TCNJ in class by itself at National Wrestling Hall of Fame

TCNJ in class by itself at National Wrestling Hall of Fame
Representing TCNJ in the 2011 New Jersey chapter to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum were Dennis Smith, second from left, Ken Scott '71, third from left, and Gene Barber '73, third from right. Also entering the Hall were George Coker, left, Len Zanowicz, second from right, David Dunlap, right, and Greg DeMarco, not pictured.

No college administrator wants to hear this, but after head coach Mike Curry ’63 helped move TCNJ’s wrestling program from the club to the varsity level in 1966, he didn’t have rules.

Instead, he subscribed to philosophies.

That Curry’s protégés were afforded trust and the freedom to develop individualism may help to explain how last September, three of them were among the five inductees who entered the New Jersey chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum under the classification of “Lifetime Service to Wrestling.” Ken Scott ’71 and Gene Barber ’73 wrestled under Curry for what was then Trenton State College, and Dennis Smith was a graduate assistant under him during the 1972–73 school year. All three went on to enjoy widely successful careers as high school wrestling coaches in their native New Jersey, where they each led many district, region, and state individual and team champions.

“When you’re sitting in a room full of people from all over and guys are getting up giving speeches, and they kept on bringing up Trenton State College, it’s an honor to have them say that,” Curry said. “And you see how well they’ve done since our program.”

Curry’s “open-book philosophy,” as Scott calls it, helped to instill values such as fundamentals, discipline, conditioning, and the maximizing of one’s abilities. His teaching inspired others, Smith says.

“You experimented,” Barber added. “You weren’t afraid to go out and do something different, try a different move or go into a match with a different philosophy. He gave you that freedom. A lot of coaches won’t do that. That way I think you learned more and you grew more.”

Scott, who was a high school teammate of Smith’s at Lenape Regional, was an NAIA champion on the College’s first championship team. He was an assistant coach at Cedar Ridge High, and then served as head coach at Madison Central and Old Bridge from 1977 to 2005. Over 28 seasons, he became the winningest coach in Middlesex County history with a 359–68–2 record.

“It’s quite an elite group, and I’m very proud to be in it,” Scott said of the Hall of Fame, which is located in Stillwater, OK. “And they have quite a vetting process. It took about a year and a half to check the credentials, you wait your turn, people have to recommend you.”

“To work all your life in a certain genre or a certain field, to be recognized at the highest level, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Barber arrived at the College from Camden County College and went on to compile an 80–5 two-year record, placing third at the Division III nationals in 1972 and then as the runner-up at the Division I nationals a year later. He was the coach at Absegami High for 33 seasons, beginning in 1977, and led a four-year run of 89–0–1 teams from 2001–04, en route to a 507–137–4 career record. His program was top-ranked in the state in 2002, 2003, and 2004.

“I was a firm believer in conditioning, but I wouldn’t try to tell a wrestler what to do,” the TCNJ Athletic Hall-of-Famer said. “I would let them have that freedom. I wouldn’t try to change his style. I think you’re taking away from a kid if you do that.”

Smith was a captain at Rutgers University before going into coaching at the College, where his specialty was working with lightweight wrestlers like Barber. Smith became the head coach at Delran High in 1975 and remains so today in his 37th season. He entered the campaign with a 578–164–5 record, ranking second among South Jersey coaches in career wins.

“Just to be considered, let alone be inducted, is a great honor,” said Smith, who plans to be a head coach through the 2012–13 school year and then be an assistant coach.

“I thought it was really neat how that intertwined like that (for TCNJ). I’m glad it did, because it just goes to show it’s a big world out there, but there are so many connections.”

Scott, Barber, and Smith coached against each other at some point of their careers. As they swapped stories at their induction ceremony at nearby Rider University, they learned about another bond they now joke about. Each has had a hip procedure or replacement in the last year.

And all are ecstatic about how TCNJ pointed them toward successful careers. “I was like, wow, three Trenton Staters,” Scott said. “I hope Mike Curry understands what an honor it is for him.”

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