AP NEWS

Mike Milkovich, 96, Hall of Fame wrestling coach, won historic libel ruling

September 3, 2018

Mike Milkovich, 96, Hall of Fame wrestling coach, won historic libel ruling

MAPLE HEIGHTS, Ohio – The King of Ohio high school wrestling died Monday at age 96.

Mike Milkovich, the patriarch of a powerhouse wrestling family and program as the great Maple Heights High School coach for 27 years, passed away from what doctors said was complications from pneumonia and old age.

Milkovich was a charter member of the Ohio Wrestling Hall of Fame and also one of the few high school coaches elected to the Helms National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. From 1949 to 1977, he coached the Mustangs to 16 undefeated seasons, 10 state championships, nine state runner-up finishes and had 37 individual state champions. His teams’ overall record in dual meets was 262-25-2 (a .912 winning percentage).

All were state records at the time he retired in 1977. Milkovich also guided the Mustangs to a record 103 consecutive dual meet victories from 1963-72 (still a record).

“I’m proud of those winning streaks because we’ve taken on all comers,″ Milkovich said in 1977. “It’s not my nature to back away from tough teams.″

More than 3,000 fans packed the Maple Heights gym for Milkovich’s final match in 1977, at which he wore his trademark long-sleeve red shirt.

“I’m getting old and tired,″ he said then. “It’s time for the younger generation to take over. But wrestling will always be in my blood. It’s been my whole life.″

While the records speak for themselves, Milkovich’s nephew, Jamie Milkovich ­– the current Maple Heights coach – said his uncle’s legacy was heightened as a promoter of the sport.

“He was the first coach to wrestle dual meets at night, which attracted sellout crowds at our school,” Jamie Milkovich said. “He also had cheerleaders and mat maids at our matches, formed a huge booster club and made sure we got coverage in newspapers.”

Jamie Milkovich was Mike’s last state champ in 1977 at 145 pounds. Coincidentally, his first state champ was Jamie’s father Paul in 1949.

Mike Milkovich was a 145-pound state champion for Garfield Heights High in 1941, and he helped the Bulldogs win the state team title.

A key to Milkovich’s powerful teams was his establishment of junior high wrestling programs, where wrestlers could come to Maple Heights already knowing basic wrestling. He was also the first coach in Ohio to have a summer wrestling camp in 1970.

“My uncle was a very good technician,” Jamie Milkovich said, “but he was a master motivator. He could reach kids who were not involved in any school activities and make them outstanding wrestlers.”

Among them were Milkovich’s four sons. Tom was an undefeated three-time state champ and NCAA champ at Michigan State, Mike Jr. was a state champ and All-American at Kent State, Dan was third in the state and the youngest son Pat, while not a state champ, was a two-time national champ and four time NCAA finalist at Michigan State.

“I really didn’t want to wrestle in high school, but was afraid to tell my father so I told my mother instead,” Pat Milkovich said. “She said you’d better tell your father, and eventually told him I didn’t want to wrestle. One stern look from him was all I needed to see to know I had no choice in the matter. My brothers and I learned we had to do what he told us. His word really was law.

“But he never steered us wrong.”

Milkovich also had two daughters, Cathy and Beth. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Milkovich was the plaintiff in a landmark 1990 U.S. Supreme Court libel ruling in which he sued the old Lorain Journal Publishing Company, then owner of The News-Herald. The court ruled that opinion pieces do not have a blanket exemption from libel lawsuits and sent Milkovich’s case back to Ohio courts, but the case was settled out of court. Milkovich filed the suit against the Lorain Journal Publishing Company, owner of The News-Herald, after News-Herald sports editor Ted Diadiun wrote a column accusing Milkovich of lying.

On Feb. 9, 1974, a brawl erupted among wrestlers at a match between Maple Heights and Mentor covered by Diadiun. The Ohio High School Athletic Association banned Maple Heights from the state tournament in 1975 because of the fracas. Maple Heights sued the OHSAA and got an injunction allowing them to compete at state. Diadiun wrote that Milkovich lied at the hearing. Diadiun is a retired Plain Dealer and cleveland.com editor and current member of its editorial board.

Milkovich told The Plain Dealer in 1991 he received more than $100,000 in the settlement of the case, which spent 17 years in the courts.

Bob Preusse, longtime high school wrestling writer for Amateur Wrestling News, said Milkovich was indeed the Mat King of Ohio wrestling.

“Mike Milkovich was one of eight kids in his family,” said Preusse. “His parents were poor Croatian immigrants. The family did not have enough to eat, and Mike struggled in school because he could not speak English. From these humble origins, a wrestling legend emerged.”

AP RADIO
Update hourly