O'Donnell molding student-athletes
Teaching and coaching are professions not made for everyone.
Dickinson State wrestling head coach Thadd O’Donnell exemplifies those qualities and has demonstrated his passion for coaching, and helping his students and athletes succeed throughout the years.
“Teaching and coaching is the same thing,” O’Donnell said. “If you’re teaching, you’re coaching and if you’re coaching, you’re teaching. Basically what you’re trying to do is get the most out of young men and women, and teaching and coaching is basically the same thing.”
For the past 19 years, O’Donnell has been a staple of DSU wrestling and athletics. He has put together an illustrious and successful career. But before the championships and titles, he was a student of the game.
The Baker, Mont., native started his freshman year at DSU in 1985, majoring in math and physical education. He was a standout wrestler at the 134-pound weight class. Throughout his high school and college careers, O’Donnell estimates he only lost about 18 matches. At DSU, he was a three-time all-American and still holds the school records for most pins in a career and in a season, as well as most wins by a freshman.
He was also an assistant coach at DSU — while recovering from shoulder surgery — and coached at Northern State as a graduate assistant.
But when he wasn’t on the mat, he was getting his first taste of teaching by helping his high school coach host wrestling camps in the summer.
“I started traveling around, doing camps in the summertime and really liked doing technique and teaching technique, and I’ve done camps ever since,” O’Donnell said.
Learning from the best
In his time at DSU, O’Donnell has been the head coach of four sports besides wrestling. He is the men’s and women’s golf coach and has also coached men’s and women’s cross country. O’Donnell returned to DSU in 1995 and was an assistant football coach specializing on the defensive line until 2001. With the wide array of sports, O’Donnell learned how to coach and teach in several different styles and cater to each sport’s unique needs.
There were several coaches at DSU who O’Donnell said helped make him the coach he is today. Men like former basketball head coach Sam Milanovich — who died shortly after O’Donnell’s college career had ended — and former football head coach Hank Biesiot, who stepped down this past offseason after 38 seasons, helped pave the foundation of coaching and helping athletes learn the game over time.
“Sam Milanovich — I had him in class — made you feel pretty special being in his class, so it was a lot of mentors that weren’t involved in wrestling but were involved in coaching,” he said. “Coach Biesiot, he’s helped a lot because when I first came here, I helped coach football and wrestling, and didn’t know a dang thing about football. But he made you feel so comfortable and he understood coaching is coaching. You can learn the X’s and O’s and that sort of thing if your passion is to try and help kids get better.”
Intensity from the bench
Behind O’Donnell’s desk in the basement of Wienbergen Hall are walls filled with plaques and photos from the numerous national titles and appearances the Blue Hawks have achieved. There are old photos of standout wrestlers and a cork board littered with newspaper clippings.
O’Donnell has led his teams to 11 NAIA top 10 national finishes, coached five individual national champions and earned eight regional or conference coach of the year awards.
As accomplished and decorated as he is, O’Donnell said he is most proud of the alumni he has turned out. His favorite part of his job is seeing his athletes understand and develop over time.
His passion for teaching is no secret, either. His wrestlers said it is evident in the practice room or sitting beside him at a match.
“You can see it especially when someone hits a move that he’s shown that we went over the week before, he gets this glint in his eye and, especially if it’s a dual, you don’t want to sit next to him because he’s smashing his knees out and hitting into you,” senior Mack Chambers said. “He’s definitely very passionate about what he does and reflects when he’s out there coaching us.”
When people meet O’Donnell, their first impression may be he is quiet and reserved. But his athletes, like senior Jesse Hellinger, know there is more to his coach than meets the eye. “Coach is kind of like the strong, silent type — pretty much what he shows,” Hellinger said. “You think he’s pretty stern and quiet but when he gets into the room, he’s a whole different cat. He’s got so much emotion and so much passion for the sport, and passion for his athletes.
“Even behind closed doors, when you talk to him about classes and stuff, you know that he cares about you and you know that he’s there to help you out. Not only on the mat but off the mat as well.”
Creating a coaching tree
When it comes to coaching, O’Donnell isn’t just trying to create high-caliber teams — he is trying to develop great men and women.
“No regrets” is what he constantly preaches to his athletes to make sure they are constantly engaged and get everything out of their short sliver of college sports.
“We do it in practice every day,” O’Donnell said. “If you want to accomplish something you haven’t accomplished, you have to do something you haven’t done and that’s getting out of your comfort zone and being a student of the game, if it’s a sport or class.”
His coaching techniques and evident compassion for his athletes are contagious.
He has been copied by his former wrestlers who decided to go into coaching.
Former DSU wrestler and current Dickinson High co-head coach Adam Orton said he tries to implement most of the things he learned from O’Donnell and that the two still have a strong relationship.
“Everything I do, I do it just like I did in college, and everything I teach,” Orton said. “I kind of have high standards and sometimes it’s a little much for some of the kids, but I’m able to lessen the toughness of a move, lessen the complexity of it.”
One of his most recent assistants, Tyson Springer, left last year to become the head coach at Doane College in Crete, Neb.
O’Donnell’s new top assistant built amassed quite a career under the coach.
Justin Schlecht was a three-time NAIA champion, four-time all-American and NAIA National Wrestler of the Year. He is in his third season as an assistant under O’Donnell.
He spent four years coaching at Belle Fourche (S.D.) High School before returning to Dickinson and said he used what he learned from O’Donnell during his first coaching job.
“I wasn’t about to reinvent the wheel, he was doing things that were being successful and used what was already working,” Schlecht said.
He said working alongside his former coach has been great and, because of their previous coach-student relationship, they understand each other better.
“Now, as we’re working together, we do a great job of communicating with each other,” Schlecht said. “We understand each other and the good thing about our staff, with the two of us working together, is we realize each other’s strengths and are able to help the athletes out.”
O’Donnell has left a mark on DSU and its athletic department.
But the biggest mark which will be remembered is his honest compassion towards his athletes and students and striving to make them model human beings for the future.
“I think coaching really boils down to the love of what you’re doing,” O’Donnell said. “I think the greatest thing is to see a kid get it. As far as getting it, they can see their potential and really strive for that.”