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When you spend a lot of time in one area, you can’t help but find things you like — and things you might not like as much.
That’s the blessing — and the curse — of covering a certain “beat” for a number of years. You get to know your subjects inside and out so you can share that insight with your audience. That’s a good thing.
But while you do your best to stay objective, you tend to migrate toward those individuals who may be easier to talk to, are more quotable or, frankly, more successful. That’s human nature and, for the most part, sportswriters are human, too.
I found out last week Jim Heffernan was retiring as Illinois’ head wrestling coach. Heffernan spent 12 years as the head coach, 19 before that as Mark Johnson’s top assistant in Champaign.
Heffernan was one of those “good guys” during my time on the college wrestling beat. He was a four-time All-American, four-time Big Ten champion and 1986 NCAA titlist at the University of Iowa.
“It was hard, it was real hard,” he said last week during a Zoom conference of his decision to leave the sport that has defined his life since first stepping on a mat at the age of 8.
Heffernan wasn’t the flashiest wrestler on Iowa teams that included the likes of Royce Alger, Rico Chiapparelli, Greg Randall, Brad Penrith and a couple of the Kistler brothers.
He was more likely to beat someone 1-0 or 4-2 than pin them, but beat them he did. He made three NCAA finals and won 131 of 151 career matches on teams that won four Big Ten and three national titles.
The man who grew up in wrestling hotbed Ohio, wrestled for the premier college program during its zenith and became an Illini through-and-through said he knew it was time to step aside.
That passion that drove him for more than 40 years was starting to dim.
“My energy levels are starting to drop a bit,” he said. “It started to become work.”
He said the Illini deserved better than what he was able to give after all these years.
“I want what’s best for the program,” he said.
Heffernan got into coaching at Iowa, of course, one of multitudes who kicked off their careers working under Dan Gable, their former coach. He spent two years at Lehigh before first hooking up with Johnson at Oregon State.
Those two first connected at Iowa when Johnson was Gable’s top assistant in the 1980s. Johnson, for what it’s worth, also was one of those good guys. It’s not surprising they sent 19 years coaching together.
Heffernan, like so many other Gable prodigies, was not only a good wrestler, but a good coach. He helped 70 wrestlers at Illinois earn All-America honors and played a vital role in a 29-year streak of the program having at least one All-American on the roster.
He helped Illinois win its first Big Ten Conference tournament championship in 53 years in 2005.
He knows he’ll go through some withdrawal next fall, when he’d be welcoming new wrestlers into the practice room, learning more about those recruits and building relationships that would last a lifetime.
“I love the competitiveness, the spirit and the fight” of wrestlers, he said.
Like many other Gable-mentored head coaches, Heffernan didn’t reach those same lofty heights. But, he said, grooming young men to become not only better wrestlers, but better people, is really what it’s all about — and what he’ll miss the most.
“Watching them become adults, that’s my favorite part,” he said. “I think those things took precedent over winning.”
A 2006 inductee into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame — and a 2015 inductee into the National Iowa Varsity Club Athletics Hall of Fame — Heffernan said he leaves with no regrets.
“I think we did things the right way,” he said.
Heffernan said his wife, Rebecca, also is retiring, so the two will begin the next journey together. Where that takes them, he’s not real sure.
“The goal is to do whatever we want,” he said. “Neither of us have anything planned.”
That’s a good plan for a good man.
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