Plein Reaches Pinnacle of Success

By Matt Levins For The Predicament

No one can argue the numbers Bill Plein has accumulated through the years as a high school wrestling coach.

Plein has a 417-9-1 dual meet record during his 29 years of coaching. He is 11th on the all-time career wins list. He coached the Columbus to five consecutive team titles from 1995-99. He has coached 11 individual state champions to 13 state titles and nearly 50 state placewinners in his illustrious career and hundreds of state qualifiers.

Those numbers alone were enough to earn Plein his rightful place in the Iowa High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame during a ceremony on Saturday prior to the state finals at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.

As impressive as those numbers are, they pale in comparison to he intangibles, the things behind the scenes, that simply can't be measured.

Plein has impacted hundreds of student-athletes, helped shape them into the men they have become today. He is not only a master technician and motivator, he is the chess master of high school wrestling when it comes to duals, always two or three steps ahead of the opposing coach when it comes to moving his wrestlers around to get the matchups they want in order to win the dual.

More than that, Plein has been a teacher, a mentor, a father figure and a friend to hundreds of student-athletes through the years, someone they can turn to for comfort and advice, not only in wrestling, but in life.

Those are the things that matter most to Plein. They are far more important than mere numbers. It is real life.

"I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by great athletes, coaches and parents, people who really stepped up and helped me quite a bit. I really appreciate all their help," said Plein, who is in his first year as head wrestling coach at Notre Dame-West Burlington/Danville and athletics director at Notre Dame High School. "This is truly a great honor, but it's more about the efforts and hard work of the kids who put in the effort and the parents who made it possible and the assistant coaches who helped me along the way."

"Working with Bill you are working with a professional in all aspects of the game," said fellow Hall of Fame coach John Siegel, who as an assistant coach for Plein for 15 years at Columbus. "His knowledge of the sport is really good and his ability to get kids to respond to him is really, really good. That's what he did for a long time. He's one of the top five coaches in the state of Iowa. His success rate and what he did with what he had was amazing. Everyone remembers the good days, but there were days that weren't so good and he still found a way to win."

"Back then I was just a young kid. I knew wrestling, but not as much as Bill," said Columbus/Winfield-Mount Union assistant coach Andy Milder, who coached with Plein for 28 years. "I was just like one of the kids. I was a sponge trying to understand what he was trying to teach. We were fortunate enough to have kids who bought into the system and great parent support."

Plein got his start in wrestling back in his hometown of Waukon. His older brothers, Mike and Mark, wrestled, so Bill and his younger brother, Tom, followed the same path. Plein never qualified for state, getting edged out in districts by a state champion one year.

From there he went to Central College and had a solid career. In fact, he still holds the school record for most tournament points scored with 23.

Plein got his start in coaching at Wapello, where he was an assistant coach for Hall of Fame coach Willard Howell and helped coach Will Buster to a state championship.

Plein spent at year coaching youth wrestling at Morning Sun with Siegel, the start of a coaching tandem which would later lead Columbus to greatness.

Plein was asked to take over the Columbus wrestling program for the 1990-91 season and brought Milder on board. With Doug Pugh building up a formidable group of youth wrestlers, the stage was set for a long run of success for the Wildcats.

"We had an awful lot of success and an awful lot of good kids coming through at the time," Plein said. "I can't say enough about the influence Doug Pugh had on that program. He built the youth program. All the guys went through that program. I was lucky enough to come in at a time when Doug Pugh was coaching the youth."

Siegel came on board in 1994 and the Wildcats embarked on a five-year run of success in which they won five state team titles in a row and crowned eight state champions.

It all started with Randy Pugh, a senior on the 1995 team which won the Class 1A tradition state team championship. Pugh became Columbus' first state champion and is the foundation upon which the Wildcats' success is built.

"Bill was great with fundamentals and getting the best out of guys, but he was the best at getting you to believe in yourself. He was more of a life coach than people give him credit for," said Pugh, who was the Class 1A 145-pound state champion in 1995 and now is in his 18th season as an assistant coach for the University of Northern Iowa wrestling team. "Winning state was the goal and we talked about it. He put it on me as being the leader of the team. That really helped me later on in life

"I coached a lot of great wrestlers, but the best one was Randy Pugh. He was the best wrestler I ever coached," Plein said. "We had an inner sense of arrogance that you have to have to win. We knew we were going to win. We didn't always know how, but wherever we went, we knew we were going to win. It wasn't always the horses who carried us. It was everyone. We had guys like Justin Scheef. Guys like that raised all of our levels."

"The one thing that Bill was able to do is to take a student-athlete and coach him up a level," said Mediapolis head coach Jason Payne, who won back-to-back state championships at Columbus in 1996-97 and, like Pugh, went on to become an All-American at UNI. "He was able to take an average kid and make him good and take a good kid and make him great. He did that better than anybody else. He got them to believe in themselves and wrestle above their ability. That's what made us successful more than anything else in that five or six-year stretch in the late 1990s."

Siegel points to the 2006 Columbus team as Plein's best coaching job. The Wildcats made it to the finals of the Class 1A State Dual Team Championships that year, losing to Osage, 30-27.

"I really think that was his best coaching job," Siegel said. "Seth Pugh was a great wrestler on that team, but the rest of them were just good, solid wrestlers. He molded them into a great team. That really was a tremendous job of coaching right there."

More than anything Plein did on the mat or in the practice room, it was the things he did behind the scenes that had a bigger impact on others. Whether it was lending a helping hand, bending his ear to listen, providing a shoulder to cry on or just spending a little time with someone, Plein always was willing to go out of his way to help others. And that is why to this day his former wrestlers all him regularly and come to meets to show their support.

That, as much as anything, is what sets Plein apart.

"I remember he sat me down one day and told me I had a chance to do something special and finish on a high note," said Payne of going for a second state title in 1997. "It was all about choices and sometimes I was tempted to make bad choices. After practice I would hang out with him so I wasn't tempted into any tomfoolery. Sometimes we would just go grab a bite to east and sit down and watch a movie. Just hanging out with him was probably the best thing for me. That was probably one of the smartest decisions I ever made."

"I remember I lost in the state semifinals my senior year and I was just devastated," said Derick Ball, who is in his second year as head coach of the Highland High School wrestling team. "He came over to me and told me, 'I know this sucks, but you've got to pick yourself up and go again in about an hour. You are going to find out how much pride you have right now.' He picked me up and put me back together again after my dream was gone. Thanks to him I found the strength to go back out there and compete to the best of my ability and I ended up getting third. The Columbus wrestling legacy lives on because of him."

"One of the biggest qualities I got from him was that inner sense of arrogance, but yet he is so humble. I really think I got that from him," Pugh said. "Coach Plein and my Dad are the two most influential people I have ever been around."

"Coach Plein has always been the guy that could straighten me out wrestling-wise, all the way through college," said Johnny Siegel, a state champion for New London who is now coaching for DC Elite.

"Over the years it's meant a lot to him when his former wrestlers come back to the room or to a meet He really enjoys that," Milder said. "They all come back to see him. That tells you how much of an influence he has had on them."

"The best story about Bill is the story he writes every day," John Siegel said. "He is not only a tremendous coach, but a tremendous teacher. If there was a Hall of Fame for teachers, Bill would be in it. As a coach he gets more notoriety, but that's what he is. He's a teacher and he's pretty darn good at it."