Six months ago, Granite City High School’s student newspaper, the Granite High World, produced a 48-minute documentary called, “Legendary Coaches of Granite City.”
The movie, which was produced and directed by GCHS journalism teacher Andrew Crider, chronicled the accomplishments of three legendary athletic coaches at Granite City.
One of them was William “Red” Schmitt, who finished with 589 wins during his 35 years as Granite City wrestling coach.
“Schmitty was an iconic figure at our high school, our state and throughout the nation,” former Granite City wrestling coach Mike Garland said. “What timing by Mr. Crider and his students. It was a great deal.”
Schmitt passed away at 3 p.m. on Saturday. He was 94 years old.
“I’m very sadden by the passing of the great coach, Red Schmitt,” current Granite City wrestling coach George Kirgan said.
“We just lost a great ambassador of the sport of wrestling, not just for Illinois, but from New York to California,” Garland said. “He was known nationwide. He was just a great person personally to wrestle for. He was my coach. He was my mentor and he was my best friend. You just got to thank God that we had him for so long. 94 years, that’s a lot of years.”
Schmitt took over the Warriors in 1950 and quickly turned them into a high school wrestling powerhouse. He coached the Warriors to 25 regional championships, 24 sectional titles and three top-four finishes in the state tournament, including their only state championship in 1965. Schmitt also earned the National High School Coach of the Year award in 1977.
Schmitt retired as Granite City coach in 1985.
“He wasn’t just a great coach, but he was a great person and that’s what really made him special,” said Garland, who wrestled under Schmitt for four years until graduating from GCHS in 1971. “It made him extraordinary.”
The Warriors were 14-0 in Schmitt’s first year as Granite City coach. Granite City finished with seven undefeated seasons under Schmitt.
In Schmitt’s final year as Granite City in 1985, the Warriors went 24-4, captured conference and regional championships and got an all-state medalist in Jeff Cotter in the 98-pound division.
A total of 36 wrestlers earned all-state honors, three of them were state champions. George Nemeth won state titles in 1957 and 1958, Bill Fuchs captured a state crown in 1967 and Bob Miller placed first in 1969.
The holiday wrestling tournament, which is held at Memorial Gymnasium every December, is named after Schmitt. Granite City won 17 tournament championships, 11 of them were under Schmitt.
Schmitt won a total of 605 high school wrestling matches. Before heading to Granite City, Schmitt coached at Western Military Academy in Alton.
Schmitt was a four-time letter winner at Alton High School, where he graduated in 1940.
He remained a Godfrey resident until his recent passing and continued a fervent following of Alton High and GCHS wrestling. Schmitt was instrumental in revitalizing AHS wrestling when it returned to the school in 1996. Alton scrapped the wrestling program on two different occasions after Schmitt's graduation in '40.
Schmitt didn't miss a showdown on the mat between the Redbirds and Warriors. He was there last winter when his alma mater beat the program he built 33-23 for the first time since 1938.
Schmitt was all smiles after the dual. He's a member of both the Alton and Granite City Sports Hall of Fames.
Garland, who coached the Warriors from 1987-1999 and finished with 274 wins, said the last time he saw Schmitt was during a breakfast outing earlier this month.
“We would get together monthly and have breakfast and he still wanted to talk about wrestling,” Garland said. “So that’s what we did and we had a good time doing it. When Schmitt was in his 80s, he was still running 10K races. He was in shape most of his life. He was a super person. He touched so many lives through wrestling.”
Crider said he heard about the news of Schmitt’s passing while he was in a wedding on Saturday.
“I was really kind of floored because it seemed like he was going to live forever,” he said. “As soon as I heard the news, I thought, ‘Wow.’ That documentary came none too soon. It was rather timely.”
The documentary, which is now available on DVD and on YouTube, was shown on Feb. 7 at the Granite City Cinema. It also featured legendary Granite City soccer coach Gene Baker and former baseball coach Babe Champion. Schmitt was in attendance during the showing of the film.
“Other people said these people are not going to be around much longer,” Crider said. “When you’re young, you don’t think about that. But they were absolutely right. I’m so glad that we got it on film and got it aired.”