Bill Eastman takes a stroll through the wrestling room at Dixon High School, clad in a purple Dukes t-shirt with “King of the Pit” on the back.
He looks up at pictures of Dixon’s five state wrestling champions, and one in particular catches his eye. It is of Jim Witzleb, the Dukes’ heavyweight state champion in 1971.
Witzleb was a big guy, and didn’t have a teammate who would be a suitable practice partner. Enter Eastman, who was working at the Dixon cement plant at the time, and stout enough to hang with
“There’s a guy I worked with every day for 9 weeks,” Eastman said with a smile.
For half a century, Eastman has been the constant in the Dixon wrestling program as a volunteer assistant. He hasn’t received a dime from the school, and drives himself to matches, rather than deal with the commotion of school bus travel.
Last month, Eastman received some national notice for his dedication to Dixon wrestling. The National Wrestling Coaches Association named Eastman the Scholastic Assistant Coach of the Year.
Each state had a head coach and assistant coach who were state winners. From there, it was whittled down to eight section winners, and both coaches from Illinois, Eastman and Lena-Winslow head coach Kevin Milder, made that cut.
From the eight section nominees, national winners were selected. The head coach honored by the NWCA was Steven Lander of Roseburg, Oregon, while the assistant coach was Eastman. He helped guide the Dukes to a berth in the IHSA Dual Team state tournament, where they placed third this past February. It was the team’s first-ever state berth.
“It’s quite an honor,” Eastman said. “I guess it’s got to do with how long I’ve been at it, and having the boys make it to state and finish third. They put in a lot of work, and competed the best that they could. It was just great to see and be a part of.”
Eastman, 70, is a 1965 DHS graduate, and a member of the school’s first NCIC championship wrestling team that season. He also advanced to state as a senior, a major feat in a one-class system.
After graduating, he worked at a few different places, primarily the cement plant in town, before buying the Royal Palms bar in 1974; he still owns it.
When it’s time for wrestling practice or to drive to an away match, Eastman’s wife, Val, steps behind the bar. Eastman is then free to coach the sport he loves.
“It’s not an easy sport, and it’s not for everybody, but that’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much,” Eastman said. “It takes a special kind of a kid to be a wrestler.”
Eastman primarily works with the bigger athletes on the squad, passing down a lifetime’s worth of knowledge to whoever wants to soak it up. Some balky knees prevent him from mixing it up with the athletes the way he once did, but he’s still a vital contributor.
“He makes individuals feel worthy of being there,” said Charlie Bishop, a current Dixon assistant and former DHS wrestler. “No matter who you are, what you know, what you don’t know, he’s always there. It’s like ‘Grandpa Bill’ is there to make sure things are going well. You feel self-worth when you’re around him.
“He lightens up the room sometimes. When you’re having a bad day, people are getting on your nerves, and then Bill’s coming around, giving you a little joke, lightening up your mood a little bit. He’s always in your corner.”
The Dixon program has been a successful one, for the most part, but had fallen on hard times about 10 years ago. There were some talented individuals, but filling weight classes became a challenge as numbers dwindled, and team success was out of the question.
That’s the situation current head coach Chris Bishop found himself in during his early years as coach, and Dixon hit bottom with a 1-19 dual meet record in the 2012-2013 season.
Eastman’s advice to Bishop: stay the course.
“When we were winning one match a year, Bill would tell me to just hang in there, to trust the system, and things would turn around,” Chris Bishop said. “It wasn’t always easy to believe that, but Bill did, and we eventually got things going.”
Eastman had full confidence things would change under Bishop, a standout wrestler for the Dukes in the mid-1990s, and continue in the right direction. It resulted in a 24-2 dual record this past season, and a state trophy.
“Chris was a tough kid, a battler, and I knew he was the right coach for the job,” Eastman said. “I couldn’t be happier with where we’re at right now, with the coaches, the kids, everything.”
And Eastman will be back when wrestling season comes around again in November.
“I just got the go-ahead from the school to do it again,” he said. “I’ll be ready.”