Billy Sheridan – Legendary Coach & Pied Piper of Wrestling
According to Jairus Hammond’s “History of Collegiate Wrestling” Yale and Columbia wrestled the first collegiate match in 1903. Hammond goes on to add that “two years later, Yale, Columbia, Pennsylvania and Princeton got together and held the first college championship in April 1905 on the campus of Penn in Philadelphia” representing the first Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) championship. Unbeknown to those initial college grapplers, thousands of miles away a teenager in Scotland was winning wrestling championships throughout the land. This young man – then known as Willie Sheridan – would come to have a major impact on college wrestling and the development of high school wrestling in the Lehigh Valley.
Sheridan, a native of Dumbarton, Scotland, was born in 1885 and started his wrestling career in 1903; his brother also wrestled. He won the 9 stone 7 pound amateur wrestling championship of Scotland from 1903 through 1908. He wrestled “all the best men in Scotland 10 stone and under and never met defeat.” Overall, he won dozens of titles. Around this time, he was working for Singer Sewing Machine in Glasgow. He wanted to go to Canada where his sister lived, and Singer transferred him there. He set sail in April 1908.
Two years later, not favoring the cold weather of Canada, Sheridan requested a transfer to a new Singer plant opening in Philadelphia, PA. Upon starting his new job as he walked to and from his work, he passed the University of Pennsylvania gymnasium each day. Billy would stop in and show the wrestlers holds, and at some point ended up on the mat, pinned half of the University of Penn team and was immediately hired as coach. One year later, Sheridan was hired as the head wrestling coach at Lehigh University, a post he would hold for an incredible forty-one years.
During his tenure as head coach at Lehigh, Billy Sheridan won 223 duals, thirteen EIWA team championships, and he coached five national championships. He established a wrestling tradition at Lehigh University that still burns brightly over 107 years after he first coached. Many Lehigh Valley adults and young future wrestlers (and future coaches) got their first exposure to wrestling due to Coach Sheridan’s and Lehigh’s success in those early years when wrestling was not well known. According to his son, Larry, Billy was “the pied piper of wrestling” right from the start.
Quite an athlete, Billy’s interest and participation in sports were not limited to wrestling. He boxed, played soccer and coached soccer, tennis and lacrosse. Around 1913, he became Manager/Coach/Trainer of the intramural sports program at Bethlehem Steel. In 1918, the soccer team won the national championship. In the photo of the team below, Billy, seated on the left in the second row, was the Manager, and notice the person on the right in the third row – “W Stark, Trainer”. Yes, that’s Bill Stark, the same Bill Stark who would become Bethlehem Liberty’s first wrestling coach and go on to coach from 1923 until 1947.
Billy Sheridan recommended Bill Stark be hired as an Athletic Director (i.e. Coach) at Bethlehem Liberty High School to coach swimming. Coach Stark would also coach soccer and start the first known high school wrestling program in the state of Pennsylvania in the 1923-24 season according to Norm Palovcik’s “History of the PIAA State Championships.” In the stands in attendance at many of the matches was Billy Sheridan. Hurricanewrestlingclub.com reports that Bill Stark won several titles in Scotland as well. One has to wonder whether Sheridan’s and Stark’s connection predated the Bethlehem Steel Soccer team.
In 1935, Billy established a wrestling clinic at Saylors Lake to the north of the Lehigh Valley in Saylorsburg, PA. Annual one and two week clinics were held here for about sixteen years before the camp was moved to Lehigh University. An early attendee of Billy’s clinics was legendary Clearfield wrestling coach, Art Weiss. Weiss had grown up in nearby Nazareth and began coaching at Clearfield High School in 1934. Weiss would return “a few years later with a carload of wrestlers” per Jessica Shirey’s article published on Gantdaily.com. Under Art Weiss, Clearfield High School dominated early PIAA State Wrestling Championship action. In 25 seasons, he coached fourteen undefeated dual teams and had 31 state champions, a record that still stands today.
Both Billy Sheridan and Art Weiss were tremendous promoters of the sport of wrestling hosting wrestling camps, acting as guest clinicians and visiting high schools in their local areas and well beyond to promote the sport of wrestling. The reach of Sheridan’s wrestling camps went beyond Pennsylvania as he invited clinicians and teams from Long Island and New Jersey to participate as well.
According to Norm Palovcsik’s “History of the PIAA State Championships”, “the geographic placement of the early collegiate wrestling programs is a consideration in the growth and development of high school wrestling in the Keystone State.” In a telephone conversation, he added that success was based upon individual coaches. With those individual coaches you could follow the pockets of success and strong programs throughout the state.
In the Lehigh Valley, the presence of Lehigh University’s strong program coupled with Billy Sheridan’s tireless promotion helped attract other pioneers to the area who started or jump started high school programs. In a Morning Call article, Tony Iasiello stated that going to Lehigh is how he “got interested in wrestling.”
Another important factor in the growth of wrestling in the area was the fact that five NCAA Wrestling championships – 1933, 1935, 1941, 1948 and 1951 – were held at Lehigh University in nineteen years. This was the most of any location in the country at that time. If that wasn’t enough, on four other occasions in a slightly broader time frame, the NCAA championships were held in Central Pennsylvania – Penn State in 1930, 1938 and 1953 as well as Franklin & Marshall – 1939. F&M had legendary coach Charles “Uncle Charlie” Mayser who began their program in 1923, and who per Norm Palovcsik was also a very strong promoter of wrestling.
