For retiring Homestead wrestling coach Barry Bernstein, who's been around the game so long (41 years) that the happy olfactory brew of sweat, mat stink and victory is permanently imprinted in his nostrils, appreciation is something that's earned and valued.
In forms writ both large and small.
A fine twist was put on that process Jan. 27 just before the final dual meet of Bernstein's career between his current squad and Germantown, a place with which he's had 23 years of coaching history.
There was much that was going to be special about this evening anyway. Homestead wrestling guru Ernie Milliard and current Germantown coach Casey Gabrielson (who Bernstein coached himself while being a Warhawk) presented him with a plaque that had arrayed on it the singlets of Whitefish Bay, Homestead and Germantown (all the places he's coached) plus a note of thanks.
A vigorous standing ovation from both Homestead and Germantown fans alike followed.
Further, his first state qualifier ever, 1983 Germantown graduate Jim Lutz, had taken it upon himself to put into the works a Bernstein bobblehead doll (Lutz was taking several orders for the thing at post-match celebrations. Bernstein could only laugh and hope that they wouldn't be treated like voodoo dolls).
There were also lots of old friends like Marv and Leo Lesch (assistant coach and wrestling son at Germantown) and Ruth Smith (wife of long-time Germantown assistant Jeff) to hug, shake hands with and laugh at the same old funny stories.
And it was senior night for Homestead, too. Ten fine gentlemen warriors, whom Bernstein has worked with over the past four years to create successes both large and small.
"Kids who put in a lot of effort, worked hard at their development," he said. "It's always been about them."
That group returned the favor by helping the Highlanders acquit themselves well before falling to the North Shore runner-up Warhawks, 42-29.
All those things were quite well and good, but it was something that happened before the match, something quite unexpected, which went almost unnoticed except by Bernstein, that the old coach remembers the most.
Homestead is special
But he had to put it into context first.
"It was a tremendously nice night," he said. "It just shows that at Homestead, the culture of the institution is significantly different than it has been at other places I've worked. Just a wonderful place."
And then came the moment itself.
"Where else would you have the superintendent (Demond Means) come down and thank me for working with the kids here," Bernstein said softly. "I mean, I've only been here seven years and I wasn't even in the building teaching or administrating.
"Just a completely different culture."
Milliard, who worked hard with Homestead Athletic Director Ryan Mangan on the project, said it was the least that could be done for someone who's left as large a positive imprint on North Shore wrestling as Bernstein has.
This is Bernstein's second time around at retirement. He left Germantown after a long career there as coach and administrator about seven years ago, but couldn't stay away from the wrestling business (the man who got him started on that path, his lifelong wrestling mentor Dale Lippert out of Dean College in Franklin, Mass., was also at the match).
So Bernstein joined Milliard as an assistant and then took over a couple of years later, when Milliard started a family (Homestead assistant Chris Gaebel is doing the same thing this year). It's been a good fit with some healthy and invigorating bonding with the competition thrown in for good measure.
"It's very difficult to maintain things like he has even though he isn't a teacher or an administrator and therefore not in the building as much," Milliard said of Bernstein, "but he was seriously trying, putting in an extraordinary effort. It was just starting to wear on him a little. … But Barry's passion for wrestling is unparalleled."
This time, it's for real
But Bernstein is serious about retirement this time. He and his wife, Nancy, have a new home in Fort Collins, Colo., where he will move permanently after the season. In an odd twist of fate, the couples' Whitefish Bay house was sold some time ago and so in the interim, Bernstein has been bunking with Gabrielson's parents in Germantown.
Gabrielson himself was happy to have been a part of the appreciation process.
"It was the perfect atmosphere," he said. "We had about 40 alumni out here tonight. He'll always be the boss to me and a second father to all of us. My dad's always the best dad, but it's not too bad to have two of them in this kind of situation (laughs)."
And Bernstein is happy to see young coaches like Gabrielson and Dale Loebel at Whitefish Bay (who contributed a singlet for the plaque) succeed and carry on where he left off. In a small piece of irony, Homestead lost to both squads this winter.
"Dale has done a super job out there (at Bay) keeping things going, building them up," said Bernstein. "Maybe that beatdown he gave us a couple of weeks ago made it a little easier for him to donate (the singlet)."
A hearty chuckle followed that latter thought.
Loebel himself understood how rare an occurrence that victory was.
"No matter where he has been, he always seems to win," Loebel said of Bernstein. "I don't know his dual record, but I am guessing that losing dual seasons were extremely rare for him. On top of that, he's a great man. "
Bernstein knows that the future of coaching in the sport is in good hands.
"Casey (Gabrielson) has always been a special young man and he's grown into a superb teacher and coach," said Bernstein. "… You know, Casey is one of those people who knows me better than almost anyone else (in wrestling). I just told him before the match, when we get through all the BS (the ceremonies), let's just go out and wrestle. Let's just have some fun."
They did, in a way that all fans of the sport could appreciate.
"It was outstanding and fun match to watch," added Bernstein. "People will be turned on to the sport because of it."
At a Glance
Homestead saluted its retiring coach Barry Bernstein on Jan. 27.
HEAD COACHING CAREER: 10 years at Bay, 23 at Germantown, four at Homestead.
MEET SCORE: Germantown 42, Homestead 29
MATCH RESULTS: 103: Tyler Colegrove (GT) pinned Josh Ference (HHS), 1:21; 112 pounds: Brandon Goesch (GT) pinned John Hokeness (HHS), 2:29; 119: Cody Szohr (GT) pinned Zac Price (HHS), 2:37; 125: Spencer Bold (HHS) defeated Tyler Palzkill (GT), 10-5; 130: Jesse Thielke (GT) pinned Jake Mueller (HHS), 0:40; 135: Brian Kuhlenbeck (GT) defeated Brad Devereux (HHS), 11-4; 140: Nick Weyker (HHS) pinned Zach Baus (GT), 1:13; 145: Matt Schroeder (HHS) pinned Max Albiero (GT), 2:16; 152: Danny Krause (GT) pinned Nick Pierret (HHS), 1:53; 160: Adam Schwalbach (HHS) defeated John Will (GT), 16-6; 171: Mike Kress (HHS) pinned Steve Asmondy (GT), 4:32; 189: Pat Farrell (HHS) defeated Mike Knippen (GT), 11-0.; 215: Hunter Higginbotham (GT) defeated Brian Shears (HHS), 10-4; and 285: Joe Multerer (GT) won by forfeit.
SO WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SWEATER?: At his original Germantown retirement some years ago, Bernstein wore a Germantown blue sweater with a lightning bolt on it that Nancy had made for him. The rumor going into the ceremonies last week was that Gabrielson was going to wear it to honor his old coach, but that didn't occur.
"No, no, that wasn't going to happen," laughed Bernstein. "She (Nancy) just took that thing, unraveled it and put the wool to better use!"
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