ELKHART — John Alley was a wrestling coach in Elkhart for 25 seasons — 14 at Brookdale Junior High and 11 at Central High School — but he was more than that.
Alley, who died Saturday in North Webster at age 66 after an extended illness, taught lessons that reached beyond the mat.
“I try to get to know them and treat (athletes and managers) as people,” Alley told The Elkhart Truth at the time of his retirement as a coach in 1995. “In all my years, I never thought the school corporation was paying me just to coach wrestling.”
A believer in the concept of the “student-athlete,” Alley established a tutoring program.
Alley took over the reins at Central from Hall of Famer Rollie Hoover beginning in 1984-85 and went on to amass 75 dual-meet victories, win a team sectional title (1989) and send three grapplers — Dan Brekke, Kris Kanaley and Robert Jones — to the IHSAA State Finals.
A tradition of getting to State was a stop a White Castle and the burger boxes wound up on the wrestling room wall next to a photo of the athlete.
“I really admired his dedication and commitment to coaching,” said Brekke, who competed for Alley at Central and Brookdale, where the Eagles went 66-8 in duals and won 10 city freshmen championships on Alley’s watch. “He influenced a lot of athletes in a positive way.”
Former Central athletic director Ted Foland, who hired Hoover’s successor in the summer of 1984, said Alley had a way of letting his wrestlers make it “their program.”
“He has enthusiasm and he made it fun for the kids,” said Foland. “He brought the numbers up so we could have a JV and a varsity.”
Alley helped to establish Central’s Turkey Duals and Rookie Classic tournaments and was instrumental in starting the Northern Indiana Conference Super Duals.
Over the years, Alley met several other men dedicated to the sport.
“In 25 years, you meet so many coaches locally and at the area level, it’s hard to pick out a few,” Alley told The Truth. “With all of them, you establish a special rapport. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention working with Rollie Hoover. The contributions he made can never be equaled. I’ll always fondly remember the opportunity to associate with Rollie.”
Alley got the wrestling bug back in 1961-62 — his sophomore year at Pendleton High School, where he was coached by former Purdue University wrestler Dick McCrory.
As a co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Cooperative Education (I.C.E.) program for Elkhart Community Schools, Alley helped many students go on to professional careers. His 40-year career as an educator came to a close in 2009. He was hired straight out of Indiana State University in 1969.
Alley’s wife, Rita (who Alley met at ISU), was Central athletic department secretary for many years, beginning during the tenure of athletic director Max Bell and ending with Foland.