth through 12th grades when he coached there, and most years Fitzgerald had fewer than 20 wrestlers combined on his varsity and JV teams. Despite that, his teams finished in the top 10 in the county tournament five times, placing fourth in 1983. Hampton Bays won a league dual meet title one year with just 13 wrestlers on the roster, one for each weight class.

Competitiveness And Compassion

The statistics—league and county championships won as both a wrestler and coach, tournament and dual meet victories over schools of every size—speak for themselves, but according to Tobin and others who know “Fitz”, as he is called, they are only the tip of the iceberg. To them, his success came from not only his wealth and breadth of knowledge about the sport and all its technical aspects, but also his larger-than-life personality, his ability to be a master motivator, his unwavering dedication to all his wrestlers, and his desire to teach them how to be responsible and productive citizens as well as champions.

Paul Bass, the longtime head coach who has built a powerhouse program of his own at Westhampton Beach High School, was in the early stages of his coaching career in the late 1980s at the time Fitz had long established tiny Hampton Bays as one of the most feared programs in the county. At that time, Hampton Bays, Westhampton Beach and East Hampton all competed in the same league and had a fierce rivalry.

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Mike is a class act and a great mentor. Coached by the most famous of high school coaches, Sprig Gardner Mike wrestled on one of the greatest HS teams in history during the steak. Mike has gone on to influence two more generations. His induction into the National Hall of Fame is an honor well deserved.
By Lester Ware (15), Sag Harbor on May 24, 11 12:20 PM
He wasn't so compassionate to the kids who weren't in the wrestling team- he was indifferent to them in gym class- he was some kind of hero, no he was paid to instruct all the kids under his charge and if you didn't wrestle or play football, etc, he could care less.
By bayarea (46), hampton bays on Oct 27, 13 10:18 PM
Congratulations, Fitz. As a side note, the Moorhead team picture shows bottom row, second from left, Bill Germann, Fitzgerald's predecessor at Hampton Bays who moved to the midwest and passed the torch to Fitz.
By VOS (1240), WHB on Oct 27, 13 11:59 PM