The memories are all still fresh for retiring Moline athletic director Todd Rosenthal.
He remembers getting his first driver’s license after his sophomore year at Moline at age 16 and the numbers indicating height and weight are still etched in his brain.
They read: 4-foot-8, 70 pounds. Those aren’t typos. Rosenthal was actually that small as he headed into his junior year at Moline High School.
Now at age 58, he will walk out of Moline High School after 32 more years standing tall.
The 1977 graduate of Moline, who received his degree from Illinois State University in 1982, returned to Moline in 1985 as a wrestling coach/physical education teacher after a three-year stint at United Township High School as assistant wrestling coach/substitute teacher that included his final semester as a full-time teacher.
It was working out well at UT, having played a major role coaching Bam Pustelnik, the current UT athletic director, to a state title in Pustelnik’s junior season. But Moline was a dream job, Rosenthal said, and he could not turn down the opportunity, especially knowing the head job at UT was not going to open for a while.
It can be strongly argued things worked out even better for Rosenthal at Moline. In 15 years as head wrestling coach, he carved a 278-55 record, while coaching his teams to 13 Western Big Six titles plus a state title in team wrestling in 1996, a second in 1999, a third in 2000 (his final season) and a fourth in 1998. He also coached Matt Lackey to two state titles.
The former Moline alderman took on the athletic directorship at Moline in 2000, which was another dream job. Moline won 17 Western Big Six sweepstakes awards for having the best sports program in the conference during his 17-year tenure, a movement he credits to his predecessor, Mike Owens.
“The success for that has primarily to do with Mike and I both trying to treat all the programs the same and trying to pump as much energy to those programs an equal amount,” Rosenthal said. “I think it has a lot to do with the success that we’ve had in the other (non-revenue producing) sports. You had to treat everything fair.”
Before he ever got back to Moline, the wrestler who struggled to make weight in the 98-pound class in high school — only reaching it his senior year — and later the 118-pound class in college, was a first alternate on the 1984 Olympic team in Greco Roman wrestling at Los Angeles. He nearly got to wrestle there when the man who beat him in overtime at the U.S. Olympic Trials failed to make weight. But that happened too late to insert Rosenthal into the lineup even though he was there and ready.
It’s clear, it still bothers him to this day to have been that close to wrestling in the Olympics. Rosenthal, who excelled in Greco-Roman, where the lowest weight at 105.5 matched him well, was also the second alternate on the 1980 Olympic team.
That whole sequence was both his greatest accomplishment and disappointment, he said.
Along the way he credits the likes of former Illinois State wrestling coach George Girardi — uncle of Yankee manager Joe Girardi — former Illinois wrestling coach Mark Johnson, former Moline coach Harry Lester, former Black Hawk College coach Jerry Irving — for whom he wrestled for two years at Black Hawk — and even former Iowa coach Dan Gable, whom he trained with one summer in preparation for the Olympic trials, with shaping his career and coaching style.
He also remembers the humble beginnings, like Johnson taking him to his first Olympic Trials in 1980, calling him the night before and telling him to be ready the next morning, that he was going with Johnson to Wisconsin, and Johnson’s car being out front the next morning.
Rosenthal had his bag packed and was reluctantly ready, knowing he would be wrestling up a weight. Yes, the wrestler, who was once too small, went on quite a ride thanks to the simplest of moves by a future World Games teammate and still a friend and mentor to this day.
His career eventually included stops in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Venezuela and Mexico while participating in Junior Pan-Am Games and World Games, among other events.
But it all came to fruition at Moline, where he and wife Sue’s son Ryan and daughter Keeley also graduated from. They followed their parents into education. Ryan is teaching in the Moline district now and Keeley is an assistant elementary school principal in the Aurora area.
Rosenthal’s last day is Friday, as he signed a contract maximizing his pension four years ago, saying he would retire after this year. He said he will take at least one year off, working on his mother’s properties, before considering other options such as local politics or fundraising for Moline schools.
“I need a year to just unwind,” he said. “What I will miss about the job is the job keeps you hopping and I am kind of restless person. I like to be busy. I am going to keep it wide open.”
If he has one bit of advice for incoming AD Dick Knar, it’s to work with his boosters.
“Probably that first year, just make observations, and if I am giving advice, the boosters are really something you have to work extra hard at because they work extra hard for you. That’s a key.”
What follows is an interview with Rosenthal on a wide range of subjects:
What did you learn from Gable?
“At the 1984 Olympic trials I was wrestling at Minnesota at first trials and I get beat by former Olympian. We were workout partners at the University of Minnesota that summer. Mark Johnson says you are not working out there, you are going to Iowa City and I am going 'what’s Dan Gable know about Greco-Roman wrestling?' Mark goes, ‘you don’t need to know any more. He will get you in the best shape you have ever been in.’ That was probably the biggest jump in my wrestling was wrestling under Dan Gable. Best in the U.S. as far as wrestling coach. Just the mental aspect of it. In every sport, you make that jump, it’s all mental. And Dan had that mental influence on me that I needed. Conditioning wise it helped. Any success I had in coaching was a great reflection of the coaches I have had in the past.
From talking to you, it’s clear you are a big fan of the team wrestling tournament. Why?
