His brown cowboy boots made for inspired wrestling

By Jeff “Bro” Olsen

Aitkin’s Noel Bailey, a Hall of Famer in life and everything important, is grappling against his biggest opponent ever.

Maybe this is Noel’s final farewell tour. After all, he has Stage 4 colorectal cancer, certainly not an optimal diagnosis for an 82-year-old who admits he’s on shaky ground just standing up.

It was this past August when he was first diagnosed. He initially lost more weight than even the best weight cutters in his legendary hometown of wrestlers.

But maybe this isn’t the final farewell tour. He’s tough, has a supportive family, and one helluva of a lot of friends. They even renamed the old Aitkin High School gym that he once wrestled in as the Noel Bailey Gymnasium.

Additionally, he was the unanimous choice for the Aitkin Independent Age weekly’s “Person of the Year for 2023.”

They filled the old gym on Friday, January 19, to honor the old coach during the dedication ceremony. It was standing room only for the beloved coach who ran a tight ship and expected dedication and excellence from his wrestlers on and off the mat.

Don’t count him out!

Mr. Fraik isn’t!

GEORGE FRAIK

George, the former International Falls head wrestling coach, comes at life with an appreciation for excellence.

“Noel Bailey is a fantastic gentleman and an incredible coach.”

He fondly recalled Noel’s first wife, Pat, and then his second wife, Alma, also deceased.

Mr. Fraik, who gravitated to college after serving on various freighters on the Great Lakes for five years, put everything in perspective.

“Noel hung out with good women. I don’t ever remember him not being a class act. Period!”

He recalled their duals.

“One of the things about wrestling Bailey’s kids was they were going to be tough and well-coached.”

George misses nothing. His motto is to always be on the alert and observing everything that takes place within sight and hearing.

“When I watched Bailey work, I borrowed, I stole everything I could from him. Of course, I stole from the rest of you, too.” But he said Bailey was the best.

“I think he probably was the premier coach in northern Minnesota at the time, and that includes all of them – the Rapids boys and the whole works.”

He described Noel as a character and a man who certainly loves life.

“Boy, he used to bring a lot of kids down to the state tournament, and Aitkin always had real tough dual teams.”

Fraik was the Bronco’s head coach from 1983 to 1992. “What I remember the most about Noel is when he wanted to get attention from a kid out on the mat, he’d stomp his cowboy boots, and you could hear that throughout the whole gym. He always wore cowboy boots. I’ll tell you, those kids perked up and listened when he stomped his heels. It was like a little bell for them.

“I just remember Skip Nalan, the Johnson boys (Wayne and Curt in Hibbing) and Roger Nelson (Virginia) were some of the finest men I got to know. Noel Bailey could drive the bus with that bunch. And not to mention all the guys over at Bemidji like Howie Schultz.”

George was animated. “You might not believe this, but I’m sitting in a saloon.” He then commented on the Johnson brothers, two great coaches, almost always dressed up like morticians for the tournament finals.

“They were the men in black,” he chuckled. “And they were determined that all their kids dressed up in coats and ties before they went out of town. We just told our kids to dress. Don’t show up naked. It’s too cold.”

Mr. Fraik, now in his seventies and one of the friendliest coaches ever, wasn’t finished celebrating a great coach.

“Noel Bailey is top of the line.”

BIG DAN

In 1980, Dan Jinks became Skip Nalan’s assistant coach.

“I was with Skip when I first met Noel during Grand Rapids’ very storied rivalry with Aitkin. It was a very competitive, hard fought rivalry, and wrestling fans just appreciated very similar programs with their philosophy. I’ve known him a long time and he’s a great guy. Very, very competitive, and it’s one of those things where you’re at the edge of the mat.”

Jinks highlighted one of the things he gleaned from Noel in that dual the first season he assisted Skip in the 1980-81 season. “When you stepped on the mat, it was business. They were very hard-fought dual meets. When it was all done the first time, we sat down in the cafeteria, and that was after they pretty well handled us.”

He added that being a young assistant coach, he didn’t take the friendly chat very well.

“But I saw how Skip and Noel approached it after we went into the cafeteria and had coffee. It was a little bit of wrestling fellowship.”

Big Dan laughed at the recollection of Skip and Noel replaying the dual and the individual matches, and who might have made the right moves and who didn’t.

