GOSHEN — John Dechant was a big man with a booming voice.
Dechant could be intense and animated as a coach. He was engaging as an educator.
He enjoyed helping others. If you walked the halls of Goshen High School or lived in the community, Big John was there to help.
Dechant died last week at his home near Syracuse at 75.
A wrestling coach for 19 years (1971-90) and a part of the annual Goshen Invitational for the past 50, Dechant was also an assistant track coach for 10 years and assistant football coach for four years. He was inducted into the Indiana Wrestling Hall of Fame, Elkhart County Sports Hall of Fame and Ball State University Athletics Hall of Fame.
A 1963 graduate of Franklin (Ohio) High School where he participated in football, basketball and track, Dechant was on the football and wrestling teams at Ball State and graduated in 1968. After two years of teaching and coaching at Richmond (Ind.) High School, he came to Goshen.
Dechant also taught U.S. History and was dean of students and athletic director at GHS. He retired in 2001 and received the Northern Lakes Conference Service Award in 2002.
For more than a quarter century, Dechant was tournament director for the NLC wrestling meet and IHSAA Goshen Regional.
“John was an advocate for the sport of wrestling in Elkhart County,” said Mark Fioritto, a former wrestling and football coach and athletic director at GHS. “He was very passionate about the sport. No doubt about it.
“He changed kids’ lives by getting them into wrestling. They learned about being part of a team and getting on that mat — going one-on-one — and doing the best you can.”
Fioritto is the nephew of the late hall of famer Rollie Hoover, who revived wrestling in northern Indiana in the late 1950s. He also sees Dechant as an ambassador for the sport.
Hoover saw what freestyle wrestling could do for high school students and Dechant embraced that as well, carting grapplers to tournaments all over the Midwest.
Fioritto was a mat standout at Elkhart Central High School. With Dechant’s help, he was hired at Goshen out of college.
“To outsiders, he was gruff, but he’d tell kids that he loved them and was proud of them,” Fioritto said. “That’s who John was.”
Fioritto and Dechant developed a good cop/bad cop routine with “Fio” being the bad cop.
“I became the guy that chewed the butt,” Fioritto said.
Dechant was a proponent of team wrestling. Consequently, Goshen was strong in dual meets. The Redskins won more than 200 on his watch.
Steve Swihart was a student in Dechant’s classroom and later coached with him and counted him as part of his wedding party.
“John saw that classroom as his stage,” Swihart said. “He was a great storyteller.
“He was incredibly entertaining as a teacher.”
Swihart saw in Dechant a fierce advocate for kids.
“He was very much about their best interest,” Swihart said. “He had a large personality. He was intense. He was animated. He would fight for his athletes and staff.
“He was an intensely loyal person. I learned from him how hard you can coach kids and how intense you can be when the kids know they’re loved. Those kids knew he would do anything for them.”
Swihart said Dechant was interested in more than just how an athlete performed a pinning combination.
“John had so many other layers,” Swihart said. “He was such a caring person.
“He was focused on the whole kid and not just the wrestler. I admired that and tried to emulate that. It was a privilege to be involved with him and that program.
“It was about the joy he got in seeing the kids be successful and grow. He was adamant about making those kids better people.”
After retirement, Dechant was a constant presence around town. He volunteered for many projects and helped out with the Goshen Gridiron Club (he received that group’s service award this past summer) and Junior Football League.
“Guy was just a blessing to the youth of the Goshen community,” Swihart said. “He was so giving with his time and knowledge.”
Jim Pickard has been head wrestling coach at GHS for nearly three decades. The first person he met when he came to interview at Goshen was Dechant.
“We both come across very intense,” Pickard said. “Behind the scenes, the kids know what we mean to them.”
Like Dechant, Pickard has been known to show his emotions at the corner of the mat.
That passion comes from personality and from knowing what the athlete has invested.
“Kids put in so much,” Pickard said. “We fight for kids. We know how much they’re hurting when they lose a match after they’ve been preparing months for it.
“Any good, successful coach is like that. You have relationships with the kids that people don’t see. You hurt right along with the kids.”
Randy Robertson was head football coach at Goshen and coached wrestling with Dechant and it left an impression.
Robertson saw Dechant promote wrestling and emphasized the finals of the Goshen Invitational by moving the event to Saturday night.
“If you don’t make it important, no one else is going to perceive it as important,” Robertson said. “The sport of wrestling was important to John.
“Not that it was his sole focus. John was a supporter of other programs. I think that’s what endeared him to other people.”
Robertson saw in Dechant a character, a bigger-than-life personality and a GHS backer.
“John was very much a crucial supporter of all things Goshen sports and other activities at the school,” Robertson said. “He realized that sports could teach things they couldn’t get in the classroom.
“John didn’t toot his own horn. For a man of his stature, he was somewhat humble. It’s a tough loss for the community. He was a very big role model for a lot of people.”
Scott Claybaugh and Harold Schmucker were taught and coached by Dechant and later coached with him.
“I used to love listening to him talk or lecture about history,” Claybaugh said. “He was so knowledgeable about it and he made it interesting.
“It was a very good learning environment when he was instructing. He made you want to hear more.”
Claybaugh said there are several people he knows who may not have graduated if it were not for Dechant.
“He gave them the support they needed,” Claybaugh said. “He gave them the help they needed, whether that was getting them some tutoring or someone to talk to or whatever it was.
“That’s just through the wrestling program. There’s got to be other kids that weren’t a part of wrestling that he helped, too.
“He cared for the kids. He worried about them. He wanted everybody to succeed.”
Schmucker remembers Dechant as a motivator and mentor.
“He’s was very intense and only wanted the best for you,” Schmucker said. “He taught you lifelong skills. He made sure we don’t give up. We do all we can to win. Treat people fairly. Just a lot of core values he’s instilled in his wrestlers.”
Schmucker saw that Dechant had the philosophy of kids being the future and that was reflected through things like the JFL.
“He had a real passion of making sure the kids got what they needed and give them an opportunity,” says Schmucker. “(As a teacher), he was always fair and if you didn’t understand something, he tried to explain something in a way where you could understand.”
Dave Edlund won a state title for Goshen at 185 pounds in 1978.
“(Dechant) was just a huge part of my life,” Edlund said. “He got the best out of everybody.
“I don’t know if I’ve met anybody who knew more about wrestling.”
Edlund saw Dechant score tournaments before they happened and he was generally right about scores and places.
Edlund shared one of his favorite memories.
“Over Christmas break he’d bring a record player in and we could have music during practice,” Edlund recalled. “That was one of the few times that he did that.”
Dechant insisted that his grapplers were able to go the distance.
“He made sure we were prepared,” Edlund said. “You never had a match that you were out of shape for and I watched a lot of guys win matches they never should have won just because of their conditioning.
“It’s funny, but he was one of the few people I would hear when I was on the mat. I feel extremely fortunate that I had him as a coach and I got to spend the time with him that I did.”
Indiana Wrestling Hall of Famer John Weaver was coached by Hoover at Elkhart High School and then coached at Fairfield, Northridge and Elkhart Central and took his wrestlers against Dechant-coached teams many times.
“He was great to compete against,” Weaver said. “His kids were always prepared and ready to wrestle. He did a great job with those kids.”