Franc Freeman wasn’t into winning popularity contests.
As the head coach of the varsity wrestling team at Bettendorf High School for more than a quarter century, he could be very tough, occasionally cantankerous and usually brutally honest.
"Franc didn’t hold back," admitted Sally Freeman, his wife.
But his intentions were always pure. And the irony was that he ultimately became popular anyway with both peers and proteges. Many of those who wrestled for him look back now and realize they were receiving powerful life lessons as well as expert guidance in how to maximize their potential on the wrestling mat.
"We knew deep down he always wanted the best for us," said Dr. John Kern, who wrestled for Bettendorf in the late 1970s. "He helped set the work ethic that has stayed with me throughout my life. I can tell you this: As much as I disliked Franc at times and his way of coaching, I know he helped make me the person I am today."
Along the way, Freeman also managed to be one of the most successful coaches in the state of Iowa. He won 250 dual meets and two state championships.
For all those reasons, he is one of this year’s inductees into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame. He will be honored along with Jenni Fitzgerald and Adam Lingner in ceremonies at the Quad-City Times Salute to Sports on May 7 at Bettendorf High School.
Dr. Kern is just one of many who regard Franc Freeman as one of the central influences of their life.
"He taught me work ethic, values and good sportsmanship," said Kurt Habenicht, who was a member of Bettendorf’s 1975 state runner-up team. "I love him and will never forget the impression he made on me."
Paul Glynn was a state champion at Bettendorf before going on to wrestle at Iowa under the legendary Dan Gable. His son, Paul Glynn Jr., is now a member of the Iowa team.
"He shaped me into the man and wrestler that I became …" Paul Glynn Sr. said of Freeman. "Coach Gable taught me some of these very same lessons and was a heck of a coach, but when I think back, I still consider Franc the best coach I have ever had."
As a young man, the 79-year-old Freeman was a very good wrestler in his own right. He grew up in a tough westside neighborhood in Davenport, the oldest of seven children.
His younger brother, Melvin, later won a state title at Davenport West in 1965, but Freeman said all the kids in the neighborhood got out in their backyards and wrestled.
One of them, Vince Garcia, went on to be an All-American at Iowa. Freeman remembers the Reimers brothers, Pee Wee and Big Shot, as being very tough. He said Rose Garcia may have been the toughest of all.
His father, Franc Sr., owned a foundry and demanded that all his children be involved in the family business rather than taking part in extracurricular activities at school.
Because of that, Freeman never even went out for the wrestling team at Davenport High School until his junior year, in 1954. Franc Jr. finally went home one day and informed his dad he had defied him and gone out for the team anyway.
"My dad just said 'Well, once you’ve started something you better finish it,'" Freeman said.
He competed only at the junior varsity level that year but went undefeated. When he rolled through a tournament at the YMCA early in the following season, including a pin against a defending Illinois state champion from East Moline, Davenport coach Jim Fox put him into the varsity lineup.
Freeman finished second in the state at 120 pounds in 1956, losing to Dee Brainerd of Fort Dodge in the finals, and helped Davenport High win the team title.
Back to Bettendorf
Freeman had joined the Navy Reserves in order to get the $300 he needed to buy a new car, so when he graduated from high school he entered the Navy.
He spent most of that time at Great Lakes Naval Air Station near Chicago and continued to hone his skills wrestling for Navy teams in AAU tournaments.
Two years later, when he got out of the service, he intended to go back to work in the family business. But Fox, who was inducted into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame in 1989, suggested Freeman try wrestling at the college level.
He enrolled at Iowa State Teachers College (now Northern Iowa) and by his sophomore year had worked his way into the starting lineup. He earned NCAA Division I All-American honors in each of his last two years, losing in the 123-pound semifinals as a junior and placing second as a senior.
Freeman was interested in getting into coaching, and UNI coach Bill Koll recommended that he not settle for anything less than a head coaching job. Through Fox, he learned of an opening for a head coach at a new high school in Billings, Montana.
In two years at Billings West, Freeman built a program that would begin winning state titles after his departure.
However, in 1964, Fox told him of an opportunity to come back to the Quad-Cities as the head wrestling coach and business education teacher at Bettendorf.
