My wrestling knowledge was slim to none entering last weekend’s state championships in Salina. I had been to several meets over the course of this winter, but never was able to get my head around the ins and outs of the sport. Luckily for me, I had Iola head wrestling coach Jason Bates in my corner.
I first met coach Bates in November for an interview about Iola’s upcoming wrestling season for our annual winter sports preview. Before the conversation, I was told Bates was a quiet and reserved individual, who might not have the information I was looking for.
On the contrary, Bates presented me with a plethora of information to help me understand the finer details of wrestling, the team’s upcoming schedule, and answered all my questions about the upcoming 2019-20 season.
Immediately, I could tell this was someone who cared about a craft he was passing on to a younger generation, and that wrestling was more than just a sport. It was a way to grow as a person.
“Wrestling is all about self-accountability, and there’s nobody else to lean back on,” Bates said. “You can’t tag somebody in if you get tired, and if you don’t work hard enough, then you are going to get beat.”
To understand Bates’ passion for wrestling, you must know his roots. Growing up in Burlington, Bates was raised by his parents who were both retired Master Sergeants in the military.
As a six-year old, Bates was first introduced to wrestling by his mother who signed him up at Burlington’s recreation center. Bates’ father worked with Burlington head wrestling coach Doug Vander Linden, a partnership that helped continue Bates’ path in the sport.
“Wrestling was the sport I loved, but it was more about what the coach meant to me,” Bates said. “My parents were divorced, and my mother moved to West Virginia, so I didn’t get to see her very much. I wasn’t really a troublemaker or one of those lost kids, but I didn’t have a path, and my coach set me on a path. He helped me set goals and really changed my life. I knew I wanted to coach and give back the same way he did to me.”
In high school, Bates finished with 112 career wins along with qualifying for the state tournament. With his high school graduation set for May 2003, Bates was unaware of what the future held.
“When I graduated, there were a lot of things going on in the world, and my dad decided college was a better route for me. I was thinking of going into the military, but I got talked into going into college,” Bates said. “With that, my coach helped me get a scholarship to wrestle at Labette Community College.”
Bates describes his move to Labette as a culture shock.
“Everybody in college was good. It wasn’t like there was any easy guy on the team,” Bates said. “I either had to get better, go home, or get beat. It really improved my skills. It made me work hard, and it really made me learn a lot about finishing what I started.”
After two years at Labette, Bates mulled over staying one more year to wrestle. But after listening to his dad’s words of advice, he decided to follow through and obtain his bachelor’s degree at Emporia State University.
Attending Emporia allowed Bates to re-enter the wrestling scene in Burlington where Bates got involved in a kids club wrestling program. He also served as Chase County’s middle school wrestling coach while juggling being a full-time student.
After a year at Chase County, Bates turned his focus to student teaching. Bates completed his degree from Emporia State in 2007. Soon after graduation, Bates was granted a position to be a paraprofessional educator and an assistant varsity wrestling coach at Emporia High.
“I loved the community, and I love the history with Emporia wrestling,” Bates said. “They have had 11 team state championships since 1980, and we were back-to-back in 2009 and 2010. I just wanted to stay there, but I couldn’t get hired as a teacher for some reason.”
Bates was asked to take over Emporia’s wrestling program, but the struggle to find a full-time teaching job weared on.
“I told them to give me a real job, or I wouldn’t do it,” Bates said. “It was frustrating because I applied for a different teaching job that I was certified for every year, and for some reason they chose somebody else each time.”
Bates took the rejection as a signal for a change, and that is when Iola came calling. The wrestling program was entering its seventh year, and if a full-time teaching job were available, Bates would be enticed to take the position. Bates worked at the ANW Cooperative for his first three years in Iola before becoming an elementary physical education teacher.
“It was great switching over,” Bates said. “I love working with the special ed kids and the students I worked with, but my degree was in physical education, and that is what I wanted to get into. I got my dream job, and I get to coach, so it worked out great.”
When Bates arrived in Iola, the wrestling program was a far cry from what he was used to at Emporia. For his first wrestling season in 2013, Bates had two middle school and three high school wrestlers. Still, Bates wasn’t discouraged by the low numbers.
“I knew Iola was a brand new team, and that is what I wanted,” Bates said. “I knew I could produce state champions and I knew that I could maintain a program that was already established. I wanted to know what I could do as a head coach, and see if I could build a program.”
