Six years ago, Shawn Contos was coaching wrestling at Eastwood High School.
He is the grandson of the late Steve Contos, a Waite graduate and a member of that school’s athletic hall of fame for his football prowess. After a football career at the University of Michigan, Steve Contos once held NCAA Division I all-time receiving records. Steve went back to Waite to become principal. Shawn’s father, Mark Contos, is now wrestling coach at Maumee High School, and Shawn is continuing the family tradition.
Shawn is now part of the staff at Penn State University, where he serves as strength and conditioning coach. The Nittany Lions wrestling squad last month won its fourth consecutive NCAA D-I national title.
Following the Nittany Lions' narrow victory at the NCAA Championships, Penn State became just the third school in history to win four straight national championships, joining powerhouse programs Iowa and Oklahoma State.
Contos, a 1993 St. John's Jesuit graduate, joined head coach Cael Sanderson at Iowa State University during the 2008-09 season. Contos coached in Ames, Iowa for one year, leading the Cyclones to a third place finish at the NCAA Championships before Contos followed Sanderson to State College, Pennsylvania to start anew at Penn State.
Contos credits PSU’s wrestlers for their ability to perform in the clutch. The Nittany Lions won the title by just 5½ points, edging Big Ten rival Minnesota, 109½-104 for the title.
“(Wrestlers) Ed Ruth and David Taylor got some big wins for us at the end,” Contos said. “And there's Jim English (who finished seventh at 149). He's the feel good story of the tournament. I'm so happy for him and proud of him. He was granted a medical hardship by the NCAA and is in his sixth year. He wasn't even our starter (early in the season). He was good, he faced injury, and he's battled back through all of that.”
Contos also credits the coaching staff, which in addition to Sanderson, includes the head coach’s brother, Cody, and Casey Cunningham, a Central Michigan alum.
“We had one of the best plans that I've seen for wrestling,” Contos said. “It really showed at the national championship. This is a testament to Cael. It's great to be part of his staff.”
If you've heard of Sanderson, it's probably because of the success he had wrestling at Iowa State. The Salt Lake City native went 159-0 from 1999-2002, winning four national championships and was the 2004 Olympic Champion at 84 kilograms (185 pounds). Sports Illustrated named his accomplishments during his college career as the second most impressive college sports feat behind the four world records Jesse Owens set in a single hour as a member of Ohio State at the 1935 Track & Field Championships.
The success of the program can be traced back to Sanderson & Co. instilling a more disciplined regimen in Happy Valley when they arrived.
“There were certain things that we weren't accepting of like going out after matches,” Contos said. “We wanted guys that were more interested in wrestling. Going to out to a bar will never be as memorable as raising a national championship trophy. You can go out and have fun for a night, or you can be a part of the team and do something like this for four years. Put off today's pleasure for something that you really want (down the line).”
Holding wresters accountable
The team has rules that hold its wrestlers accountable. For example, if an athlete does not attend class or is not at least five minutes early to a team meeting or practice, he's supposed to attend “The Breakfast Club” on Saturday mornings where the players clean the mats and then study from 6-8 a.m. in the bleachers.
“Our philosophy is not result-based,” Contos said. “The results will be there, we can accept that. We're focusing on the process, the journey to get there, and we are about what we can control. We will wrestle hard for seven minutes and wrestle hard. In life, we'll have fun in practice and try to get one percent better every day. We've got a bunch of guys that love wrestling and are focused on getting better every day. That's the way it is for our family, in practice and in life. Do your best today.”
That philosophy has certainly worked at helping to strengthen the support of the team's fans, as evidenced by the fact that the NCAA dual meet record for attendance was broken in the fall when Penn State hosted Pitt before 19,996 fans, just 41 more than the 19,955 people who attended a match between Iowa and Iowa State in 2008 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. Oddly enough, Contos was coaching the Cyclones when that mark was set, too.
Contos, who competed in the Olympic Trails two years ago, sees his own wrestling career in a bit of a holding pattern right now after having reconstructive surgery on his shoulder in November. At this point, things are up in the air regarding his future.
Contos plans to come home this summer and help run a camp with his brother, Kevin, and his father, Mark, who are running the wrestling program at Maumee.
“Kevin is doing big things at Maumee with my Dad. “Ed Ruth and I are going to Maumee to do a summer camp there. We're going to try and help him get that rolling. I'll be bringing big-name college stars to Maumee. Kevin's at the high school level, that's how I got started. People need to know that he's got access to some great college wrestlers. He's got great knowledge, and he can always call me and I can talk to the people I know.”
At this point, Contos, who was also the strength and conditioning coach for the men's and women's fencing teams at Penn State, which, oddly enough, also won the national championship, is ready to move on if the opportunity avails itself. He is interested in becoming a full-time wrestling coach and believes that he can bring the philosophy he's currently following to a new group of wrestlers.
“Nothing great ever happens in your comfort zone,” Contos said. “If I can take Cael's message to other people — a wider variety of people — that will be great. It has meaning to people.”
Contos, 38, recently welcomed his fourth child, a daughter, Violet Rose, on April 3. Married to his wife, Jolynn, a Waite graduate, Contos is the father of four girls, ages 9, 7, and 4 years and the fourth is 14 days old as of last Thursday.