An ambassador of wrestling

WABASSO – Some people are destined to be successful, no matter what path they choose to follow.

Wabasso/Red Rock Central co-head wrestling coach Gary Hindt is now considered to be one of the best wrestling coaches ever in the state of Minnesota, his 710 career wins (as of Dec. 9) are a true testament of that.

But Hindt and wrestling almost didn’t last long together. Thankfully for wrestling fans in the Wabasso area, where he’s coached for 46 years, there was no early exit.

His impact has been felt by countless wrestlers in southwest Minnesota, both from Wabasso and neighboring high schools his teams competed against.

“Gary is a great ambassador for the town and he is involved in everything,” Wabasso Athletic Director and current football coach Joe Kemp said. “When we travel to any type of an event it seems like at some point someone from the other town knows Gary, asks what Gary Hindt is doing now, or is he really still coaching. When you go to the state wrestling tourney it seems like all of the workers know him by name and he knows them.”

The longtime wrestling and former football coach (he had a career record of 113-111 coaching that sport) is a big reason why the Rabbits are ranked seventh in the state in Class A and are once again one of the favorites in Section 3A.

Breaking in a new program

Hindt got his feet wet with wrestling as a junior at Fulda High School, where he competed in the sport for two years before playing football in college.

After his college days, he got a teaching job at Wabasso as a 22-year old and was asked to coach the start-up wrestling program in 1968.

“My intention was only taking it for a few years,” he said. “I was head football [coach] as well, but things went well and nobody seemed to want to look for another coach.”

While the Rabbits were a new program, they seemed to catch on fast and soon the program was successful. In fact, it took only four years before they won the district tournament, beating a heavily favored Gaylord team along the way to get there.

From there on, he was more involved with the sport, and no one has been able to get him away from the mats since.

“The community embraced wrestling as a sport and we got better and better,” Hindt said. “We just kept getting better and better and we’ve only had a few losing seasons since.”

Hindt managed to stick around a little longer than he first thought he would. Today, the number of wrestling programs in the state is diminishing as consolidations of high school programs and less kids going out has hurt the sport.

When he first started, it was easy to have a full season of 18 duals and have the majority of those within 50 miles. That’s not the case now as long trips all over the state are necessary for teams to find opponents.

He admits he didn’t know a lot about the sport at first, so most of it was learning on the fly.

“We went all over for the first two years,” he said. “We’d pack up the station wagon or a van and I’d go to different places and pick up different ideas on wrestling. I’d try to suck up as much knowledge as I could, a lot of it was trial and error. We’d wrestle New Ulm or Westbrook or whoever and if I saw something, I’d ask the other coach if they’d show it to us. We have a chart of all of the moves throughout the years and we’ve progressed that way.”

The Rabbits had many out for the sport from the beginning, which of course is necessary in building a program. It also helped that the kids were hard workers outside of school, and that carried over to the wrestling mat.

“We had a lot of farm boys back then, there were more kids from the country than in town and that helped because most of them were strong and most of them were physically able to catch on quick,” Hindt said. “Strength does a lot for you and it got to be community involvement. Around Wabasso, we were very fortunate, because we had some very good athletes and also it was a community that demands the best out of all of their kids.”

Wrestling then and now

Today, there are 14 different weight classes that make up a varsity wrestling squad. Back in the early days, there were 12 classes. Although it may not seem like a big difference, finding an additional two wrestlers, especially for the small schools, becomes quite a difficult task.

Hindt never really had any problems filling the roster with wrestlers early on, but when weight classes were added and the wrestling numbers started going down, it became more of a state-wide problem for teams.

“With 12 weights, we could fill three teams, A, B, and C [Varsity, B-squad and C-squad],” Hindt said. “I taught Phy. Ed. and history so I had the kids in the classroom. We never really had to pressure anybody to come out, they were attracted to it because we were successful.”

Today, the number of programs across the state is down as the smaller programs consolidate in order to get a full varsity team.

The class sizes are also getting smaller and other sports might be taking away from wrestling programs, but Hindt doesn’t try to compete with the other sports but instead tells his would-be athletes to go out for whatever sport they feel comfortable with.

“We’ve always tried to shoot for about 25 percent of the boys in each class for wrestling,” Hindt said. “What got to be difficult was the families were always there, but you never took for granted that because Dad wrestled, his son would too. We’ve always had a good relationship with the basketball program and we try to make them both strong we’ve had Athletic Directors around here that work with both.”

He has seen many changes to the sport over the years, one of which is the growing number of weights needed for a team.

