While he is known for his wrestling coaching prowess and teaching excellence, Ron Headlee owns a different designation, thanks to his most-prized pupil and now great friend.
“Ron gets invited to every graduation party or some kind of party and he wins every backyard game there is,” laughed Cary Kolat, U.S. Olympian, two-time NCAA champion and four-time PIAA champion. “I mean nobody can beat him at anything. He’s the ultimate backyard champion. He’s a winner in everything he does.”
And he is so much more.
Headlee is in his 11th season as head wrestling coach at Waynesburg University, where he helped Jake Evans win an NCAA Division III title last season. His record at Waynesburg is 115-82-1. He’s led the Yellow Jackets to six Presidents’ Athletic Conference championships and had nine All-Americans.
He coached nine seasons at Jefferson-Morgan High School, where he led the Rockets to five WPIAL team championships and coached seven PIAA champions and 25 WPIAL champions.
Headlee posted an 111-25-1 record as Jefferson-Morgan’s wrestling coach. In addition to Kolat’s four state titles, he coached Travis Makel to a pair of PIAA crowns and Justin Tracanna to one state championship.
He also led Jefferson-Morgan to five section volleyball championships, once to a third-place finish in the WPIAL and into the state tournament twice. He has been Waynesburg’s tennis coach the past three years.
His success is based on one principle.
“I still think it is the basics on every level that win,” said Headlee. “I don’t believe in trying to change anyone. I focus on adapting, helping an athlete to get better.”
It goes a little deeper with the 58-year-old Headlee.
He is masterful in gaining the trust of his athletes. He does it through his genuine sincerity and interest.
“He is simply a class act,” said Phil Mary, principal at Chartiers-Houston High School, who coached against Headlee. “When I first started coaching in the late 1980s we had some good matchups. Ron always did things right. He treats kids the right way and he treats all people the right way. It’s the way he has always been.
“I have continued to follow him through his college coaching at Waynesburg,” Mary said. “Everyone who knows him, respects the way he goes about his business. He’s a WPIAL guy and when we have kids or know kids who are probably Division III wrestlers, we tell them to take a look at Coach Headlee.
“There’s no question about him. The time he puts in, the amount of work he puts in is impeccable. Then when you consider the kind of man he is, you want someone who you care about to wrestle for him. He’s the kind of coach and person you’d want your kid to wrestle for.”
Headlee credits his parents for his faithfulness, strong work ethic and commitment to helping others and always doing things in a professional manner.
“My parents told me and impressed upon me all those values,” Headlee said. “They always told me to do things with 100 percent effort. I have always been one to pay attention to the details. When I set up a tournament, I want it to be done properly. I want it to be a good experience for everyone involved in it. I want them to have a great experience.
“I feel really blessed. God put me in a good place many times. I don’t think I’m anything special. I have been allowed to do something I love and been surrounded by great coaches, athletes and wrestlers.
“It’s super to me to see the success Cary is having as head coach at Campbell University and the success my son Drew is having as an assistant coach at Pitt.”
Kolat, for one, appreciates Headlee’s coaching style.
He heard some people claim that ‘anyone could coach Cary Kolat to a state title.’ But so much more is involved as a coach than what is happening on the mat.
“He was the best coach for me because of the trust we have in one another” Kolat said. “You know when you wrestle for him or play for him, you’re going to be treated fairly, the team will be treated fairly and he’s going to be honest with you. That’s important.
“I know him as a great school teacher as well. People don’t understand what a great volleyball coach he was and that he loves tennis. It sets him apart.
“I know what a lot of people would say. But when I was a kid, I would bounce off walls. I could get in trouble when I wasn’t kept in line. I had so much respect or him, I didn’t want to upset him. At the time, I was coached by him, my maturity level was not where it needed to be. Believe me, Ron Headlee was the best guy for me.”
Headlee admits that a huge part of his responsibility as a coach occurs behind the scenes.
“A lot of people don’t realize the behind the scenes work,” Headlee said. “I’ve always tried to keep it fun while motivating them to be focused and give it their all. Every kid goes through the same things at each level.
“It was, and is, my job to try and keep them on a even keel. You just don’t coach the great ones. You coach all of them. People have bad days and you need to recognize that.
“Talentwise, Cary just had it. He had the desire and drive. But he had bad days. You think he walked into the room everyday happy about everything? You need to understand these things as a coach and be there for them and still find a way for them to get better.”
Scott Rhodes was Headlee’s assistant at Jefferson-Morgan for seven seasons. He said Headlee’s personality and way of life make him more than a coach.
“Ron is wholesome, thoughtful, caring and giving,” said Rhodes, who has coached for more than 20 years. “He is no nonsense in a good way. He’s a religious man. I never heard him say a curse word. He would do anything for anyone. He pours his heart into everything. His wrestlers just never wanted to let him down. That led to a lot of success.”
Headlee’s athletic ability cannot be overlooked.
In high school at Waynesburg, he was a three-time section wrestling champion, WPIAL runner-up and a state qualifier.
At Messiah College, Headlee had a 101-14-1 record. He was an NAIA All-American in his first three seasons at the school and became Messiah’s initial NCAA Division III All-American in 1982 after placing fifth at the national tournament.
He was inducted into the Messiah Athletics Hall of Fame (1996) and is a member of the Washington-Greene County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. Headlee is also member of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Headlee has been an active tennis player for 30 years and has played in USTA events, mostly in doubles or mixed doubles.
Currently, he is heavily involved with pickleball. Headlee plays the game locally and has played as far away as Colorado.
Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines parts of badminton, tennis and table tennis. Two or four players use solid paddles – made of wood or composite materials – to hit a perforated polymer ball, like a Wiffle Ball, over a net.
“I started playing and I got hooked,” Headlee said. “I’m in a league in Morgantown (W.Va.). It’s my exercise, three-to-four days a week. What’s neat about pickleball is there is a website that shows where you can play. That’s how I found out about the place in Colorado. Three days of our vacation I played pickleball.
“It’s fun. I teach it to others. We go to Hilton Head (S.C.) a lot and I play there as well.”
Meanwhile, Headlee continues to enjoy coaching and working with young people. He and his wife, Karen, reside in Waynesburg. They are proud grandparents and have two sons, Drew and Ethan.
“I probably don’t have too many more years (of coaching) in me,” Headlee said. “I’m still having fun and I still love being in the room.
“We’ve had some injuries and obstacles to overcome this year. But its still a challenge to me. It still drives me. It’s still fun.”