When the name William “Red” Schmitt is uttered, two words come to mind — wrestling and success.
They go hand in hand when talking about the wrestling icon, a four-time letter winner at Alton High School, where he graduated in 1940. More eye popping, though, is the 605-82-5 record Schmitt produced as a wrestling coach at Western Military Academy in Alton and Granite City High School, where 589 of those wins occurred. The holiday tournament at GCHS even bears his name.
Schmitt is enshrined in nine hall of fames from his accomplishments and boasts the 1965 IHSA wrestling state championship for Granite City under his regime.
When Schmitt, who will be 94 in February, reflects on his life in the sport, it’s a surreal feeling.
“Sometimes you don’t remember all that until somebody tweaks you, ‘Oh man, I remember that,’” Schmitt said, laughing, recently at his home in Godfrey. “I know this guy and that guy and so on. It’s been quite a journey, I guess.”
It’s a journey that has been co-piloted by his wife, Helen. The two will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary in January. They were high school sweethearts.
It’s also a journey that has seen Schmitt’s hand sculpt and mold a plethora of young athletes over the years. He credits their hard work and dedication to his success.
Two of the Hall of Fames he cherishes the most are the Granite City Athletics HOF and the Alton Athletics HOF. He was inducted into his alma mater in the fall of 2014.
“In fact, I think the Alton deal meant a little more than Granite because it was my hometown,” Schmitt said. “It’s pretty nice, but the kids made me. If it wasn’t for the kids and their dedication, sweating ... I think I spent more time in the hospital with my (wrestling) kids than I did with my own. I still have a lot of them that keep in touch.”
It all began in the ninth grade when Schmitt got his start in wrestling. He never looked back.
“We only had a three-year high school,” Schmitt said. “The ninth grade was at the lower level, at the current middle school. I played junior high football and got a big ‘E’ for East Junior and one of the coaches said, ‘You aren’t very heavy, are you?’ I said, ‘I only weigh 115.’ And he said, ‘We need a 115-pounder for our wrestling team this year.’ So he talked me into coming out and I made the team. That’s how I got my start. What else could a 115-pounder do?”
He became the first four-year letter winner in wrestling for the Redbirds and it propelled him into even more success in the sport.
“They made an exception because ninth-graders weren’t supposed to wrestle because we were a three-year school,” Schmitt said. “That got me going and right after graduation I continued to wrestle at the Alton YMCA. We had the Ozark Region and they had a tournament every year and they had state tournaments. We also had a YMCA dual meet team against other YMCA teams in the area and we wrestled a round robin. That was pretty big back then.”
Schmitt was runner-up in the ‘39 Ozark AAU Regional and won it in ‘40-42. He also won YMCA state in ‘41, ‘42 and ‘46. Maybe his most coveted accomplishment on the mat though was his third-place finish in the ‘41 AAU Nationals.
“From high school wrestling I went to AAU and my shining glory was getting third in the nationals,” Schmitt said.
While he found success as an amateur wrestler, his money started to roll in from professional wrestling. He was paid $15 a match, which well exceeded the 50 cents an hour he received from his job at Western Cartridge Co.
“Working out at the Y were some professional wrestlers and we would wrestle pro-style, like WWE,” Schmitt said. “We had our own group and I think the heaviest one was around 165 pounds. We went around to the Homecoming festivals and would rent the Turner Hall ring on Ridge Street. We had professional wrestling there almost every week. We’d rent the ring and go to the Bethalto Homecoming, or the Autumn Festival in Alton, Pie Town in Upper Alton and we’d go to all these little towns around like Hardin and put on a show.”
One of Schmitt’s fellow wrestlers was a guy from Hartford who went on to bigger and better things after his short-lived career in the ring.
“We had a famous cowboy wrestle with us, Clint Walker out of Hartford,” Schmitt said. “He wrestled with us and there was a guy from Collinsville, Sam Ford, and he was pretty well knotted up and he was jealous of Clint. They both had an audition for a Tarzan role and both of them physique-wise fit the bill, but they didn’t have the agility they needed for that role, so neither made it, but Clint was tagged for the ‘Cheyenne’ role and Sam didn’t make it and ended up selling used cars in Collinsville.”
Walker went on to star on the TV show “Cheyenne” from 1955-62 and was later in movies like “The Dirty Dozen” in 1967.
Schmitt’s wrestling exploits were put on hiatus for World War II. He fought in the Army in Italy until being discharged in December 1945. He returned home, married Helen and attended Shurtleff College in Alton.
