By Marty Farmer
After a brilliant 11-year run, Mike Powell has resigned as head coach of the Oak Park and River Forest High School wrestling team. The District 200 school board accepted Powell's resignation at the March 20 regular meeting.
"This has been the most fulfilling experience in my professional life," Powell said in a release issued by OPRF. "The Huskie Wrestling family means everything to me. I will continue to work on behalf of the wrestling athletes at OPRF, but it is time for me to take a step back."
According to OPRF Athletic Director John Stelzer, the search for Powell's replacement has not yet begun. While an in-program hire is a definite possibility, the Huskies' new head coach will be charged with following a legendary coach who not only has mentored the success of many OPRF wrestlers but touched countless lives.
"Mike Powell is undoubtedly one of the most dedicated and passionate coaches I have had the pleasure to work with at OPRF High School," Stelzer said in the same release. "Mike has nurtured a culture and a family within the wrestling program that is unmatched. His honors and accolades speak for themselves. But his most important accomplishment is the teaching and mentoring he has done with so many of our at-risk students, and the positive effect he has had on these athletes in their personal lives."
Powell, who won an IHSA Class AA state wrestling championship at 171 pounds as an OPRF senior in 1994, cited the need for more personal time and simply felt it was the right time.
"It's a good time to step down," Powell said. "The program is healthy and we have an incredible team coming back next season. Our program had a storybook ending this season. I'm very proud of the fact we had the best state tournament in the history of the state and best minority-driven wrestling team in the history of the United States. I feel like there's nothing left for me to prove as a head coach."
In 2009, Powell was diagnosed with polymyositis, a chronic inflammation of the muscles. It's a progressive autoimmune disease.
"I'm doing really, really well but the truth is I'm not a normal person," Powell said. "I don't function like a normal person. I'm a Type A personality so the [wrestling] season takes a lot out of me. I'm still recovering from this past season.
"I'm not going anywhere and I don't plan to work any less. Hopefully, as an assistant coach I'll be in a position to be a little more well rested toward the end of the season to help our guys achieve great things."
Since the diagnosis, Powell has inspired countless others by his positive and courageous attitude as he fights the disease. In 2012, ESPN released an E:60 feature presentation, "In Relentless Pursuit: Mike Powell's Fight," chronicling his remarkable story. Sports Illustrated reporter Chris Ballard also wrote an excellent piece about Powell in 2012 titled, "Man in Full."
"When the Sports Illustrated story and the TV stuff came out, everybody was giving me the credit," Powell said. "I just happened to fall into the right place at the right time. I have a passion for wrestling, and I know that I'm good at teaching the sport, but I'm really a very little piece to a large puzzle of success."
He will continue to work within the OPRF wrestling program as an assistant, after closing out his head coaching career in unforgettable fashion this season. Pegged as prohibitive favorites to win the IHSA Class 3A Dual Team Wrestling State Championship, the Huskies edged Marist 31-22 in the title match to claim their second dual team state championship under Powell, the previous title coming in 2009. In the dual team state quarterfinals this season, OPRF rolled past Conant 59-9. The Huskies then routed Hononegah 62-6 in the semifinals to set up their dream season-ending clash with Marist.
The Huskies dominated the action at the Class 3A IHSA Individual State Championships as well, producing four state champions in Isaiah White, Larry Early, Kamal Bey and Davonte Mahomes.
"I think the family aspect within the OPRF [wrestling] program is also a big key to our success," Mahomes said. "Everybody looks out for each other and supports each other on and off the mat. Whereas a lot of other wrestlers on other teams might just be looking out for their own progress, we all truly care about each other. That feeling of unity starts at the top with Coach Powell and the rest of our coaches."
OPRF finished the 2013-14 campaign with a school-record 29-1 record, their lone loss coming to Apple Valley, Minn., at a dual meet tournament held in Rochester, Minn. The Huskies also won their own Invite as well as Hinsdale Central's, took second at The Clash in Minnesota and third at the individual meet Ironman in Ohio (both prestigious national tournaments). The Huskies dominated the West Suburban Conference Silver Division with a 6-0 record and earned notable nonconference wins over St. Rita, Marist, and seven-time Class 2A champ Montini.
While the Huskies' success on the mat is undeniable, where Powell has truly made his mark is positively affecting the everyday lives of his wrestlers. Prioritizing a "family feeling" among the wrestlers, coaches, parents and supporters of the OPRF program, Powell created a unique atmosphere.
"It's the buy-in," White said earlier this season. "We all buy in to being a family. Our team is a family and it's easy to wrestle with somebody you love. Plus, Coach Powell and the rest of the coaches constantly challenge us to push ourselves."
The Michigan-bound Mahomes, who finished his OPRF career with the most wins (170) in school history, credits Powell for his development on and off the mat.
"Although I had some knowledge about wrestling, Coach Powell taught me a lot in terms of technique and strategy," Mahomes said. "He is an excellent coach and mentor. We learn things on and off the mat from him, including ways to build character and become a better person. I believe he deserves 100 percent credit for our success. He's a huge reason why I've loved being part of the OPRF wrestling family."