By Mickey Furfari
For The Register-Herald
Craig Turnbull, the latest head coach victim of Oliver Luck’s shocking series of firings at West Virginia University, had generally enjoyed what many rate as an outstanding career not only in athletics but in life.
Like the present, there also were some very difficult times for him as a youngster.
Turnbull, now 61, grew up in Erie, Pa., along with a brother, who was about three years younger. Their father was a professor of political science and history at Penn State.
Turnbull’s mother was a principal in high school, which was unusual in the 1950s for a female to be in such a high position.
The 36-year veteran WVU head coach of wrestling recalled this beginning at an exclusive interview last Wednesday afternoon in his office.
“My father died when I was just 3 and my brother Tommy was six months old,” Craig recalled sadly. “He had rheumatic fever from service in World War II and it partially closed a valve in his heart.
“He was waiting to have open-heart surgery, waiting to have it performed. But his valve closed before it could be corrected.”
So Mrs. Turnbull proceeded to raise the two young sons by herself.
“I remember her being both a mother and a father,” the coach continued. “I remember that she raced us around the block each day. And if she won, we had to go to bed; if we won, we could stay up for a half-hour.
“Then Mom passed on when I was 13 and Tommy was nine. She had an extended battle with cancer.”
After losing both parents to heartbreaking unfortunate events, he and his brother turned to wrestling as “kind of a parental influence and direction in guiding us.”
Turnbull’s misery wasn’t over yet, though.
“Then, unfortunately, when I was a young coach here, my brother had a car accident and he passed on,” he reminisced grimly. “He was only 23.”
How could anyone possibly envision losing their father and mother before reaching high school age and then that person’s brother die while in his 20s?
“Well, I guess that’s part of life,” said Turnbull of his terribly hard luck growing up.
“But wrestling for Tommy and me, we were very fortunate because we had a very good high school coach that was very directed.”
His name was Jack Sinnott, and he took a special interest in the Turnbull brothers. Wrestling became a real focal point as they developed their skills under his direction.
The setting for this was Iroquois High School in the Erie area. Both were very successful wrestlers and all-state champions.
Craig and Tommy earned full scholarships to Clarion University, where Craig was a Pennsylvania state wrestling champion at 126 pounds.
He also was an Eastern League champion and NCAA All-America selection. In addition, he co-captained a team that was ranked fifth in the country.
Turnbull, who graduated from Clarion in 1974, returned to Erie for a year and taught special education in high school while coaching. Then he came to Morgantown to work on a doctorate in counseling psychology at WVU in 1977.
He has been here ever since, following respective roles as graduate assistant, assistant coach, then 36 years as head coach of the wrestling program.
“It’s been a journey,” Turnbull readily admitted two days before Luck unexpectedly announced that Turnbull’s contract would expire June 30 and not be renewed. “Coaching here has had some challenge with the job.
“We started in a condemned area in the Coliseum. Then they moved us to Stansbury Hall, where the snow came in on the wrestling matches and basketball was on top of us.”
Eventually the Wrestling Pavilion was built for the grapplers below the Natatorium and above the Shell Building on the Coliseum portion of WVU’s campus.
“I am happy with the upgrades,” Turnbull stated. “It’s a top-10 facility. From the beginning, it was funded by three large endowments. One was the largest that any sport here had received to build.”
Turnbull’s program produced 29 All-Americans, seven NCAA Tournament finalists and five NCAA champions.
He also coached the first national champion in the wrestling program’s history, Scott Collins in 1991.