Harman inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame

April 26, 2024

Pictured: Brian Harman, second from left, was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame with a Lifetime Service Award Saturday at an awards ceremony in Glen Allen, Va. Also pictured is Harman’s mother, Audrey, second from right; Kevin Hazard, left, President of the Board of Directors for the National Wrestling Hall of Fame; and Krista Graff, National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum State Director, based in Stillwater, Ok. Jay Diem Photo.

By Bill Sterling

Brian Harman says the seeds of the work ethic that led him to be a highly successful wrestler and later a state-championship winning coach and then last Saturday night a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame were planted on his grandfather’s farm in his native Pennsylvania.

Harman, now 64, recalls as a fourth grader, when he was only 9, he responded to an announcement from a coach who wanted to start a wrestling program at the school.

YMCA Summer Day Camps

“I was the youngest wrestler on the team by two years, and that first season I was pinned in every match. The second year I was still losing every match when someone in the stands yelled out while I was wrestling, “Get him out of there, he’s never going to win a match.”

From that day on, instead of carrying one bale of hay, I took two. I milked cows in the morning before school and again that night after school. Nothing strengthens your grip like milking.”

And Harman also did something on the farm a bit unorthodox, unknown to his grandfather. “I would sneak up to a cow and grab hold a leg and hold on for dear life. The cow would drag me around, but I wouldn’t let go. A wrestler seemed pretty easy after dealing with a cow.”

Harman became one of the top wrestlers at Francis Scott Key High School in Maryland for a team that never lost more than two matches a year and put together a streak of 36 winning matches against topflight competition.

After one match his coach picked him up with a bear hug. “Do you know who you just beat,” said the coach. “No,” said Harman. “I don’t know, who?” The coach then told him he had just beaten a national champion.

Harman qualified for the AAU Junior National Team that competed against Poland. Harman recalls, “My opponent had stubble on his face. I don’t even think I had started to shave. After he beat me, he asked, ‘Do you want to meet my family?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not,’ thinking his parents had come to see him wrestle. He introduced me to his wife and two kids.”

Harman wrestled at Salisbury State and was a member of their Division III national championship team in 1984. When a second concussion kept him off the mat midway his collegiate career, he assisted the wrestling program at Wicomico High School and helped lead them to a state championship.

After college he returned to help run the family farm following his grandfather’s death while his younger brother Blaine finished college. He also coached wrestling at his old high school.

Pep Up

When his brother returned from college to run the farm, he answered an ad to coach wrestling and football at Northampton High School, knowing almost nothing about the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

The wrestling program was only a few years old and didn’t have a mat. “I went to George Young (the school superintendent) and said if you will buy the team a mat, I will guarantee you we will win a district title in two years, or you don’t have to pay me to coach wrestling. It didn’t take two years; we won it the next year.”

“Mr. Young was very supportive.” recalled Harman. “When we went to states, I asked him if we could get a charter bus rather than ride on a school bus. He said if I could raise $1,000, he would cover the rest. We sold food, T-shirts, anything to raise money for the program,” said Harman.

Harman guided the Yellow Jackets to unprecedented achievements. His team won 27 district championships spread over three different districts, four regional titles and the Division 1 state championship in 1995. His teams won better than 500 dual meets, the highlight of which was a victory in the 1998 Black and Blue division of the Virginia Duals. In that contest, he bested top-quality completion like Christiansburg and Menchville.

“We were never afraid of taking on the big schools,” recalls Harman. “We finished second and third in the state the two years before we won the state title, so we were knocking on the door.” The 1993 team was led by Will Leland, the first state wrestling champion at Northampton.

1995 Northampton High School state championship wrestling team
The 1995 Northampton High School state championship wrestling team with Coach Brian Harman at far right.

His 1995 team, led by David Trower who pinned all 29 opponents he faced that season, won the state meet by a landslide. Harman called his principal, Paul Custis, after the first day of wrestling to tell him it might be worth his while to make the five-hour trip to Salem without telling him the state title was locked up.

