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Brandon's legendary wrestling coach will pass the torch

The first state championship team for Brandon wrestling coach Russ Cozart (center, middle row with beard) came in 1982, his second year at Brandon High. In his 37 years at Brandon, Cozart has won 26 state titles, including 16 straight.

Courtesy of Russ Cozart

The first state championship team for Brandon wrestling coach Russ Cozart (center, middle row with beard) came in 1982, his second year at Brandon High. In his 37 years at Brandon, Cozart has won 26 state titles, including 16 straight.

In his little office next to Brandon High's gym, surrounded by team photos and a faded framed "State Champions" t-shirt from 1977, I reminisced with wrestling coach Russ Cozart.

We talked about 1982, my senior year at Brandon, and how the school used to have pep rallies for the wrestling team.

Cozart loved those rallies, all of us crammed in the gym bleachers, wearing glittery homemade cardboard pins on our shirts. The pins were cutouts in a simple, "100."

On the court, the 29-year-old coach with a bushy red head and a bushy red beard looked like a lumberjack with a microphone, surrounded by Eagle wrestlers.

To the cheering throng, Cozart announced: "Come to the match and help us keep the streak alive!"

Ah yes, the streak …

Even though we students barely knew anything about wrestling we were proud of "The Streak," which in 1982 was trying to reach "100" consecutive dual-match victories.

We did know that the streak was somewhat vulnerable, mainly because of Chamberlain, the school Cozart coached in 1979 and '80. In 1982, Chamberlain looked as strong as our boys.

But besides that, we didn't know a lot.

We didn't know the fire within Cozart, this young guy from southern California with the huge grin and the huge red hair. He seemed too happy to be intense.

We didn't know the graciousness of legendary coach Jim Graves, who coached the first 74 victories of "The Streak," but happily agreed to assist the young guy with the bushy hair.

We didn't know that the lone state wrestling champion from Brandon at the time, Tony Ippolito (who won a state title in 1977), assisted Cozart without a hint of ego.

We didn't know how much the Brandon community would rally behind Cozart, including dentist Ed Gorman, who would contribute time and money to Brandon wrestling for the next 28 years until his death.

We didn't know 1985 state champion Bobby Hendrickson eventually would return to guide the JV team for 29 years.

We didn't know the streak, nearing 100, still resided in its infancy.

We didn't know how much it motivated Cozart.

"In those years I would say, 'I would amount to nothing unless I did better than Graves,'" Cozart said. "I had to win at least 74 matches in a row and I had to win a state championship. I was so driven by that it was incredible. So I went to work."

Did he ever.

And Brandon won and won and won … and never lost a dual match for the next 28 years.

"If you would have told me in 1980 that I wouldn't lose for 28 years I would have said, 'C'mon now, that's a bit crazy,'" Cozart said. "But it happened."

What also happened? Cozart got married (in 1985 to wife Jeanna), bought a house in Brandon in 1985, had two children, Rocky (in 1986) and Joe (in 1990), won more state titles (27 in all, including a current skein of 16), watched his sons win several individual state titles, went undefeated as a team against Hillsborough County opponents (since 1972) and posted the longest unbeaten streak in the history of high schools at 459 dual-match victories.

In all that time through all that amazing history, it should be noted that Cozart did something that might be the most amazing of all: He missed only two practices.

Two.

But it shouldn't be long before another Cozart, son Joe, starts taking over. After 37 years, he's finally handing over some duties. That's right, the legendary coach is beginning to move aside, something he did during summer Brandon youth workouts.

How did that feel?

"It felt great," Cozart said with his patented smile and twinkle in his eye. "It was great because I saw how well everything was going. I have confidence in all of it."

For 26-year-old Joe Cozart, who won four state titles at Brandon, it is an absolute, "dream situation."

"I've known I wanted to be around the Brandon team and be coaching for many, many years," said Joe, who wrestled for Lindsey Wilson University and now teaches physical education down the street at McLane Junior High. "This is a perfect fit for me. I know how everything works and how it needs to work.

"I want to make my dad proud, just like I do every day. I want to carry on the tradition."

Russ Cozart grinned and said, "Sounds Perfect."

Contact Scott Purks at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Brandon's legendary wrestling coach will pass the torch 12/02/16 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2016 6:51pm]
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