While Bates’ first three years in Iola were a process, his coaching career hit an all-time low in 2018 when the Mustangs failed to qualify a single wrestler for state. Last season, despite having a state qualifier, Bates admits he was filled with doubts entering this summer.
“This summer I was beating myself up. I’m my own worst critic,” Bates said. “I was sitting there, just thinking about everything. I was frustrated because in the beginning of the year we had nine weight classes filled. By the end of the year we had less than half of that. It was really hard, so going into this year I wasn’t looking forward to it because I thought it was going to be the same result as we had last year.”
Bates had been told by Iola Kids Wrestling coach/team manager John Taylor to not get discouraged. The organization was founded in 2009 as Allen County Kids Wrestling, and those wrestlers who had started 11 years ago were beginning to funnel their way into high school.
A few names that come to mind include Taylor’s son, TJ Taylor, and Trent Jones. TJ qualified for state as a sophomore, and Jones made his second state appearance last Saturday placing fourth. Bates highlights that Iola Kids Wrestling has changed the wrestling scene at the high school level.
“It’s been a huge impact because they have made that base for me to build on,” Bates said. “They know how to react, how to motivate their team members, and that has been huge because that really increases the rate of practice.”
As a coach, Bates is a master motivator. I got to experience this firsthand when Jones came up empty in his second match at state last Friday, moving him to the consolation side of the bracket. After the loss, Bates remained in Jones’ face, letting him know that he expected better of him. Jones went on to win his next three matches before losing in the third-place match.
“I don’t know if I should have told him what I did or not, it was just what I was feeling and what I was thinking,” Bates said. “I’ve warned these boys from Day One that I won’t sugarcoat anything. If they aren’t wrestling well, I’m going to tell them they are not wrestling well.
“Part of that is knowing your wrestlers. I have gotten in Trent’s face before and he has responded well. I’ve gotten in other wrestlers’ faces before, and it has made things worse, so it is all about knowing your wrestler.”
Last Saturday for Bates was a sign of all the hard work, all the long hours, and all the preparation he has put in building up Iola wrestling. Junior Logan Brown became the upset kingpin, 285-pound heavyweight state champion after pinning Santa Fe Trail’s 43-0 Evan Dean in the semifinals, and defeating No.1 4A heavyweight Aysten Perez of Ulysses for the title crown.
When Brown was inches away from pinning Perez, Bates couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. The IHS wrestling coach can be seen jumping in place while Brown placed Perez’s shoulder blades on the mat.
“I position myself where I can see the clock, and also work a little strategy with my wrestlers, or push them when I need to be pushed,” Bates said. “I looked up and there was 13 seconds on that clock, and I was just hoping that we would get it taken care of because I wasn’t sure if we’d have that opportunity again.”
Before this season, Iola wrestling used two mats — one that said Council Grove, and the other representing the old Allen County Kids Wrestling. It wasn’t until this year that Iola Wrestling received a mat with its own branding.
The mat was gifted by Justin J. Watts to Iola Middle School, but it is still only one mat. Current Iola High Athletic director, and future school principal, Scott Carson, is proud of the progress Iola High wrestling has made, and knows that it needs more to take the next step.
“Coach Bates has been able to take the program from four or five kids when I got here, to what it is now,” Carson said. “I’ve been watching their practices, and he is on them. I mean they are really grinding it out, but I think he prepares them for later in the season. As far as us trying to get a new mat for him, I think it’s something they need.”
With the wrestling season over, Bates is pending his next move. IHS currently has an opening for a new strength and conditioning coach, and Bates has already applied for it. Making a program bloom from a small area not large enough for one wrestling match, he has my endorsement to see how he can improve all of Iola’s athletes.
Even now, knowing all I do about coach Bates, the thing that resonates with me is his beard that resembles a lion’s mane. No, he isn’t cutting it off. In fact, Bates’ beard falls in line with his personality: A fun guy, yet a disciplinarian when it comes to success.
“I actually made a bet with Trent Jones about my beard, and he was a little disappointed,” Bates said. “I told Trent five state qualifiers and two state placers, but we got four state qualifiers and two state placers. He thought that was good enough, and I told him ‘nope, it’s all or nothing.’ So next year if we get five state qualifiers and two state placers, then I’ll shave it off.”