“I am a big proponent of it because it got more than just one person involved. You had the whole team. Team concept is great because it just involves so many other people and so many people got to share that experience. That’s why I love the team
“The individual part of the wrestling, I probably didn’t have as much success. I always took my most inexperienced wrestler and made sure that person would get through a match. Sometimes I would go out, just be honest with them. ‘I know you can’t win this match. This guy is an All-Stater. All’s I need to do is not get pinned. I just relieved that kid of the duty of trying to win. We worked on skills of just not getting pinned. There’s things -- hand grabbing, slowing the match down. It’s all heart. When that kid walked off the match and he did not get pinned and he just got decisioned, that was a win. He would be so excited. Our guys were hugging him and stuff. And he just lost a match, but he won the team aspect. That’s why I like the team concept because they can be a big part of the team. A kid that was a .500 wrestler, he’s smiling and our kids are hugging him, I am thinking that’s what the team concept is all about.”
You loved coaching wrestling. It’s obvious. Why did you leave that area to be AD?
“The dream job became available. There’s only one A.D. one position at every school. So the opportunity was there. I dropped the wrestling, jumped for it and landed my dream job. As I found out, it wasn’t that easy to help all the programs. There was a lot of management. There was just so much more involved in the administrative part of it in the whole school. It was a tougher job than I anticipated. I anticipated working (more) with coaches.
“Also, I wanted to help the whole sports program become successful. Wanting to share, wanting always to give back to Moline High School that gave me my education, that gave me the chance to wrestle here. If it wasn’t for wrestling, or the success I had or the background I had, I give all that back to the hard work and dedication from the sport, wrestling for me.
The sweepstakes award, winning 17 in 17 years for the best athletic program in the conference based on a scale for varsity places, what’s that mean to you?
“First of all Mike Owens started the tradition of winning it. I’ve been here 17 years, we’ve never lost it. The success for that has primarily to do with Mike and I both trying to treat all the programs the same and trying to pump as much energy to those programs equally amount. I think it has a lot to do with the success that we’ve had in the other sports Olympic sports
“We’ve been very successful with primarily our women sports. Most successful sport at Moline is softball. The sweepstakes has a lot to do with the strength of our women’s program, primarily softball. Along with having in my mind we had really fortunate successful coaches over the past.
Why were you a successful wrestling coach?
“I’ve always said that the difference between a great coach and a good coach is the ability to get your athlete who is not as experienced to get more out of him as you possibly could by motivation. I think motivation is the key to a successful program and the key for a great coach.”
Is there anything you learned along the way that really affected you?
“I remember a situation where I had a kid come up to me and said, ‘Coach can I talk to you?’ He comes up and says, ‘Every time I look over and I do a bad move, you put your head down. That doesn’t motivate me.’ I never noticed I did it. You are so disappointed when you try and teach them. You get upset, you can visibly see it. I said, ‘Thanks for telling me that.’ From then on when he looked over, I was going ‘Hey, you can do this, come on.’ I did that to this kid and it made such a difference with his wrestling. There are certain kids you got to get down on and certain kids you got to pump up as a coach. There a different ways because there are so many different personalities out there. I think the way you motivate, according to the kid. has to change a little bit too.”
What is the biggest change in your time as coach and athletic director?
“I think the future and the biggest thing issue we are dealing with now are club sports. AAU sports and stuff like that. We are constantly battling that with club sports in general. For some reason they are putting it in these kids heads, ‘Hey you got to go to this thing or you won’t be recruited.’ I dealt with that right away. A real good volleyball player, we had to make a choice. You are not going to miss a conference game for softball. So we had to put a policy in place, if you miss one you have to sit out one. Primarily for the club sports. Kids were going to club sports instead of actually participating in our athletic program.
“I think that is going to be a big issue down the line.”
You firmly believe in high school sports over club sports. Explain.
“What does high school sports offer? It offers discipline. So much more than a club sport. Club sport they don’t want your grades, don’t want your discipline. They don’t watch whether you are breaking the athletic code, going out and violating curfew and that. They show up, they play; they win or lose and go home. High school sports offers everything you are trying to teach from the parental standpoint about discipline, about doing the right thing, about morally doing the right thing. I am sorry but the club sports don’t worry about the grades and breaking athletic codes. And so forth so. I am afraid that people are going to lose that concept of it. All European sports are basically club sports; they have sponsorship all over their jerseys.
Biggest thing you learned?
“Your biggest mistake is just be a better listener. You have to make sure you get all the facts and not jump to conclusions in this job. Right away you want to make everybody happy in this job, you just can’t. You have to make tough decisions and when you make those tough decisions, you have to make sure you have all the facts. You’ve got to be patient.”
What is your biggest accomplishment as AD?
“I take the most pride in is the facilities, probably the soccer field. With the help of many people. It was a practice facility. To coordinate that, the facility being built there at the soccer bowl, the Browning Field entrance. State-of-the-art video boards at Browning and Wharton.
“My disappointment was not getting all the projects that I wanted to do done. Bathrooms for baseball/softball. Have a lot of drawings that we never got to. That’s all going to change. I am a little envious in a good way for the new A.D. because he gets to work with the one percent sales tax which is for school facilities, that I think will help not just athletics but other programs. Look at what that one percent has made in Iowa.”
What is the toughest part of the AD job?
“The toughest thing I have to do is to let go of a coach. There’s no doubt they are giving it all they have. They may have the knowledge, but maybe that motivational factor is missing. To motivate the kids to do the right thing or be successful. It’s not always about winning. It’s a program where the kids feel successful about it. That they are learning stuff. And the success will come with all of that. The tough part of about letting them go, a business lets you go and they might go to a different state, I let them go a lot of times they are teachers here and I have to see them in the hallway and they won’t say hi and this might go on for one, two, three years.
You have to feel good about the coaches you have hired in last year. It seems most of Moline’s programs are on solid footing …
“That’s one thing again, the envious part in leaving the program is the 1 cent sales tax and the coaching that’s going to take over. We are on really solid program, on a lot of them. I see a lot of success coming this way. I feel good about leaving that behind.”