Meet Robert Craig Phillips, whose life journey ended on Jan. 15, 2021. He was just 63 years old.
So where to begin for the son of Bob and Leta Phillips? Newport Beach, California, where he was born? Guys Mills, Pennsylvania? Fargo, North Dakota? Brockport, New York? Or is it a dart on the map at countless places in-between?
I’ll take my chances with the dart.
Craig was unique, no doubt, a guy that walked to the beat of his own drummer. But that beat was his brilliance, and it touched countless lives. And that includes me.
Before we get to his life’s passion, which was the sport of wrestling, a quick note about what my friend meant personally.
It’s no secret that we worked and coached together for more than a decade. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. But a big chunk of what I became should never have happened.
The year was 1984, I had been in my wife’s hometown of Meadville with our two young boys for just a couple years. I had little purpose at that point, and worse yet, no direction. But somehow I ended up on the Williams Cafe morning league softball team. Somehow one man had just left a two-man sports staff at the Meadville Tribune. Somehow I asked Craig what it took to be a sports writer, and somehow he pushed Managing Editor John Wellington to hire me.
You can’t do that nowadays - no college journalism courses, had nothing to show as writing clips; hell, I couldn’t even type.
A 36-year career blossomed from that mid-morning conversation over a dive bar beer. I’ve traveled the country, covered everything from youth and high school sports, to Super Bowls, to NASCAR, to college football national championships, to NCAA basketball final fours, etc., etc. I ran the newsroom at three newspapers and either individually or as a staff (sports and news) won numerous national awards.
I was rewarded with a life that I never could have imagined before 1984. That was because of Craig, who saw something that I didn’t know existed.
So, yes, his passing hit hard.
Craig was an awful good wrestler at both Maplewood and Pitt - hard-nosed, “One tough hombre,” as longtime friend Mark Dugan, himself a two-time state champion, put it. But he would become a great coach and ambassador for the sport.
From the early 1980s on, Craig was on the short list of Pennsylvania’s top wrestling writers for the Tribune (later the Oil City Derrick and Franklin News-Herald) and Pennsylvania Wrestling Roundup, and contributed to the national bible for the sport, USA Wrestling.
“Good” doesn’t do Craig’s writing style justice. He was passionate beyond reproach. His knowledge was immense. His connections were practically unmatched.
And he did it all with a pen and paper - a laptop computer wasn’t his thing, once they became a thing for sports writers. He scratched out award-winning stories and transcribed them back to the sports desk over the phone - never missing deadline. The national wrestling writer of the year in 1990 about sums it up, right? Or is it his induction into both the Pennsylvania Wrestling and Softball Writers Hall of Fame?
He was amazing and articulate and honest.
And one helluva coach.
When Craig was gravely ill and eventually passed, the outpouring on social media was telling. From the great Wade Schalles to a who’s who list of coaches and wrestlers, the comments were unanimous.
“So friendly, kind and considerate. He'll definitely be missed,” Schalles wrote.
“Wow, RIP. Craig was my coach for 7 years. Spent a lot of time with him,” said former Meadville High state medalist Nick Pendolino. “Craig was the epitome of ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ He was a great coach! He was a great man!”
“I am really saddened by this loss to the wrestling community. Craig was my club wrestling coach and served as quite an influence in my life,” said John Reynolds, a former state medalist for Conneaut Lake. “His gruff, physical, no excuses coaching style gave his athletes confidence when he was coaching in your corner. He was ‘old school’ tough with his coaching style, but definitely cared about his athletes.”
“He shaped my freestyle and Greco career. Fare thee well,” said McGuffey’s multiple state medalist Tim Queen.
“Craig wrestled for me at Pitt. Truly loved the sport. RIP my friend,” said former University of Pittsburgh coach Dave Adams.
“Craig was one of the Team PA coaches when I won cadet nationals. He knew the sport inside and out. RIP,” added Biff Walizer, a multiple state champion for Bald Eagle Nittany and All-American for Penn State.
He certainly was a major influence on some of the great MASH teams for Hall of Fame coach Dick Lumley, producing an unquestioned talent pipeline and then assisting on the high school staff from 1988-1992. He spawned future head coaches, including kids he first touched in elementary school - Jon Frye and Barry Anderson in Meadville. How many others followed his no nonsense, caring approach into coaching - throw a dart at the map.
Craig’s brainchild, the French Creek Freestyle Club, drew kids not only from Meadville and Crawford County, but included some of the state’s most elite names. FCFS was one of the country’s top clubs, attested by the swarm of kids that found their way onto the podium in Fargo.
He was a household name that top college coaches contacted for information on wrestlers he either coached or coached against. Craig’s word was gold. His thoughts valued. His endorsement earned numerous scholarship opportunities for kids.
I’d love to tell you about all the coaching trips we made to tournaments - in season and out - or the journeys as writers to the PIAA Championships in Hershey, and everything we did in-between with friends in the business or parents or coaches or former wrestlers, but those memories are for us.
From the cowboy boots to the flip-flops he adopted later in gymnasiums from here to there, Craig was one of a kind - the good kind.
How a life was lived is always up to other individuals’ interpretation in times like these - “But … in the little corners that we live, in the lives that we’ve played a part in, we should be nothing but unforgettable.”
Robert Craig Phillips was unforgettable and one damned good person.
That’s my interpretation.
Thank you, my friend.
Rest In Peace.