Pioneer Proud: the Chesbro Legacy

Current and past Pioneer wrestlers gathered to say goodbye to Coach Chesbro on the night of his final home meet. Photo by Carolyn Walstad

Story by Roger Moore

Every year, be it rural or urban, Northeast or Southwest, someone who has influenced young minds in a classroom, on the court, or in any academic capacity decides it is time to retire. Devoting three decades to being a school teacher requires patience; add spending weekends and two nights a week during the academic year in the gymnasium and it is evident that a commitment must be made.

Stillwater’s school system has been filled with prominent figures in its almost 150 years of existence. James Harrison (Harry) Donart taught in downtown buildings; not until 1893 would he teach in an actual schoolhouse. Lee Ward spent 31 years in Stillwater school systems.

Coach Doug Chesbro

Like teachers, coaches across all sports have had a major impact in the development of young men and women. Kurt Goebel spent 29 years as the Stillwater High swim coach, coupled with mentoring young artists in the classroom. Bill Defee coached Pioneer football for 19 seasons. He also taught a little history. In January, longtime wrestling coach Doug Chesbro announced the 2019-20 season would be his last. The SHS graduate spent 32 years coaching wrestling, the last 25 at his alma mater. He will remain in the classroom, teaching biology and driver’s education.

Tommy Chesbro, Doug’s dad, served 15 years as Wrestling Head Coach at Oklahoma State University.

The Chesbro legacy goes back to the 1940s. Tommy Chesbro, a 1957 state champion at 130 pounds for C.E. Donart High, wrestled for Myron Roderick at Oklahoma State. He married Shirley Rae Wright in 1959 and following Tommy’s graduation the couple moved to Blackwell where he taught history and coached wrestling. In 1969, as coach at Stillwater High, Chesbro led the Pioneers to a state championship and a year later, at 29, he was named head coach at Oklahoma State, replacing Roderick. A national championship was part of a career that included induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, fittingly, in 1995, the same year his son, Doug, was named head wrestling coach at Stillwater High. 

There have been ups and downs, big moments, and some tough losses, none tougher than the sudden loss of his father in 2006. Doug and Debbie Chesbro’s son, Brent, died tragically in an automobile accident in November of 2017. Through it all, school teacher and coach was replaced by mentor and friend, by what it means to be an educator for high school kids. Sometimes the athletic endeavor gets disrespected; a clichéd attitude toward the “student-athlete” becomes a societal norm. But through athletics relationships are born. Young men struggle with maturity, negotiating through those rough teenage years. A mentor, someone who understands the human condition, is an asset in and out of the classroom. Sports can teach just like textbooks.

SHS’s final home match of the 2019-20 season appeared to be just another dual with Bartlesville on a Tuesday. There were no bells and whistles, just a Pioneer win, one of many during a Chesbro career that included a Class 6A state title in 2014, the program’s first since 1970. But following the meet, fans stuck around to honor much more than a coach. There were former state champions amongst the throng, but there were a lot more former wrestlers who learned much more than half-nelsons and cradles from “Coach Chez.” It was evident by the outpouring that this educator had an impact much larger than any win or loss.

It was also evident what Stillwater High means to Doug Chesbro when he addressed the crowd following his final home meet. Usually ready for a joke or some wit possibly learned from Tommy Sr., Doug, on this night, had difficulty getting through a few minutes, probably because describing almost three decades of service to the Stillwater High school system cannot be condensed into a few words on a Tuesday night. At the same time, after 25 years of late-night bus rides, comforting a disappointed senior or two on the State Fair Arena floor, or counseling a student in a tough place, these experiences and moments are immeasurable to the students and athletes who received that guidance. Many of them lined up to shake Coach’s hand, to get a picture taken, or just to say thank you on that Tuesday. Social media, something in its infancy when Coach Chesbro got started, was filled with posts, congratulations, and well-wishers.

There is no way to really measure the impact of an educator, and often those educators take for granted the impact that they have had. The last week of February saw “Coach Chez’s” final state tournament in Oklahoma City. The school year continues through May and he will be back in the classroom for the 2020-21 academic year. Most likely he will, a time or two, drop by the wrestling room as well.

“I guess it was 25 years of doing something right, I guess, having so many kids come back for this,” Chesbro told the Stillwater Newspress on that Tuesday night. “There’s little boys of little boys that I coached. I love every one of them. You take on a role. I’m not a parent of them, but I’m not a friend, either, they’re all just part of me. They are all an extension of what I am, and I feel so close with each and every one of them.”

The National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s Oklahoma Chapter recognized Doug Chesbro’s contributions to wrestling and his impact on student-athletes in 2017.