“It was very eye-opening for me to see that it’s okay to let it go because it’s all about the camaraderie after the dust clears. You can still get together and compare notes. Like I said, I gleaned a lot of knowledge from watching Skip and Noel, who was very gracious in victory and Skip was equally humble in defeat. It transcended the dual meet. It was the two communities that respected each other greatly, and I watched how Noel carried himself.”

Big Dan knew then he could model himself after Noel. “Fight hard to win a dual meet and that’s the end of it. That was pretty cool. I watched him and Skip go tooth and nail in the dual meet, but when it was all done, their friendship was amazing.”

Aitkin and Grand Rapids are 50 miles apart.

“The one thing about Noel is I got involved in becoming a section rep and later became the president of the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association. Noel was very instrumental in that for me.”

Mr. Jinks, aka Jinksie, credits Noel’s mentorship in giving back to the sport of wrestling. “If I was doing something right, he was the first one to pat me on the back. But if I was doing something wrong, he was the first one to correct me in a very good way.”

Dan recalled missing a meeting one time, thinking he could miss it because he had some things to do with his own program.

“He just took me off to the side and, in a very nice way, said, ‘If you’re going to be a part of this, you have to give a full commitment. It can’t be a once-in-awhile thing. It’s gotta be an everyday thing. I learned that, too. If you’re going to commit to something, do it right. Don’t just do it everyone once in a while. That helped me a great deal.”

He was a section rep for nine years and ended up being the president of the Minnesota Coach Wrestling Association. “I couldn’t have done it without his help.”

He put the final wrap on his comments.

“Noel Bailey is one of the finest men I’ve met in my career.”

JERRY CLEVELAND

Jerry, 74 and presently an assistant coach for Staples-Motley, was reached on a recent Monday evening at the B & B Sports Bar & Grill in Staples, a wonderful hamburger joint with dartboards and pool tables.

Jerry recalled wrestling Noel at an old-timers tournament in Grand Rapids. He was 50, which meant Noel was 58.

It was pack a lunch because it was two of the best in that old-timers final.

Both are former state runners-up from the old single-class state tournament days.

“He beat me 2-1. He was bigger. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” laughed Jerry.

Neither was a slouch. JC had placed 2nd and 3rd for Staples. Noel placed 2nd and 4th at state for Aitkin, graduating in 1959 while Jerry graduated in 1967.

“He’s tough!” Jerry said with admiration. “Noel’s a great guy, and I’ve known him for a long time.”

BOB LAKE

Bob is a decorated Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient. He was Noel’s assistant coach and frequently says “Coach” when discussing his pal.

“I coached with Noel for about 15 years and we’re really good friends.”

He added that Coach has a sweet smile.

“He’s just a great man, and I’m lucky to have him as a friend. He lives a charmed life. He’s humble, and he’d give you the shirt off his back.”

They made a great pair – the loquacious assistant and quiet head coach.

What Bob likes about Noel is that he always says it like it is. For years, Noel used his cowboy boots to do his talking.

“He stomped the heels to be louder than Dravis, and it was pretty effective to get our wrestlers’ attention to drag the kid nearer to Noel.” Mr. Lake calls the late Staples coach, Don Dravis, one of his heroes.

Mr. Lake was asked if Noel would have made a good drill instructor.

“He’d have been excellent, but he’s really a kind man, very kind. That’s one of the reasons why I got to do the conditioning part. He was the technician.”

Bob had to say no more. He was the master drill sergeant in the wrestling room.

Bob’s a colorful character.

“I never was a good wrestler, but I was mean enough to win a couple of medals. I learned a lot from wrestling. It paid dividends when I got shipped off to a place called Vietnam where I became a Marine grunt with 1/3 Delta. I was deployed to the DMZ area. I transferred to 3rd Recon after I had combat experience.”

In his book, Coach is the real hero.

DAWN BAILEY

Daughter Dawn is her dad’s Girl Friday as well as his caregiver, cook, and chauffeur to his medical appointments and grocery shopping. If there are questions, she knows the answers.

Her dad was honored on Friday, January 19, with the old gym renamed in his honor.

“It’s the gym that my dad had wrestled in.”

Dawn was 24 when her mother, Pat, died from an aneurysm. Dawn’s in her fifties now and is always in her dad’s corner.

You grew up with a legend but probably didn’t know it.

“I did, though. I knew he was a legend because I was really involved in sports and stuff. He was inducted into the Bemidji State Hall of Fame the year I graduated from college in 1990.