Freeman was a bit apprehensive until he got a look at his wrestlers.
"I came home to Sal," he said, "and told her 'I’ve got a team here that won’t stop. We’re really going to go places with this.'"
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It took some time, however. In those early years Bettendorf was a member of the Little Six Conference and was mostly competing against small schools. Freeman went to athletic director Wendell Hill and told him the only way Bettendorf could become a statewide power was if it could start scheduling larger schools.
By the early 1970s, Bettendorf grew into a powerhouse program. The toughened schedule helped but so did a no-nonsense approach when dealing with his athletes.
"Franc was a real disciplinarian," Sally Freeman said. "You had to play by the rules if you wanted to be on his team."
Success on the mat
Freeman had his first individual state champion in 1973 when Pat Wright won at 185 pounds, and two years later the Bulldogs finished second in the state meet behind West Des Moines Dowling, earning Freeman his first Iowa coach of the year award.
The big breakthrough came in 1981 when the Bulldogs won the Class 3A state title with three individual champions — Glynn at 119 pounds, Brian McCracken at 185 and future Iowa football star Hap Peterson at heavyweight.
Freeman had that team very well-prepared before it reached the state meet in Des Moines.
"I put a bunch of paper up on the walls of our wrestling room and started drawing faces on it," Freeman said. "Then I got a tape recording of a lot of screaming and yelling. We’d go into the wrestling room, turn on that noise box, and I had to coach over all that noise and they had to wrestle through the noise."
When the Bulldogs got into the raucous, sometimes hostile atmosphere of Veterans Auditorium, they felt right at home.
At the team’s welcome home celebration at the school gym, Freeman told the crowd: "Had I known winning would feel this good, I wouldn’t have waited 17 years to do it."
Bettendorf was even more dominant the following year. It had only one individual state champion (McCracken again) but placed in 10 of 13 weight classes and registered a state-record 167.5 team points. The mark stood for 19 years.
"That 1982 team is the toughest bunch I ever had," Freeman said.
The Bulldogs continued to be a state contender in the years that followed although they never won another title under Freeman.
After finishing fourth in 1991, Freeman retired. More honors rolled in as the years passed, including inductions into several different halls of fame. In 2012, Bettendorf’s new wrestling room was named in his honor.
In 2017, he was delighted to get a chance to serve as the honorary coach for UNI at a dual meet with Eastern Michigan.
Many years ago, Franc and Sally purchased a 10-acre plot of land in the country north of Bettendorf where they started a tree farm and landscaping enterprise. They sold that business to a former employee in 2002 but still live on the property and have businesses in which they grow asparagus and cultivate new breeds of hostas.
Freeman sells more than 2,000 different varieties of hostas, many of which he has developed himself and named for people and things close to him.
There is "Coach Jim Fox," "Gable’s Gold," "Northern Iowa Wrestling," "Franc’s Fight Nite," and "My Gal Sal." Almost all of them are registered with the American Hosta Society.
Franc’s Fight Nite is an event Freeman began more than 40 years ago as a social gathering for wrestling coaches, athletic directors, officials and fans to get together and socialize.
"They go somewhere and eat and drink and then they start wrestling," Sally Freeman said. "Those can be pretty wild nights."
The event is held in May and continues to this day even though the ex-coach is battling Parkinson’s disease.
Freeman’s most enduring legacy, however, is the people he touched.
Literally. Whenever he was speaking to a wrestler or to anyone, he made a habit of reaching out and touching them on the arm or shoulder to make sure he commanded their attention.
Jim Bellig, a member of some of Freeman’s early Bettendorf teams, said he always noticed that it wasn’t only wrestlers who benefited from the Freeman touch.
"I would see the way he would spend time trying to mentor kids that did not have sports, band, etc., to lean on for support or direction," Bellig said. "Kids that he knew maybe did not have the benefit of a good home situation for support.
"He did not favor the athletes, as you saw some coaches do. He spent time and energy with kids who needed the support most."
Bellig said he still picked up a few life lessons from Freeman when he saw him recently at a birthday party.
"Love him like a father," he said.