Haverford – During his more than two decades as head coach, Bruce Kennett has guided the Haverford School wrestling team to plenty of success – a 306-127 won-loss record, four Pennsylvania Independent School Tournament titles (2002, 2003, 2004, 2006) and six top-10 placings at Nationals.
But for Kennett, the best part of coaching wrestling at Haverford School went beyond the won-loss ledger.
“It was never about wins and losses, but rather the transformative effect of wrestling, and mentoring young boys into becoming men,” said Kennett. “A lot of sports reveal character, but I think wrestling develops character more than any other sport. It’s intense, hard, demanding.
“I was recently watching the NCAA [wrestling] semifinals and finals, and to see the wrestlers who make it that far, who come that far, only to lose [at the end], they exhibit the best sportsmanship [after a loss in the finals] I’ve ever seen.”
Haverford School’s long-time athletic director and lacrosse head coach John Nostrant said, “Bruce Kennett has spent most of his adult life mentoring, coaching and teaching boys. The lessons that he taught were felt long after practice was over – and in fact [were felt] when these young guys became men. I have fathers of boys that I coach [who] tell me stories about Bruce and how positively he impacted their life. He is the last of a dying breed of independent school teacher-coaches. Bruce was a mentor to me and the friendship we built in his time at Haverford means the world to me.”
Haverford School associate athletic director and head football coach Michael Murphy noted, “Numerous [Haverford School] wrestlers say their lives have been changed for the better by wrestling for Coach Kennett.”
When Kennett, a 1969 graduate of Haverford High School, was inducted into the PIAA Southeast Regional Wrestling Hall of Fame last winter, he said, “To me, [coaching wrestling] is a fulfillment of a lifetime. It’s been a big part of my life. I fell in love with the sport since the day I got started.”
As a seventh-grader, Kennett was on the Haverford Middle School basketball team when he first was introduced to wrestling.
“Dale Bonsall, who was the wrestling coach at Haverford Middle School back then, said to me during one of our practices, ‘What are you doing?’” said Kennett.
“And I told him, ‘Playing basketball,’ and he said, ‘It doesn’t look like it to me.’
“I wasn’t a starter on the basketball team, I spent some time on the bench, and after a while, I began to think that maybe he has something there – maybe I should try wrestling [as a winter sport]. And once I tried it, in eighth grade, I loved it – the fact that I was responsible for the outcome, that there’s no finger-pointing, that it’s all on you.”
It was also the start of a lifetime friendship with Bonsall, who later became the wrestling coach at West Chester University. Bonsall coached Kennett as a WCU wrestler, was the best man at Kennett’s wedding, and is godfather to one of Bruce’s four sons (all of whom became high school wrestlers).
Not only did Kennett become a standout wrestler at Haverford High as a 180-pounder, but he also was a two-way starter on the outstanding Ford football squads of the late 1960s. Kennett was a defensive end and offensive guard, blocking for heralded quarterback Steve Joachim, who later played in the NFL.
“Haverford High School was a great place to be back then,” said Kennett. “We had some great teams and great coaches. Under [head football coach] Stan Freeman, I never felt so prepared going into a game. As a defensive end, I knew what play the other team was going to run, and could adjust for it.”
Kennett continued playing football and wrestling at West Chester University, graduating in 1973 with a degree in physical education. After getting married (his wife is a 1975 WCU grad) and starting a family, Kennett worked several jobs to make ends meet, including a three-year stint as a salesman for James Pools & Patios in Concordville.
“I had been working as a substitute teacher in the Lower Merion School District for a few years, and was a teacher at the Mitchell Main Line Day School (which no longer exists),” said Kennett. “Bobby Croff, a great athlete who graduated with me at Haverford High [in 1969] and was teaching and coaching wrestling at Malvern Prep, got in touch with me and told me he was moving to Atlantic City, and he said, ‘I think you’d like Malvern.’”
Kennett coached wrestling and lacrosse at Malvern Prep starting in 1980, then took a job teaching and coaching wrestling at Haverford School in 1995. It was just one year after legendary wrestling coach Neil Buckley, who mentored the Fords from 1947-94, stepped down.
Kennett coached two of his sons at Haverford School – Brett (who is now officiating wrestling and selling insurance in West Chester) and Ryan (who is now selling insurance in Chalfont). His two oldest sons, Danny and Matt, wrestled for West Chester Henderson High School.
More than 100 people, including some former Haverford School wrestlers, came to a Feb. 5 celebration at Haverford School for Kennett, who had announced he was retiring in June.
“To me, [the celebration] wasn’t about just one guy,” said Kennett. “It was a great opportunity to see some of my former wrestlers again. The greatest reward [for me] is to see what they’re accomplishing [after Haverford School]. I enjoy staying in touch with them, whether it’s to play golf, or whatever.”
Kennett, who turned 65 on March 11, will be teaching physical education at Haverford School until June 10.
“I can still teach wrestling, but I don’t know if I can coach it anymore at my age,” said Kennett. “When I get down on a [wrestling] mat to demonstrate a move, it takes me 6 minutes to get up (laughs).”
After June 10, Kennett, who now has five grandchildren, will travel with his wife to Nantucket for a week, then visit relatives in New Hampshire.
“I’m looking forward to not having a schedule, being able to go fishing or play golf whenever I want,” said Kennett.
Kennett will remain connected to Haverford School, working with the Jordan Baumeister Scholarship Foundation, which he started and has helped to raise more than $100,000 for. Baumeister was a Haverford School matman who wrestled for Kennett, then later developed bone cancer in college and died in his mid-20s.
“It’s all about the kids,” said Kennett as he pointed to some of his wrestlers in the team photographs lining the gym walls at the school. “I’ve been lucky – we’ve had some great teams [during my time] here at Haverford School.”
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