MHS great Luke Fancois heads to the Hall

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By: 
Dennis Semrau/For the Times-Tribune
From left, Wayne Bruno, Jill Brandl Gurtner and Luke Francois were among nine individuals who received a lifetime-service-to-wrestling award and induction into the Wisconsin chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame./Photo submitted

Luke Francois began his love affair with wrestling in kindergarten as a member of the Baraboo youth program in 1976.

Spring forward four decades later and the Middleton graduate and two-time state qualifier said he had to reach out to his first coach to share some good news.

Francois was among nine individuals to receive a ‘Lifetime Service To Wrestling’ award and induction into the Wisconsin chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame during activities and ceremonies Sept. 28 and 29 at Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells.

“My high school coach, Parker Vivoda, was a huge influence on me,” Francois recalled in a phone conversation. “He not only raised wrestlers, but he raised boys into men.”

But Francois said he made sure to thank the man who started it all, Howie Hanson, his first youth coach, who is retired and now living in Florida.

“I told him, ‘Howie, I’m accepting this honor on your behalf. Without starting a program and getting this kid in wrestling, none of this happens today,’ ” Francois said. “If I could have heard a tear drop over the phone, I think I did.

“Every coach who touches you is special in some way because they helped you become who you are today. It is a great sport because it teaches you so many of the life skills to be successful later.”

Also inducted were Wayne Bruno, a member of the George Martin Wisconsin Wrestling Hall of Fame and current Middleton assistant coach, and Jill Brandl Gurtner, a veteran wresting referee, who along with Francois started a girls’ wrestling program in the early 2000s in Middleton.

“It’s a great class to go in with,” said Francois, who recently was hired as superintendent of the Waterford school district. “I’m so humbled and honored for this award and by the recognition that gives back to the sport I love.”

Francois was a state qualifier in 1987 and 1989, placing fifth at 152 pounds as a senior. He was a captain and four-year letterwinner at UW-Whitewater for Hall of Fame coach Willie Meyers, qualifying for nationals and being named a Scholar All-American.

Francois later coached wrestling at Stoughton, Waterford and Middleton, served as athletic director at Middleton and was the Mineral Point superintendent of schools before returning to Waterford.

“Ironically, I didn’t start with many wins when I was a little guy,” Francois said. “But I persevered because I loved the sport. So part of my acceptance was on behalf of every little kid who believed it’s better to have wrestled and lost than to never have wrestled at all.

“There are a lot of kids out there who finish seasons with losing records and JV wrestlers who never wrestle on varsity or at the state tournament. I accept this award on their behalf. That was me when I started my career. Obviously, I turned it around to have more wins than losses. But that is a part of the wrestling gene that I always worked to recognize.”

Bruno competed in wrestling at UW-La Crosse and was a varsity coach at Kickapoo and Sauk Prairie High Schools. He also served as a volunteer coach at Wisconsin Heights, Mount Horeb and Sauk Prairie.

Set to begin his 52nd year of coaching in 2019 — his ninth year as an assistant to Middleton coach Kent Weiler – Bruno admits that he is a lucky man.

“I have gotten so much out of wrestling for myself that I have the attitude of pay it forward,” Bruno said. “I feel like I’m getting so much out of wrestling, I have to pay back to the sport. The problem is that the longer I coach, the more I feel I have to pay back, so of course, the more I get involved.”

Bruno, who began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant at UW-La Crosse in 1967, was inducted into the George Martin Wisconsin Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame in 2005.

“You look at who is there already,” he said of both Halls of Fame. “Then you look at who you’re going in with and realize there will be some fantastic people afterwards. And so you feel humbled that you are part of that group.”

Brandl Gurtner, who serves as a Middleton-Cross Plains School District administrator, was a wrestling official for the WIAA from 1988-2008 and the NCAA from 2000-2005. She was the first female to officiate a WIAA state tournament match.

Her father, Paul Brandl, was also inducted as part of the 2019 class. He wrestled at Valders and the University of Wisconsin and coached at Greenfield and Plymouth.

“Jill and I did start the girls wrestling program before girls wrestling was even a thing,” Francois said. “She was officiating and breaking molds and barriers long before women’s wrestling was even an Olympic sport. She is such a pioneer.

“I just love what she has done for the sport. She is such an amazing person, not just in her educational career, but as a pioneer in the sport of wrestling.”

Francois also has fond memories competing against Bruno’s teams at Sauk Prairie.

“We were in the Badger Conference back then, and there was no love lost between Sauk and Middleton,” Francois chuckled. “Now he’s a great friend. He’s coaching for my alma mater and is in his 52nd year of coaching and I’m only 48. That speaks volumes about what he’s given back to the sport, such a tremendous person.”

Other inductees included:

• Greg Jentz, who wrestled at Platteville and UW-La Crosse, coached 33 years at Fennimore and started the Fennimore Wrestling Club in 1982.

• Randy Dammon, who wrestled at La Crosse Aquinas and De Soto and coached at Belmont, Aquinas and West Salem/Bangor and is also a member of the George Martin Wisconsin Wrestling Hall of Fame.

• Gary Skiles, who served as an assistant wrestling coach at Madison La Follette, beginning in 1990, before becoming head coach in 1994 until his retirement in 2017. He also played a key role in starting the Lancer Youth Wrestling Club in 1991.

• Dan Spilde, who was a WIAA individual state champion at 132 pounds in 1987 and a member of four team state champions at Stoughton and a Big Ten Conference champion at the UW. He served as an assistant to legendary Stoughton wrestling coach LaVerne Pieper, became the Vikings’ head coach in 1995 and then teamed with Bob Empey as co-coaches beginning in 1999. The Vikings are the two-time defending WIAA Division 1 team state champions.

• Stan Weigel, who wrestled at Platteville and UW-Platteville and coached at Monticello and Boscobel.

Bruno said the induction ceremony brought back a lot of wonderful memories.

“I watched a lot of them grow up as youth wrestlers and become high school wrestlers and then guys like Dan (Spilde) and Luke (Francois), I competed against them with my own high school teams as a high school coach,” Bruno said. “Stan Weigel is much the same.

“I watched Jill Brandl come up through the ranks doing JV wrestling matches and then doing varsity wrestling matches. She was a referee for some of my wrestlers at the state tournament.”

Francois competed against Spilde in youth wrestling and began his coaching career with him at Stoughton in 1994.

Getting to reconnect with his past made it an even more memorable weekend, Francois said.

“Gary Skiles, I coached across from him in the Big Eight and watched him grow the La Follette program,” Francois said. “He is such a good soul and good heart.

“I co-coached with Dan Spilde and that season was one to remember. We were pretty tight when he married his wife, Lisa, and I was in his wedding. That says a lot about the closeness and tightness that wrestlers have. You forge relationships on the mat, but then later in life.”

 

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