Georgia Tech wrestling alumni reflect on program’s history ahead of reunion

Georgia Tech wrestlers pose for the 1979-80 team photo.

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Goldstein

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia Tech wrestlers pose for the 1979-80 team photo.

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Goldstein

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Goldstein

Billy Saville remembered several nights getting lost driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains as a Georgia Tech wrestler.

As captain, he would drive one station wagon. Coach Lowell Lange would drive the other. Their goal: getting wrestlers to and from meets at schools like Duke and North Carolina State.

“It’d be 11 p.m. or 12 a.m. trying to get to some school, and we’d pull over on the side of the road and realize we were miles and miles off the path,” said Saville, a 1971 Tech graduate. “Those are fun experiences to think back on, but not at the time.”

Tech dissolved its wrestling program in 1987. The program had more than 20 Southeastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association individual title winners during its 23-year existence, and also won the SEIWA conference championship in 1966.

Saville and several other wrestlers stay in touch and frequently reflect on their time at Tech — from memories of traveling the country by station wagon to Lange’s influence as a talented athlete and coach. Thirty-five alumni will gather for a reunion Friday in Sandy Springs, reconnecting and looking back on their wrestling days.

Several alumni said Lange had a positive, long-term impact on their lives. A member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Lange was a three-time national champion as a wrestler at Cornell College of Iowa before coaching at Tech.

Jim Pond, the Yellow Jackets’ lone wrestling All-American, said he competed against Lange nearly every day during his four years at Tech and never scored a point on him. Pond, a 1967 graduate, went on to coach at Simon Fraser University and Oregon State. He never thought that was possible until he met Lange and excelled at college competition.

Saville said he wasn’t a naturally gifted wrestler, but Lange’s emphasis on hard work and repetition improved Saville’s skills on the mat. Saville said this taught him the importance of preparation both in wrestling and in his business career.

“I would always remember him saying, ‘Never attempt a move in a college match until you’ve practiced it at least 500 times in practice,’” Saville said. “I took that to heart. I literally counted the number of drills of certain moves, and I got better as a result.”

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Goldstein

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Goldstein

Balancing challenging classwork with wrestling also was impactful.

Alum Pat Burke said he was a C-student in high school who didn’t plan to attend college until Lange recruited him. It was difficult acclimating to Tech’s coursework, he said. He was required to take calculus despite never taking trigonometry, and he had to take the course three times before passing. His professor’s nickname? Death Ray.

Yet balancing a job at the post office, classwork and his wrestling schedule taught Burke, a 1982 graduate, that he was capable of doing many things in life.

Saville also said he learned valuable time-management skills through his classwork at Tech. He remembered classes sometimes forcing him to miss practice time and having little time outside of academics and the mat.

“I didn’t join a fraternity,” Saville said. “I didn’t date a lot. I just didn’t have time for social things because I was either in the library or on the wrestling mat.”

Several wrestlers’ favorite moments took place off campus. Road trips allowed them to see the country, improve their wrestling abilities and get to know their teammates.

The team typically took an annual trip to New York when Saville wrestled for the Jackets. Going on the trip was a reward for staying with the team and working hard throughout the season, he said. Saville had never been on an airplane or to New York before, and said he spent his time off the mat sightseeing and eating at restaurants with teammates.

Burke remembered one road trip where he and his teammates learned all of the words to “American Pie” by Don McLean.

“It was part of the bonding — driving at night during the winter and enjoying each other’s company,” Burke said.

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Goldstein

Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Goldstein

Many wrestlers stayed in touch with Lange after graduation. Around 15 to 20 Atlanta-area alumni would get lunch with Lange biannually before his death in 2018.

Alum Jerry Goldstein, who graduated in 1972, said around 30 alumni attended Lange’s funeral. After reconnecting and getting dinner together, Goldstein said several alumni decided to see each other more often.

Goldstein estimated 20 alumni attended a last-minute reunion held in 2022. Ahead of the 2023 gathering, he said they expanded the organizing committee to include alumni from several eras as a way to reach more former wrestlers. Goldstein said there will be attendees on Friday flying in from as far as California, Oregon and New York.

The program might not exist anymore, but several alumni continue to impact the wrestling world as coaches and officials.

“These guys love the sport and continue to invest,” Goldstein said. “We’re all hoping that, one day, maybe we can get a Division-I program back in the state.”

Several alumni agreed, saying they hope Tech will revive the program given the growth of the sport in Georgia and the positivity it brought to their lives.

For now, these ex-wrestlers are the sole standard-bearers for Tech wrestling. They plan to greet each other like it Friday — though more gently than when they were 20.

“When you haven’t seen somebody for a long time and you give him a hug, it’s more than just shaking hands,” Saville said. “I put my arms around him and throw him to the ground. Those guys are going to do it to me, too. I don’t care if I’m 74 … it’s just like it was 50 years ago.”

About the Author