Custis recalls, “I was sitting in the crowd when I looked and Coach Harman had come and sat beside me. It dawned on me we were about to win the state title. I asked him, ‘How long have you known?’ And he just smiled in that understated way of his. I never heard Coach Harman yell at a kid, but he could get his point across very effectively.”

Following that season, Nick Cardone won back-to-back state championships for Harman.

Casey Paglia became a three-time state champion following Harman’s retirement but was first introduced to wrestling in a youth program that Harman helped to develop.

But for Harman it was never about the victories or the championships. “I had high expectations for all the kids. All I wanted was their best.”

Harman and his wife, the former Lisa Wendell, were raising two young boys, Greg and Drew, during most of his coaching career. Both became successful wrestlers, but Harman recalls occasionally leaving practice early when they were in their early school years to make sure he was there when they got off the bus. “When they came off that bus and jumped into my arms, that was a bigger thrill than any state champion leaping into my arms. Being a good father was very important to me.”

Jay Diem, who wrestled for Harman and today is the Communications and Public Relations Coordinator at ANEC who previously won numerous photography awards in the Virginia Press Association, said Harman was a father figure to many. “Coach Harman was a positive role model for many of my teammates who did not have a father figure active in their lives at the time. We all owe him a lot, and his positive influence has made many of us successful in our professional lives. The same tenacity he taught us on the wrestling mat was one of the driving forces that made me a successful photojournalist. He really helped bring out my work ethic and that constant drive to be better. Never settling for anything, always looking for that better shot.”

Andre Elliott, a member of that 1995 state championship team and today the director of the YMCA facilities at Onley and Cape Charles, said the lessons taught by Coach Harman carried on long after their wrestling careers ended. “Coach Harman was like many coaches from small communities in that he sacrificed a lot to make sure that the kids in his program had the best experience and that we were taken care of. He was instrumental in how we all turned out. It’s funny how we never really understood back then that what he was teaching us on the mat. Hard work, perseverance and integrity was really him helping prepare us for life. He took us under his wing and helped us learn to be men.”

Harman delivers a thank you message Saturday night at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame awards banquet following his induction and being presented a Lifetime Service Award. Jay Diem Photo
Harman delivers a thank you message Saturday night at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame awards banquet following his induction and being presented a Lifetime Service Award. Jay Diem Photo

Harman said wrestling is more like a family than any other sport. It’s a huge commitment by the wrestler and many times the parents. The meet can last most of a day, and sometimes the parent might see their child on the mat for a minute or two or even less. There’s a lot of time for bonding between the parents.

Harman also says a wrestling program takes support from the community, and in addition to the aforementioned Young and Custis, he cites the late Fred Diem, “who was beside me for 15 years helping in any way he could,”  and John Downing, who announced the meets. Even mentioned is Greg Merritt, the late Eastern Shore News sportswriter who covered the district and regional meets and made the trek to states on the team bus.

But he reserves the biggest praise for his mother, Audrey, who was at the Virginia Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame banquet Saturday in Glen Allen, Va., where Harman was awarded a Lifetime Service to Wrestling. That service includes a span of 55 years, from that first year he wrestled to now being a top wrestling official at the local, state and national levels since his retirement from coaching. Harman says his mother was always there for him, supporting him in whatever way she could.

In his talk Saturday night he also praised his wife Lisa for the sacrifices she made in his coaching career.

Harman gives a special nod to Mike Caison, without whom he says this latest honor would not have happened. Carson was recognized for his more than 40 years of being a wrestling official in 2015 by the Wrestling National Hall of Fame and was a huge supporter of Harman’s coaching career.

Pictured from left to right: Vance Martin, Tony Bland, Harman, Andre Elliot, Freddie Ross, Parke Atkinson, Jay Diem.

Harman’s legacy will live on in the scholarship foundations he set up as memorials to the untimely death of two wrestlers, the pioneering aspect of introducing girls to wrestling and the youth programs he established to grow the sport on the Eastern Shore. He also continues to help kids with his driver education business, many of whom still call him “Coach.”

Still, Harman deflects any personal credit for what the Northampton High School wrestling program accomplished in his coaching years. “If you look back during my coaching career, you won’t see my picture in any district or regional championships — you might see it in states – the kids did it, not me.”

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