A room full of well-wishers, one coming from across the Atlantic, gathered recently to see Watertown High School wrestling coach Kevin Russo be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Russo has had success where ever he has gone, notching more than 400 wins, but the longtime WHS coach said the thing that keeps him going is the satisfaction he gets from working with youth.
Dozens of former wrestlers, parents and others were on hand to see Russo receive the Lifetime Service to Wrestling award at a ceremony held at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro on April 13, 2019. A plaque in his honor will be installed at the Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.
“Gillette was a good time — nice, professional. It was a big room, with hundreds of people,” Russo said. “When it is all happening, it comes at you like a gust of wind.”
Russo said he felt a bit uncomfortable taking credit for all the work and success. He said he received a lot of help in his coaching career.
“It’s very nice to be recognized,” Russo said. “But I think about all the work it takes to put program.”
He added: “I feel bad for all the people who helped along the way: Great assistants, great parents, great wrestlers,” Russo said. “I don’t want to downplay the excitement. Having the chance to get together with people. I had someone come from Germany.”
Russo has made a career of turning around programs, or — in the case of Watertown — building it from scratch.
“I think I like the challenge, for sure, and always being engaged and working with people who have the odds stacked against them,” Russon said.
His first head coaching position was at Belmont High School, where the team was last in the Middlesex League when her arrived. Four years later, Russo had them up to third in the very competitive league.
Lexington was Russo’s next stop. At the time he had several offers, but chose to go with the underdog.
“When I left Belmont I had four schools offering coaching jobs — two very very good, and two not so good,” Russo said. “Of the four, Lexington was the worst, at 3-19.”
He was given the goal of winning five meets and recruit 10 wrestlers. Russo’s team got five wins, with 42 wrestlers. The team improved quickly, and during five of his seven seasons at the school, Lexington finished in the top 10 in Massachusetts’ Div. 1 championship.
Next, Russo headed to Watertown, which was familiar ground for him. He grew up in Waltham, his parents grew up in Watertown, and he has many cousins in town. However, WHS did not have a team.
“I said I want to move to Watertown, start a family. I wanted to start a wrestling program and coach my boys,” Russo said. “I had two girls, so I never coached them, but I coached all their friends and got to know everyone. And they helped recruit wrestlers.”
That proved to be a benefit, because filling a wrestling roster can be a difficult, Russo said.
“Wrestling isn’t a sport where you can just go down the street shoot hoops,” Russo said.
In his first year at Lexington, he would organize times before school and after school for athletes to train. In the second year, he created a weight training program and wrestling clinic open to anyone in the Middlesex League.
“Every team in the Middlesex League was represented,” Russo said. “And my guys improved. The second year we went 20-2 and won a share of the league title.”
It was an honor to watch Watertown wrestling coach Kevin Russo be inducted into the Massachusetts wrestling hall of fame tonight. Coach Russo is a class act and Watertown athletics is lucky to have him! @WatertownMANews @LundbergShirley @BostonHeraldHS @WatertownCable pic.twitter.com/ucIlGbKzLi— Watertown Athletics (@WatertownSports) April 14, 2019
In Watertown, Russo has had help at the youth level. The Watertown Recreation Department runs a wrestling program for kids in middle school. Russo said he also got some assistance from his daughters.
“One time, my daughter did something and as a punishment I took her phone away for a week. She said that was unfair,” Russo said. “I said, bring me two wrestlers and and we will cut it in half. I didn’t think there was any way she would be able to do it. She brought me three wrestlers.”
Working With Young Atheletes
Russo said getting started in wrestling before high school helps, but athletes do not have to start super young.
“I think youth programs are good, but you have to do it right,” Russo said. “Force kids to do it in fourth grade and they will quit. I have had wrestlers, including a national champion (Belmont’s Samir Baghdady) who started in eighth grade.”
Building wrestlers over their high school career is one of his favorite parts of coaching.
“I have had several people who didn’t win a match their first year, and they were in the championship match when they were a senior,” Russo said.
Originally, Russo had thought about ending his coaching career after his daughters graduated from WHS. However, he said, “I enjoyed it so much.”
He did take a break for a couple years, but he was drawn back.
“I got a call saying the program is in jeopardy of folding,” Russo said. “There were six wrestlers in the program, so I decided to go back.”
Theses days, the WHS wrestling program has healthy numbers.
“This year we had 30 kids on the team — the biggest in WHS history,” Russo said.
The team went 20-10-1 in 2019, and only four wrestlers were seniors, while the roster included 12 freshman and 12 sophomores.
Russo said there is a misconception that teens of this generation are lazy.
“I hear people saying kids don’t want to work. They do,” Russo said. “You have to do it the right way. Yelling in peoples faces doesn’t work.”
He said they like discipline, but sometimes need a motivation. One of Russo’s techniques is to have his athletes focus on a goal.
“I tell them to have a goal for the day,” Russo said. “Not that they want to to be State Champs, everyone wants to do that. What they want to do that day.”
He takes the goalsetting seriously.
“If I ask someone what their goal is and they say, ‘Um, ah.’ I send the whole team out,” Russo said. “I am not going to work with a group that does not know their goal.”
Russo believes the daily goals help the wrestlers improve.
“If you have 30 goals, seven days a week, that’s 210 goals,” Russo said. “After 10 weeks that’s more than 1,000 goals. That’s going to to make you a better team. It keeps the team focused.”