Sheridan’s promotion also helped Lehigh University to become the site of the 1936 and 1948 U.S. Olympic wrestling trials. He was an alternate coach for the 1936 Olympic wrestling team and later coached the U.S. team in the Pan American Games in 1951. According to Denny Diehl’s “Mat Power – Lehigh Wrestling Highlights”, in 1939, he and his team were featured in a movie newsreel on Lehigh wrestling shown in 5,000 theatres nationwide.”
In other parts of the state the presence of Penn, Penn State and Pitt heavily influenced high school wrestling programs. Charlie Speidel began coaching at Penn State in 1927, and according to eiwawrestling.org, “traveled extensively to high schools and colleges, speaking at clinics to help promote the still undeveloped sport.” He also helped in “organizing the PIAA state championships in 1938” and came as a guest clinician to Sheridan’s camps at Saylors Lake. In the west, Pitt’s program began in 1912 and then had very successful coach, Rex Peery, as head coach during the critical growth years in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.
There was also likely a complimentary benefit to the presence of many of these strong promoters of within several hours of each other. This would allow them to easily travel to each other’s clinics and help support promotion of the sport in high schools. Billy Sheridan’s promotional activities included traveling to different high schools in Pennsylvania to conduct 1-2 day clinics. He also traveled to Long Island, including Mepham and Baldwin High Schools. He also was director for the local Boys’ Club and served as Lehigh’s soccer coach in the 1940’s according to his son, Larry. Billy also was very active in other parts of the local community including the Bethlehem Recreation Commission and Bethlehem School Board. He “gave back” to the community and the wrestling world in so many ways.
Around 1950, Billy moved his wrestling camp from Saylors Lake to Lehigh University. When he retired from coaching in 1952, he sold the rights to the camp to Lehigh for $1. Sheridan’s hand-picked successor, was Iowa native, Gerry Leeman, who continued the camps and followed in the footsteps of Billy Sheridan in promoting wrestling. Those camps continue today at Lehigh University.
According to Larry Sheridan, Leeman did a “great job” at Lehigh. Mike Caruso, 3-time national champion at Lehigh, said that “Billy got into the car and went to high schools to start [promote] wrestling programs. He was dedicated to starting programs. Gerry Leeman revered Billy Sheridan, and Gerry continued his efforts.” Over eighteen years, Leeman had an .803 winning percentage and won nine more EIWA titles. His wrestlers won nine individual NCAA titles. Of his coach, Mike Caruso said “he was a fantastic coach. He targeted character.”
Coach Leeman’s success and continued promotion on top of the strong foundation built by Billy Sheridan’s efforts saw tremendous growth in high school wrestling programs during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In a 2008 Morning Call article, Gerry Leeman, from an early interview was quoted as saying “So many teams got started because of the clinics we did. The growth [of high school wrestling] would not have been as rapid and popular if not for Lehigh’s influence.”
Billy Sheridan passed away in 1960 at the age of 74. He left a tremendous legacy at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, in the Lehigh Valley and well beyond. Billy Sheridan coached and inspired a countless number of coaches and wrestlers during his lifetime. The “pied piper of wrestling” had a tremendous impact on all levels of the sport of wrestling on a national scale. The Lehigh Valley was very fortunate to have Lehigh University and Billy Sheridan in Bethlehem – this was a critical factor in the development of the sport that we know and enjoy today in high schools throughout the Lehigh Valley and beyond!
Billy Sheridan is a member of the District XI, Pennsylvania, Lehigh University, EIWA, Helm’s and National Wrestling Halls of Fame. His son, Larry Sheridan, has been a tremendous contributor and promoter of the sport in his own right. Larry was a National Prep School champion as a wrestler, PIAA Referee for fifteen years and long-time announcer of Lehigh wrestling on WLVT Channel 39 for twenty-six years. He was very active in the local community – volunteering his time just as his father had done. Larry is also a member of the District XI, Pennsylvania and National Wrestling Halls of Fame.
Notes and Sources:
This article would not have been possible without Larry Sheridan. Larry was kind enough to allow me to interview him for several hours and provided many of the photos that are included in this feature. In addition, I would like to thank Denny Diehl for connecting me with Larry. I would also like to thank Norm Palovcsik and Mike Caruso, who were also interviewed and contributed information included in this feature. Additional sources for this article include:
- “Mat Power – Lehigh Wrestling Highlights – 1910-1997” by Denny Diehl, 1997
- “The History of Collegiate Wrestling” by Jairus K. Hammond, 2006
- “History of the PIAA State Championships” by Norm Palovcsik, 2016
- “Clearfield Wrestling Legend Arthur J. Weiss Sr. Dies at 102” by Jessica Shirey, gantnews.com, 5/15/2011
- “The Mat is Where It’s at it the Lehigh Valley” by Gary Blockus, The Morning Call, 1/17/2008
- “Larry Sheridan And WLVT-39 Might Both Be Out Of The Wrestling Game” by Terry Larimer, The Morning Call, 2/13/1994
- http://Eiwawrestling.org – Profiles of Billy Sheridan and Charlie Speidel