published Friday, January 17th, 2014

Connell championships continue

McCallie School co-head coaches Mike Newman (left) and Gordon Connell are seen during the 2011 State Wrestling Championships at Franklin, Tennessee.
McCallie School co-head coaches Mike Newman (left) and Gordon Connell are seen during the 2011 State Wrestling Championships at Franklin, Tennessee.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.

The week after McCallie's Lee Connell won his second state wrestling championship, his family had a ceremony in which he passed a baton to younger brother Adam.

It was the end of one era and the beginning of another in the Connell wrestling tradition.

It's likely now that Adam, now a McCallie senior, will be on the giving end of another such ceremony, passing a baton to 6-year-old nephew Brody before he begins his college career at the Naval or Air Force academy.

The Connell name has been part of the Chattanooga wrestling tradition since 1966, when Gordon Connell won a state championship as a senior at Brainerd. Over the ensuing decades, that name has become synonymous with wrestling on local, state, national and international circles. For years Gordon filmed NCAA tournaments and numerous international events for USA Wrestling. He also won a world seniors championship in 2008.

"I remember it," said Adam, then a second-grader. "We were at Bright School in computer class and we watched his [title] match on the computer."

Gordon was, Adam admits, a hero in addition to being a father and coach.

"I was little but I definitely looked up to him. I asked myself how many world champions were there in Chattanooga or even Tennessee," Adam said. "So, yeah, I saw him as a hero."

The family has laid claim to 18 Tennessee state championships. As a coach, Gordon has eight traditional state titles (one at Hixson and seven at McCallie), and six duals crowns. In addition to Lee's two as a wrestler, Adam will enter this year's state tournament in search of his third championship.

Through it all, Gordon was never Coach Connell to his boys.

"It's weird thinking of him as my coach, even at practice," Adam said. "He has always been understanding as opposed to many dads that push their kids in sports."

Adam also finds it odd, perhaps even humorous, the public persona his father carries.

"People see him as someone who's always about wrestling, a guy with a rough and tough image," Adam said. "That image isn't at all the way it is at home. At home he's the most caring person I know. He always put family above wrestling."

Said Gordon: "I used to get mad at Lee. Maybe I tried to control him more than I should have. Lee confessed to me years later that he wrestled to appease me. I think he enjoyed it, and he had the ability, but he didn't have the passion. He was probably a better baseball player than wrestler, but he dropped other sports for me."

That wasn't the way Connell would have had it, either as a father or coach.

"Coaching your child is pretty tricky," he acknowledged. "Sometimes you can't differentiate between son and athlete, and I have might have been harder on [Lee, than other wrestlers], which coaches often do with their sons. They both handled it pretty well and as far as relationships, they grow. If coaches do it right with their sons it can't help but create a bond, because you're sharing the pain and the journey with them."

Adam agreed.

"I never felt that I had to wrestle, which some people would think I did because of his background," he said. "If that had been the case I probably wouldn't be wrestling right now. I used to play football and baseball. Those were sports I wanted to do. Wrestle is something I always loved."

Gordon carries the title of head coach emeritus, which he says means you're old and you're either gone or about to be.

He acknowledged that he'd had thoughts about retirement. He plans now to coach at least one more year.

"I've had a wonderful career," he said. "I was going to leave with [Adam]. We'd high-five and I'd go off into the sunset. Now, though, I'll probably stay at least one more year."

He might even wind up coaching Brody, thus continuing the Connell era.

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfreepress.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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