By J. Patrick Eaken
John Jeffire, a 1980 Bowling Green High School graduate, was a good wrestler. But to him, he was not good enough, so he became a coach — a highly successful coach.
At BGHS, Jeffire was a 1980 Northern Lakes League champion, 1979 sectional champion and two-time finalist, and district semifinalist in 1979 and 1980.
Jeffire was part of BG’s first ever Northern Lakes League team wrestling championship in 1980, and his record was 20-5 as a junior and 24-4 as a senior. Keep in mind that he was only 7-11-2 as a sophomore.
“My assessment is that I was a terrible wrestler, my ability always lagging a year or so behind my desire and goals,” Jeffire said. “I never achieved what I wanted as an athlete, which drove me as a coach.
“I think that not achieving my goals as a competitor, what’s the next step? Well, maybe I can help somebody else achieve their goals. That really was the impetus to being in coaching.”
Jeffire coached at the University of Findlay from 1989-97 and renamed the wrestling team the Roughnecks, leading Findlay to an NAIA national championship in 1995. He was inducted into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006.
His coaching career led to his recent induction into the Ohio Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony took place at the Villa Milano Banquet and Conference Center in Columbus.
In his eight years at Findlay, Jeffire coached five individual national champions, nine finalists and 43 All-Americans.
The Roughnecks placed in the top five at the NAIA national championships four times and in the top 10 five times. Jeffire was named NAIA Wrestling Coach of the Year in 1995.
Jeffire had a philosophy — wrestle the best, even if you are an NAIA school going against Big Ten schools. Findlay was dual affiliated with the NAIA and NCAA Division II at the time.
“Always compete over your head — that was my philosophy,” Jeffire said. “That’s how you got better.
“Beating people who didn’t fight back, or if you are just ringing up wins, that wasn’t really fulfilling, so we had an 11-8 record against Division I schools.
“The year that Kent State was Mid-American Conference champions, runner-up to Central Michigan, we went to Kent and beat them head-to-head in a dual meet at their place,” Jeffire continued.
“I think in our best years we had a team that could stand on its own against pretty much anybody. The worst thing is you take a loss, and you learn from it. I was never afraid to take a loss.”
When Jeffire first arrived at Findlay, he found out he had his work cut out, but that did not stop him.
“That was about not being smart enough to quit — to just keep going,” Jeffire said. “When I got there, there was six guys on the team and they basically said, ‘Get this going or we are just going to have to drop the sport.’
“I was so naïve, I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds like a great challenge.’ My time at the end, we were dueling against Ohio State, Michigan State, Nebraska, Minnesota — we were a little NAIA school, and we were wrestling top 10, top 20 in the country Division I schools on a regular basis.”
Jeffire, who currently resides in Macomb, Michigan, remains the winningest coach in UF history with a record of 70-22-2.
In 1998, he was inducted into the Hancock County Athletic Hall of Fame and since his days at Findlay, he has twice been named the Michigan Wrestling Coaches Association Regional Coach of the Year.
A little help from BGHS coach
Despite his so-called “underperforming” at BGHS, it was former Bowling Green coach Brian “Corky” Marcelli that got it all started.
“He became like a second father to me and he’s the godfather to my son, actually — that’s how close our relationship is. When I was inducted into the hall of fame, Corky was there with his wife, and we’ve been lifelong friends.”
Marcelli introduced Jeffire to coaching — not in the United States, but overseas.
“After high school, Brian Marcelli and I had an opportunity to wrestle in Sweden for a year,” Jeffire said. “In Sweden, we were given a place to live and some food money, and in exchange we had to coach the little kids in freestyle.
“They were mainly Greco-Roman wrestlers, so that was my first taste of coaching, and I was just 18 years old, and I really loved it. When I came back from Sweden, then I went to college from 1981-85.”
Jeffire wrestled at St. Lawrence University in New York, and was chosen team captain, but an injury led to another stint away from the mat.
“At the Cornell Open, my junior year, I suffered a real bad knee injury,” Jeffire said. “I had the first of three knee surgeries, and it never came back — just never healed.”
So, he was offered by John Clark, a former All-American wrestler at Ohio State, a position on the staff. John’s son Mitch had won an NCAA Division I championship at Ohio State.
“He offered me, saying, ‘I know it’s a bad break and your knee is not recovered, so why don’t you help coach here and be a student assistant?’
“And he gave me an opportunity to go to some meets, to some tournaments, to corner some of the guys.
“That’s really where I said, ‘This is better than competing.’ It was far more rewarding helping somebody else win than to be the guy in the circle yourself. That really lit the fire for me,” Jeffire said.
Strong staff support, too
Jeffire has had some good assistants, too, and some found their way to Findlay in an international way.
“I had one assistant my entire time, Kurt Leonard. He used to work at the Findlay Courier — a great guy, and he’s a guy who balanced me out,” Jeffire said.
“He was a cool, logical guy. I tended to get emotional, and between the two of us I think we ended up making, I think, some solid decisions for the direction of the program. It was not that were the same — we were, in many ways, opposites, and that worked out.
“I should give credit to a Russian guy who came in during 1991, Miron Kharchilava, and he was a Soviet champion in the junior division, a Soviet university champion, and he was part of a team that visited the U.S., and we hosted them in Findlay.”
“At the end of the trip, he decided not to go back to the Soviet Union. He ended up staying with us for four years, he used his final year of eligibility and was a national champion for us, and he took our technical level to a whole new height. He was sensational.
“In 1996, I worked at the Olympics in Atlanta, and one of the Cuban wrestlers, Alberto Rodriguez, was a World Games bronze medalist, he defected, and he came up and helped me coach at Findlay as my assistant.
“This guy was world class. I was very lucky to have some stupendous people to help me out.”