He went back to traveling with the professional wrestling outfit and wrestling for the YMCA, but a new opportunity arose when Western Military Academy in Alton asked him to coach in 1946. Schmitt stayed there through the ‘48-49 season, finding success but not without some headaches.
“With Western being a military school you had two problems; you had to keep your grades up, of course, but then they had military discipline and you had academic discipline,” Schmitt said. “So you’d say, ‘Where’s so and so tonight at practice?’ And they’d say, ‘He messed up in class and is on academic discipline.’ Or they’d say, ‘He screwed up in drills and has military discipline.’ So you never knew if you were going to have a full workout or not.”
In 1950 he got the chance to advance his career when Granite City came calling for Schmitt to become wrestling coach. It was a marriage that lasted from 1950-85 and he found success instantly.
“My first year at Granite City I was 16-0,” Schmitt said.
He didn’t forget about his time at Western. He looks back on it fondly.
“You had more time to coach at Granite than you did at Western,” Schmitt said. “That doesn’t mean the kids at Western didn’t try hard; they did and I had some good kids out there. Harry Clark was the only Western Military place winner. He got third and fourth at state.”
His time with the Warriors was much more prosperous. Schmitt saw wrestlers medal at state 36 times, including producing four state champions. Bob Miller and Bill Fuchs won one apiece and George Nemeth won two state titles.
He had seven undefeated seasons at Granite City, won 19 Southwestern Conference championships, 25 regional crowns, 26 sectional titles and placed in the top 10 at state 15 times, including the state title season of ‘65. The Warriors were 18-2 that season.
“We had a good bunch of kids,” Schmitt said of the ‘65 season. “They were dedicated and they jelled. They were a close group. If one of them decided to have a party, he invited everybody on the team and the parents mixed well, too. When you’ve got that kind of setup, you’re going to be successful.”
Schmitt was a pioneer in something that’s now commonplace in prep wrestling in southern Illinois. He and his staff were the first in the area to begin traveling to Chicagoland to face the best programs in the state.
“The competition we got down here was nothing like what it was up in Chicago, so we got the board to approve scheduling those schools up there and that helped tremendously,” he said. “We wrestled Waukegan, Evanston, North Chicago, Carl Sandburg and Lockport and they were really tough back then. Going up there and getting our tails whipped helped, because we knew what kind of competition to expect at state. The kids were more geared for it.”
Schmitt admitted he ran into some adversity when Granite City split into Granite City North and South from the ‘73-74 season through the ‘82-83 campaign. The Warriors still found success, but there was much friction during the separation.
“That created a lot of animosity between the two schools,” Schmitt said. “Somebody had to go to North to teach. Volunteers got first choice and then they assigned individuals and kids too, they split them up ... I hate to say it, but some of the animosity still exists today.”
He said when the two schools merged again, much of the friction remained.
“Now you’ve got North kids, South kids competing to be on the same team and it was a bad deal,” Schmitt said. “North parents would call or come out to see you saying, ‘Hey, you’re not giving my kid a fair shake. You’re giving your South kid more time. You’re playing favorites.’ There was all kinds of stuff like that, which we didn’t have before. Of course, who’s going to be department head now? Who’s going to be the head coach? Boy, it wasn’t too pleasant.”
In 1985 after 35 years at the helm of the Warriors, Schmitt decided to hang up his coaching duds.
He had been National Coach of the Year in 1977 and was the only prep coach to be elected president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association in ‘73-74. There were a slew of other accolades wrestling had brought him. He had even been invited to help coach at the U.S. Olympic development camps in ‘66 and ‘67, a prodigious honor.
But retirement from coaching didn’t mean the end of his sports career. Schmitt remained a wrestling and football official and enjoyed that time.
“I worked three state championship games in football and quite a few playoff games through the semifinals, and in wrestling I was still officiating,” Schmitt said. “I got to work the NCAAs and worked several Greco-Roman and freestyle USA Wrestling events, so I kept busy. I was never home.
“In 2000, I finally decided to give it up.”
He was inducted into his latest HOF thanks to football. In 2015 he went into the St. Louis Metropolitan Football Coaches Association HOF as an official.
But through all the local, regional and national accolades, he never forgot the program where he got his start. He saw Alton disband wrestling twice after his graduation and was crucial in helping bring it back to the successful program it is today. He was a consultant, helping set the Birds up with equipment and uniforms.
To this day he doesn’t miss a dual between his beloved Redbirds and Warriors.
“No, not since they started again,” Schmitt said, chuckling.
He’ll be sure to be there when they square off again this winter. He wouldn’t miss it for the world — after all, they’re the two programs that have molded his illustrious life.
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