“I think 14 weights is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s very tough to fill those weights and you end up using inexperienced kids that would be more beneficial to a younger team. If they would scale that back to 12 weights, I think you would have programs that would be in existence today that never would’ve thought about pairing up. Nobody likes to lose because you’ve got three or four forfeits.”

A lasting impact on wrestling and the community

You don’t have to go far in Wabasso to know Hindt’s impact on the community. Anyone who knows even anything about the sport seems to know who he is.

“He has had an impact on the lives of many people in this town,” Kemp said. “Gary has coached several generations in numerous families here in town. And to me that shows the trust that we have in a person such as Gary, we have been through his program and then our kids work with him and so on. It says a lot to who he is.”

Many of his former athletes have come back to work with him again, whether it be as an assistant coach or someone just to lend a helping hand. Kemp is one of those.

“I have had the opportunity to wrestle and play football and wrestle for Gary back in the late 80s,” Kemp said. “Gary only has one thing in mind when it comes to working, what is good for the kid. Sometimes it may not seem like it to somebody on the outside, but when he comes into my office and we talk about things that is always the topic. He is concerned about your personal life and in turn he gets his teams to compete as much for him as for the school and themselves.

“I’m far from the only former athlete that has come back and worked with Gary and that is because he treated us like we mattered back when we went through his program back in high school and that has carried through all the through our adult lives,” Kemp said. “He keeps in touch with his former students, always has time for you and is more then willing to help you out. If you look at who his assistant coaches have been through the years it is littered with former student/athletes, you feel like he shaped your life and you want to give back.”

There’s no doubt that he’s built a perennial Class A powerhouse. But keeping a program consistently in the Top 10 is more and more difficult with less and less wrestlers out every year.

“You’ve gotta stay on top of it,” Hindt said. “In the years where we’ve had 50 or 60 out as opposed to the years where we’ve had 22 or 24, the numbers have varied throughout the years, but it’s all in relationship to the size of your school. At one time, we would graduate 70-80 kids in a year, those days are over. But we have to keep plugging away and keep trying to get the kids out.”

A sign of the times

Even though Wabasso had plenty of wrestlers out, the days where a small school could independently host its own program were drawing to a close. In 2008, Wabasso’s wrestling program consolidated with Red Rock Central to form the Wabasso/RRC Bobcats.

Hindt assumed co-head coaching duties with Brett Bartholomaus and the two had no problem collaborating.

“Brett helped us a few years when he was in college, so I knew him pretty good,” Hindt said. “He brings a lot to the table, he’s very, very good on his feet and he works on new techniques on takedowns and things. He’s got great ideas and he’s got good drills that he runs. I’ve never been close-minded and I think that’s why our pairing is successful.”

The Bobcats won 28 matches a year ago and they four wrestlers ranked in the Top 10 so far this season.

“We’ve found the right formula to get things done, and so far the kids from our school and their school have bought in,” Hindt said.

A champion for the sport

Hindt isn’t a man that’s concerned about numbers. In fact, he isn’t even totally sure of how many state champions he’s coached in his career. When asked about the 700-plus wins, his easy-going personality comes out.

“Jokingly, I always say if you live long enough,” he said. “In reality, I don’t know. I wish I had a secret formula I could tell everybody how to win. We’ve won 80 percent of our duals over the 46 years and that’s phenomenal. It kind of blows your mind when you think about it, I guess I think about it more in the summer and in the offseason.”

Although he wants his athletes to be successful, he doesn’t put pressure on them with winning. He emphasizes improving every day at practice and that goes a long way.

“I think we emphasize to our kids to do their best, but we never really say ‘hey, this could be our year,'” he said. “We just go out there and say one match at a time and as long as you improve, we’ll except it. They’re very loyal, when they leave here, there isn’t anyone that comes up to me and says ‘man, that was a bummer wrestling.’ They fall in love with the sport.”

Hindt’s approach and attitude about the sport keeps the kids coming back year after year. Kemp said that Hindt’s personality is one that makes practice fun.

“He has just always been a fun person to be around, his practices had some great stories and hanging around him produced a lot of great laughs,” Kemp said.

Even though he’s been retired from teaching, he still enjoys coaching. While he doesn’t know when he’ll walk away from wrestling, he has no plans to retire in the immediate future.

“I’m not tired of it, I still look forward to going to practice,” he said. “Not everyday, I’m like everyone else – you don’t look forward to going to work every day of your life, whether you don’t feel good or you have other things in your life you’d rather be doing. But as long as I enjoy doing it and as long as the kids buy in, I’ll be there.”

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