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'John Wooden of men's gymnastics' had an impact here

By Frank Giardina

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I'm sure most of you reading this today have never heard of Gene Wettstone. It is my pleasure to inform you.

This past Tuesday, Wettstone died at the age of 100 in central Pennylvania. 100 years!  Think about that.

Wettstone is one of the legendary coaches in the history of college athletics. He is considered the "John Wooden of NCAA men's gymnastics." 

Wettstone coached at Penn State from 1939-76, and during that time he won nine NCAA championships and produced 14 Olympians. He managed the U.S. Olympic team in 1976 and spent 20 years on the Olympic committee. He also coached a 37 individual NCAA champions and was inducted into the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1963.

We don't have any men's gymnastics college programs teams in our state but, amazingly enough, Wettstone also had an impact here.

 His daughter, Janet, a  1967 graduate of State College High School, would marry a Penn State football player, Craig Lyle from Olean, NY. 

After playing in two Orange Bowls and a Sugar Bowl as an offensive lineman for the Nittany Lions, Craig Lyle graduated with a masters degree in civil engineering in 1974 and took a job with an engineering firm based in Pittsburgh, Ackenheil Associates. Ackenheil also had an office in Nitro and placed Craig in the Kanawha Valley. 

Craig and Janet settled in Poca, fell in love with our state and its people and raised their three sons in the Kanawha Valley.

To my knowledge, Wettstone's grandsons never spent a day on a pommel horse or a vault, but they did cast a very big shadow over our local athletic scene.

Wettstone's grandsons David, Seth and Tim Lyle were all multi-sport athletes for the Poca Dots. They were also model students and citizens.

They played on Poca's 1994 football team that won a Class AA state championship over Sissonville 19-0. Tim was also on the 1997 Poca basketball team that won a Class AA state title over Bluefield 77-60. 

All three of Wettstone's grandsons competed in college. David ran track at Marshall, Seth played football for Bob Pruett at Marshall and Tim played basketball and was an Academic All-American at James Madison. He also played professionally overseas.

I knew Wettstone when I lived in State College, Pa. We remarked about what a small world it was that I was impacting his hometown and his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren were impacting my home area.

I enjoyed watching him enjoy the 1997 state basketball tournament, and it was one of the more enjoyable times of his life. He sat in the Poca cheering section, beaming and cheering with all of the Dot  fans. I wondered if any of the Poca fans that week realized they were sitting with the "John Wooden of collegiate gymnastics." 

Wettstone specialized in entertaining showmanship when he was a coach. He was known for making his gymnastics competitions an entertaining production. He was very impressed by the boys state basketball tournament that we host here in our state and appreciated the spirited and elaborate event it has become. 

It really is an amazing story. Wettstone immigrated to our country from Austria. He became a legend in USA gymnastics. Then, his family comes to our state and makes an incredible impact here.

His son-in-law, Craig, was one of the most respected men in sports in our area. I know of no one who was beloved by their community more. He was the unofficial chaplain of Poca High School and the Poca athletic events. Many called him "the Praying Dot." He loved the kids and the parents in that community and they loved him back.

Sadly, our area lost him to cancer in September of 2008. The coaches and community of Poca still mourn his passing. 

Now, at the age of 100, we lose his father-in-law, a man who coached a sport that we don't even have in our state, yet he still impacted our state through his family. It is the type of amazing story that we sometimes have here in athletics.

Reach Frank Giardina at



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