Father of Washington State High School Wrestling
Bill Tomaras discovered early there wasn’t much demand for a five-foot-three, 120-pound basketball player. So he turned to wrestling. The repercussions of that decision have been felt in Washington wrestling for more than a half-century.
World War II interrupted Tomaras’s athletic career. After fighting at Omaha Beach, he married a four-foot-11 Royal Air Force nurse. That union produced three sons. Bill and Dolly celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in January 2004 at Port Orchard.
Tomaras resumed his education at the University of Illinois (’47 Political Sci.), where he placed third in NCAA wrestling championships as a senior. He weighed less than his listed weight of 121, he says, about what he weighs now at age 82.
In a career devoted to wrestling, though, he’s always been larger than life. He coached at Washington State College, 1948-59 and, after completing a doctorate in education at the University of Oregon, coached at UC Berkeley, 1959-61, and was coach, 1961-65, and athletic director at Western Washington University, 1962-72.
“He was never-in my eyes or in those of any of my teammates-thought of as a little fellow. He was always a big man. . . . respected by all those around him,” says Vaughan Hitchcock, two-time Pacific Coast wrestling champion in the early 1950s.
Fewer than 10 high schools in the state offered wrestling when WSC hired Tomaras for $2,800. He soon realized the need for a feeder program if wrestling was to succeed at WSC. With that in mind, he organized the first state high school wrestling tournament in 1953-two mats, eight teams, 60 wrestlers-in Bohler Gym. Hitchcock was a referee. Teammates kept time and scores.
“We didn’t have any funds,” Tomaras says. Cougar wrestlers chipped in $2.50 apiece for inexpensive cups and medals. Fraternities provided free bunks and food for the visiting athletes. That was a start. Later, he’d load his own wrestlers into cars during spring break and drive across the state to put on exhibitions. He talked up the benefits of wrestling-discipline in making weight, determination, and an opportunity for athletes of all sizes to compete. He proved to be a convincing salesman. More and more schools added the sport. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association eventually agreed to underwrite the state meet.
In 1972 Tomaras was recognized as “The Father of Washington State High School Wrestling” at his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. In February 2003, more than 900 prep wrestlers from over 200 schools participated in the 50th State Mat Classic in the Tacoma Dome. WIAA officials saluted Tomaras for his pioneering and sustaining efforts on behalf of state wrestling. Nearly a dozen of his WSC wrestlers attended.
Under Tomaras’s direction, the Cougars captured five Pacific Coast intercollegiate championships. Between 1952 and 1954, WSC won 23 consecutive dual meets. “We managed to get real good competitors at all weights,” he says.
Among them were Alden Peppel, Ray Needham, and Sosh Watanabe. Peppel competed in the 1956 Olympic Trials at Portland. Needham, drafted out of intramurals, won the coast crown at 157 pounds. Watanabe never lost a dual match in four years at 121 pounds, according to Peppel. “His only defeats came when he was forced to wrestle at heavier weights.”
Tomaras’s big men included football players Hitchcock and Skip Pixley. Hitchcock played in the 1955 East-West Shrine football game at San Francisco. Later, he spent 34 years at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, 25 of them as wrestling coach. His teams won eight national Division II championships. He’s now in the Wrestling Hall of Fame.
“The toughest matches I had were working out with Vaughan Hitchcock every night,” says Pixley, runner-up for the coast heavyweight title in 1954 and third in 1955.
Both consider Tomaras a father figure and found the camaraderie among wrestlers unlike that among athletes on any other Cougar team. WSC discontinued wrestling after the 1985-86 season. To reinstate the program would cost around $400,000, according to WSU athletic director Jim Sterk. Two women’s sports–totalling around $500,000–would also have to be added to meet Title IX guidelines.
“He prepared me [to coach and teach] as well as anyone could possibly have-and with the right attitude,” says Hitchcock, now owner of a small winery in San Luis Obispo.
Pixley says, “You always felt like he cared about you. You could talk to him about anything, and go see him anytime. His name was the first one you’d put down on a job reference.”
Pixley still remembers his animated coach on the sidelines, “the contortions he went through, the agony and the joy he experienced.”
Cash Stone became a coaching legend during 34 years at Spokane’s Mead High School after winning a Pacific Coast title as a Cougar 130-pounder in 1958.
“Billy never gave up on you, even if you had a bad match,” he says. “You always wanted to perform well. If you didn’t, you thought you let him down.”
On one road trip, Tomaras pulled Stone aside and informed him his father was gravely ill. “I’m going to put you on a bus and get you home to see your dad,” he said, handing him $40 or $50 out of his own pocket. “Young kids today don’t have a clue how pathetic salaries were at that time, and how Bill and Dolly had to pinch pennies with three sons at home,” Stone said.
The lessons Gus and Randy Tomaras learned from their father were reinforced at Cal Poly, where they wrestled for Hitchcock.
“You have to work for everything you get,” says Gus, a retired coach, science teacher, and dean of students at South Kitsap High. He built the house his parents live in on five acres he owns. His house is nearby. Every other summer for the past 15 years, Cougar wrestlers and their wives have joined the Tomarases for a reunion dinner hosted by Gus. They enjoy reminiscing and swapping stories with and about their coach.
“Dad always believed-and still does-that one person can make a difference in the quality of life,” Randy says, “and his measure of that is how many people look up to you.”