She watched him coach. Ever get nervous?

“Me? No, but I was really involved when my brother, Lance, wrestled for him. My brother was one of the best technicians my dad ever had.”

Make it to State?

“He did, and then he got caught and actually pinned himself. My brother should have been a state champ, but that was a brutal match. It was his senior year.”

She’s a huge fan of her dad.

“He was just a hard-working dad.”

Call him Dad or Daddy?

“I always called him Coach out in public. He wasn’t just a good coach; he was a good dad. He’d make sure on summer vacations that we’d go places. We’re very family-oriented. We’d play board games on the weekend. Our family was close. We did everything together. Even in college, he got to all my volleyball matches. He’s always been a good, supportive dad.”

THE EDITOR

Kat Robb, editor of the Aitkin Independent Age weekly explained the process of selecting their Person of the Year.

“We take nominations from the community. Anybody in the county who wants to nominate someone can, and it was overwhelming the amount of nominations for Noel as Person of the Year 2023.”

Ms. Robb explained that the nominations are open all year.

“Several nominations for 2024 have come in. I just put out a reminder at the end of the year.”

Any qualifications? “Yeah, how involved the person is in their community and if they volunteered their time. It’s all about the community. Noel is amazing and I agree with all their comments nominating him. He has really impacted a lot of people, not just the kids he’s coached.”

NOEL SPEAKS

Noel was born on December 9, 1941. His mother had seen Noel signs everywhere in Aitkin and was sold on the name for her youngest child.

“I’m Noel Clarence. That was my dad’s name.”

His BSU coach was Chet “the Jet” Anderson.

“He’s long gone.”

In high school, he had five losses his sophomore year wrestling heavyweight (weighing 165), two losses his junior year, and one loss his senior year.

“That was in the state finals against Julian Hook of Robbinsdale.” Mr. Julian Hook was an undefeated two-time state champ.

“I wrestled varsity for four years at Bemidji State. I think I was 55 and 12.”

“It was the best time of my life being a coach. I’ve had a very good life until now. I haven’t had one real disappointment other than losing two wonderful wives.”

He also had two great kids, Dawn and Lance.

“You betcha!” said the legendary coach, teacher and icon.

RANDY ZIMMER

The retired Milaca Faith Christian and highly successful head coach has unforgettable memories going up against Noel.

“When I came to Milaca, I was an assistant coach for a number of years, and that’s when I met him. Over the next 24 years, I was the head coach, and we wrestled their teams every year.

“We’d be wrestling in their gym, and all of a sudden you’d hear this stomping on the floor, and then those kids and everyone in the place would go crazy. They’d all start wrestling better and everything went better for them. So, I taught our kids if they hear that stomping, get off the mat because they’re coming after you.” Randy laughed. He wanted to share that coaching against Noel, win or lose, when you left the place, you felt good.

“He made you feel special for what you were doing. He was happy that I was coaching. You could win or lose, and he’d treat you the same. He was quite a mentor. I learned a lot.” Randy recalled an interesting example of this extraordinary gentleman.

“He was nominated for section coach of the year way, way back, and he declined the offer. He said that the honor should be given to the coach who wins the section tournament. I always remember that. He knew there was another coach who worked hard too and was going to the state tournament with his team or individuals back then. He cared about the other coaches and how they were doing.”

LYLE FREUDENBERG

The former Foley coaching legend was reached in Tampa, Florida.

“Well, when I first took over the head coaching job and even before that in the early ’80s, one of the first times that I ran into Noel was at the Brainerd Tournament. Noel always had his teams really well-prepared for the tournaments and duals. He was always really intense. Once you got to know him, you realized there was a soft side to him as well. But just looking at him from across the mat, my first impression was this guy is really intense.

“But that’s part of being a wrestling coach at times. You have to turn it on and off as far as what you need to do to get the kids fired up and everything.”

What else would you like to say about Noel?

“He was a great coach and did an outstanding job for Aitkin. Being raised in Aitkin, you’re a hometown boy. It’s nice to come back to your stomping grounds, take over the program, and make it super successful. That’s quite an accomplishment.

“We used to have some great duals with Aitkin, back and forth. I remember that gym. If this is the gym that they’re renaming, the Noel Bailey Gym, I remember the old gym, and the crowds were so loud that Larry Herm and I had to cover our ears to even talk to each other because it was so loud.

