School wrestling: Coaching legend Bena ready to rest
When Joe Bena graduated fom Oswego State in 1964, coaching wrestling was not in his plans.
Fifty years later, the longtime Niskayuna High and current Duanesburg coach has decided it’s time to step away from the sport.
“The last few years, I tell myself that this is it,” said Bena, who has notified Duanesburg officials that he is retiring from coaching when the current season ends on March 1. “Then, the kids get me re-energized.
“But I’m slowing down. Little things are starting to break down, like with my cars,” he said, referring to the 1959 Morgan and 1960 Triumph he has rebuilt.
The 75-year-old Bena, who spent two years at Newburgh Free Academy before turning Niskayuna into a state power during a 35-year stay, has been commuting from his home in Alplaus to Duanesburg for the past 11 years.
“But now’s the time. It’s a grind,” said Bena, who spent two years as an assistant before taking over the Niskayuna program. “The times I feel it most is when I have to get up at 4 a.m. to go open the school so we can get on the bus at 6:30. Sometimes, it’s midnight or later when I get home.”
Home for Bena for the longest time was on the Balltown Road campus, where he took over the program at the start of the 1968-69 season. Before he left after the 2002-2003 season, Bena turned the Silver Warriors, in their unique red-and-silver bathrobe warmups, into a state power, his teams ripping off two long unbeaten streaks in the Suburban Council. Along the way he coached the likes of future Olympic gold medalist Jeff Blatnick, another Olympian in Andy Seras, Olympic alternate Dave Koplovitz, numerous Section II champions and seven of his 13 state champs, including his youngest son, John.
“We had quite a nice run,” Bena said of his time at Niskayuna. “We had some great wrestlers, so many really great kids. I think the biggest thing was that I started a pee wee program, and the kids took to it.”
Niskayuna’s first long league winning streak went from the 1974-75 season through 1978-79. Bena produced three other state champs — Tim Abigail (1980), John Placek (1982) and his son, John (1989) — during the 1980s.
“Just a great, inspirational man and teacher,” said Seras. “Joe had a way of getting you to do something without you knowing it, and you were upset if you disappointed him. It’s something I have not encountered since.”
Some of Bena’s best teams made up the second extended league streak, from 1994-95 through 1996-97, a group that included current North Carolina State coach Pat Popolizio.
“He’s been such a big influence, going back to when he’d take me, my brother [Frank] with him and his son, Mike, all over the state to wrestle in the offseason,” said Popolizio, “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for Joe.
“He’s a great coach. There are hundreds of guys who wrestled for him that have become better after they were around him. I still use a lot of the philosophy, both in wrestling and life, that I learned from him.”
“A big part of his legacy is the number of coaches from the Joe Bena tree,” said Seras. “He was always looking to be a better coach, so we could become better wrestlers. More importantly, he made us better people.”
Bena retired from teaching industrial arts at Niskayuna High in 2001, and stepped down after coaching two more seasons. The retirement didn’t last long, as a neighbor recruited him to lead an up-and-coming Duanesburg program.
“John Conway, who is my neighbor and was the [athletic director] at Duanesburg at the time, was officiating, and the two kids rolled off the mat right in front of me,” Bena recalled. “John comes over and says, ‘Hey Bena. I’ve got a job for you next year if you want it.’
“A couple of weeks later, I started thinking about it. After states, I went over, checked things out and really liked the kids and the people there. I fell in love with the place.”
“I told Joe we had a situation at Duanesburg where we needed someone to come in and take over the program for a year,” said Conway. “Eleven years later, look what he’s done.
“I knew he had had great success building a program at Niskayuna, and I knew him because we were neighbors. But the way he and [wife] Lois became such a part of the community, it’s been amazing to watch.”
In his second career at Duanesburg, Bena has coached three more wrestlers to a total of five state titles, most recently Nick Gwiazdowski, now competing for Popolizio at N.C. State.
“What’s left for him to accomplish?” asked Gwiazdowski. “He’s had a great career.
“He was always relaxed, but into the match. He could calm you down, but get you excited if that’s what you needed. Very professional, very hard working, got the best out of everybody.”
With three dual meets remaining in the season, Bena had amassed a state-record 671 coaching wins, including his two years at Newburgh Free Academy, where he coached his first state champion, Al Favata, in 1968.
“Any time you get a state champion, it’s exciting,” Bena said. “The first one. John winning a state. Nick winning two and going on to be an NCAA All-American.
“But in our sport, the Olympics is the highest you can go. To be there when Jeff won his gold medal, and watch the flag go up, and think this is a kid you recruited out of the hall. I’ve been blessed.”
Bena and his wife, Lois, who has been at nearly every one of her husband’s matches, are planning to travel and visit sons Joe Jr., John and Michael and their families. Daughter Amy, their first-born, lives in Burnt Hills with her family.
That can wait until he closes a coaching career that has included 37 state place finishers, 25 league titles, 17 sectional team titles, three team sportsmanship awards and inclusion in numerous Halls of Fame, including the National Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.
“In this sport, there’s no one that’s more important than that person who first gives you that passion for the sport. That’s Joe Bena,” said Seras.
JOE BENA’S STATE CHAMPIONS
1968 — Al Favata, Newburgh Free Academy
1975 — Jeff Blatnick, Niskayuna
1980 — Tim Abigail, Niskayuna
1982 — John Placek, Niskayuna
1989 — John Bena, Niskayuna
1995 — Kyle James, Niskayuna
1996 — Pat Popolizio, Niskayuna
1998 — Bob Hafler, Niskayuna
2005 — Jimmy Almy, Duanesburg
2006 — Jimmy Almy, Duanesburg
2008 — Brian Borst, Duanesburg
2010 — Nick Gwiazdowski, Duanesburg
2011 — Nick Gwiazdowski, Duanesburg