LODA — There are five phases of high school coaching, John Woods says.
First on the list, according to the Champaign Central athletic director, is survival. Then comes success, followed by playing a significant role in the lives of student-athletes.
“Don Pittman spent the majority of his career at Central High in stage three,” Woods said of Mr. Pittman, a legendary Central High wrestling coach from 1964-79, who passed away Thursday at the age of 91.
Stage four, the “satisfied stage,” is when coaches rely on the previous years’ practice plans, Woods said. Come stage five, the “spent stage,” a coach would rather be home watching TV reruns.
“I don’t think Don ever got to stage four or five,” Woods said. “Just the character that he instilled in the kids and the influence he had in their lives is something worth noting.”
Hall of Fame basketball coach Lee Cabutti said Central had a great roster of coaches leading teams during Mr. Pittman’s era.
And “he just made the coaching staff better,” Cabutti said.
That staff included Cabutti, the winningest basketball coach in Central history, and other household names, like Charlie Due and Tommy Stewart. Cabutti said Mr. Pittman was one of about five coaches in that era who stayed at Central until retirement.
“They set a great example for people to follow. (Mr. Pittman) had a great head on him. He was a good listener, a good leader, good at everything,” Cabutti said, adding that he was the type of guy who had a great personality and could coach any sport, anywhere.
“Because he got along with the kids really well,” Cabutti said.
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An Urbana native, Mr. Pittman was a standout athlete at Urbana High, a World War II veteran, a former Illini football player and a lifelong outdoors man.
A few years ago, he was honored by Central at a special ceremony for his dedicated coaching career, and a significant number of his former athletes were there, Woods said.
“To see those kids come back speaks to the significant role he played in their lives,” Woods said.
Andy Warner of Savoy was one of those former athletes. His sophomore year, he weighed 94 pounds, and Mr. Pittman approached him in physical education class about joining the wrestling team, which Warner knew nothing about.
Despite Warner’s “no,” Mr. Pittman told him he was a pretty good athlete and that he would be his varsity wrestler at 95 pounds.
“He was good at recruiting other kids out of P.E. and getting them to believe in him,” said Warner, who went on to wrestle the rest of his high school days and enjoyed a long career as a wrestling referee.
As a coach, Warner said Mr. Pittman was “very intense, very thorough with practices,” recalling one time when the team had to run endlessly for goofing off in practice.
“And nobody screwed around in practice after that,” he said, adding that Mr. Pittman also gave individual wrestlers extra work if he thought they were slacking off. “You would learn dedication, and what it takes, not just in wrestling but also in life, to be a winner and give your all.
“And he didn’t show favoritism. He treated us all the same.”
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Richard Wooley, one of Mr. Pittman’s former assistants, said the head coach wasn’t hard on the kids, but very disciplined and strict with them. He always had good teams, and the wrestlers would follow whatever plan Mr. Pittman laid out, he said.
“He was a very good coach,” Wooley said.
In 2003, he was inducted into the Illinois chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. According to his hall bio, Mr. Pittman produced four individual state champions, five second-place finishers and two who took third, all while coaching in an era of the one-class system.
Born in Farmer City, Mr. Pittman and his brother, the late Richard Pittman, lived several years in Cunningham Children’s Home as boys, and both grew into good athletes at Urbana High, where Don Pittman played football, wrestled, ran track and eventually was inducted into the Hall of Fame there.
The brothers joined the service right after high school. Mr. Pittman enlisted in the Navy in 1944, spending most of his service time in the South Pacific during World War II as a gunner’s mate at a massive ammo dump.
His brother had joined the Marines a year before him and was killed in 1945 on Iwo Jima. The local Marine Corps League post is named for him.
Wooley said the two brothers were very close.
“That was just a terrible blow to him, I’m sure,” Wooley said.
After the war, Mr. Pittman returned to the states and started college at the UI, where he played football until a serious hand injury knocked him out for good. He met his wife, Norma, at the UI, where he graduated in 1951 and went on to earn his master’s in ’56.
Wooley was hired at Central in 1961 and was an assistant wrestling coach when Mr. Pittman was hired as the head coach in 1964 after several years leading Danville’s program. Wooley and Mr. Pittman were both on Central’s football coaching staff, too.
“Don was a very, very close friend,” said Wooley, who was about 12 years younger and would turn to Mr. Pittman for advice. “He was like a big brother to me. He was encouraging to me, and he was helpful.”
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Cabutti said Mr. Pittman had a place at Bayles Lake, near Loda, where he spent his retirement years. He’d invite the coaches over for cookouts and take them on pontoon boat rides.
Cabutti said his friend was a “big-time fisherman” and a talented craftsman, who could carve wood into the most beautiful shapes, like a duck or goose.
Wooley said Mr. Pittman suffered the last couple months with pain from bone cancer, and his passing was probably a blessing.
“He had a long and good life and was an exceptional man and a great example to the kids that he coached and taught,” he said. “They all looked up to him a lot.”
“To my way of thinking,” Wooley added, “he was really a great coach, husband, father and man, and I can never think of anything that he ever did in his lifetime that he would have to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. When you work with people like that, it makes life a lot more fun.”
Mr. Pittman is survived by his wife of 68 years, Norma (Mosier) Pittman, and two children — Donna Pittman, director of the Champaign Public Library, and Richard Pittman, of Elmhurst.
Mr. Pittman’s life will be remembered at 11 a.m. June 2 at the Loda United Methodist Church, 200 S. Locust St.