“That gym was such a sensational place to run dual meets. Back then, Foley and Aitkin were real competitors and were always in the section tournaments.”

“As a wrestling fan and a wrestling coach, you think back to those days and those dual meets we used to have with Milaca and those other teams that were so much fun. It just brought out so much enthusiasm for your community.”

Years later, he noted, Noel is always cordial, and it’s always fun to see him.

TOM GRUELKE

The 1976 Aitkin graduate and retired BOLD head wrestling coach wasn’t at a loss for words, recalling that Noel grew up about a mile and a half from where he grew up in rural Palisade.

“I’ll put it this way. A great deal of my philosophy about the great sport of wrestling comes directly from Noel Bailey. Noel was an extraordinary coach in how he handled wrestlers and young men. He was terrific at it, and he also taught us life’s lessons.”

Tom remarked that Noel was a great coach and a great technician.

“My brother, Leroy, and Noel were classmates and farm kids. You got to practice 7th hour. You didn’t get to practice after school because you had cows to milk. We were 25 miles from school. So Noel, just like my family, practiced 7th hour, then jumped in a vehicle or the bus and went home, put a fork in his hands, pitched the gutters clean, milked the cows, fed the calves and then went to bed.”

The retired BOLD head wrestling coach, whose team won the 2003 Class A Team Title, left no doubts that he has the highest respect for Coach Bailey.

STEVE RICARD

“I’ll just tell you what I know about Noel. What an absolute class act of a human being he is! He was so gracious and appreciative of everything I have ever been involved in. He always made a point to say thank you at every Hall of Fame banquet he ever came to. That really goes a long way because they’re a helluva lot of work.

“Then I got on the National Hall of Fame committee with him and he was so appreciative. He just said it over and over again every time I’ve seen him. And then I heard he was sick.”

Mr. Ricard recalled the earlier times and how fit and solid Noel was. He looked like Bill Schmidt. That’s who he reminds me of. Bill’s a runner and the old Winona High School coach and All-American from Augsburg.

“Of the coaches I’ve met, and I didn’t coach against Noel, I just knew him through the Hall of Fame. But boy, what a decent human. He was always so humble. He took a lot of teams to the state tournament and did a helluva job there. I have never heard anybody utter a negative word about that man.”

NOEL ON A ROLL

On the last Sunday in January, Noel was in fine form.

“We’re the only town in Aitkin County with a stop light,” he said with a source of pride and amusement.

He was informed that somebody had mentioned that he practiced only during 7th hour.

Always with Mr. Bailey, he enunciates to make sure he has one’s attention.

“I practiced 6th and 7th hour and then I rode the bus home. That’s the way it was when I was in high school. When I started coaching, they did away with that. So, everything was after school. Before, if you were out for football or for any sport, practice was 6th and 7th hours.”

He was asked about his siblings.

“They are both deceased. My brother passed away 14 years ago when he was 76. I was a mistake.”

He was serious.

“I was born eight years after my brother. My mom had my sister and two years later she had my brother, and she was told because she’d had difficulty with my brother, she was not to have any more kids. Well, 8 years later I came along, and she was in labor with me for 36 hours. I almost did her in.”

Well, not quite! His mother, Olga, nicknamed Ole, who was born in 1909, lived to be 96.

“I stagger when I walk now. I have no control over my balance.”

He was asked if he had a good time at the dedication ceremony on that Friday night at Aitkin High School.

“Yes, I did! It was fantastic.”

Ever win the lottery?

“I won 250 bucks once.”

He’s definitely an old wrestling warrior.

“I competed until I was 60.” He won three of those four old-timer tournaments. In high school, he wrestled 165, and in college, he wrestled 157.

“If you didn’t know I had cancer and no hair on my head, I look pretty normal but I’m thinner. That’s the only thing. Now, I’m gaining weight. I was almost 170 yesterday morning. My appetite has gotten a lot better.” His lowest weight after he started taking chemo was 153.

Never count out Noel. These days, those old brown cowboy boots are in retirement.

“When I retired from coaching, my team gave me a new pair of black cowboy boots.”

Dan Gable would be impressed.

It’s the same for everyone who knows Noel Bailey.

He’s a very special gentleman, and those brown cowboy boots belong in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Would you like to receive the latest Minnesota wrestling news in your inbox?