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Some Little Giant

Past, present Wabash coaches and staff remember Max Servies

Max Servies died Oct. 9 at the age of 85.
Max Servies died Oct. 9 at the age of 85.
Photo Provided by Wabash College
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For a 40-year career and an entire adult life, a mention of the name Max Servies meant two things.

Wabash and wrestling.

When you open up that two-item book, though, there is a doctoral thesis of a life’s work.

A life more than well-lived.

Servies, who died
Oct. 9 at the age of 85, was everyman in the Athletic Department at Wabash.

A Crawfordsville grad, he was hired as the wrestling coach in 1960, and earned Hall of Fame credentials, turning the Little Giants program into the national powerhouse it continues to be today. The locker room is named after him. He has been inducted into two Halls of Fame for his coaching accomplishments in wrestling.

Like nearly every coach coming to campus in that era, he was also an assistant football coach, a part-time gig that lasted for 28 years and landed him in a Football Hall of Fame.

Oh yes, there is more.

Much, much more.

For 33 years, in and around the coaching of two sports at the collegiate level, he was also the boss of the department, the Little Giants Athletic Director from 1965 to 1998.

He oversaw a program that moved from average or mediocre to national prominence. During his tenure, the football team went to the National Championship game, the basketball team won the National Championship, the track and cross country programs rose to national prominence, the swimming program produced All-Americans.

He was a pioneer. The first Black coach and the first female coach in school history were hired under his watch, and those two coaches never left, producing Hall of Fame careers themselves.

He led the Athletics Department through incredible changes during three decades at the end of the last century, and still had time, with his wife, to host many social events for the Wabash community at large.

Because, he was a Wabash grad, Class of 1958. His loyalty to his alma mater and the pride he took in his role(s) never swayed.

“Max is usually one of the first three names mentioned anytime there’s a discussion on the history of the Wabash Athletics” current Athletic Director Matt Tanney ‘05 said.”He left a mark on the wrestling program and the department that continues to this day. His legacy and impact will not soon be forgotten.”

Brian Anderson, current wrestling coach at Wabash, and whose team practices in the Max Servies Wrestling Room, knows Servies set the standard for the program.

“Max Servies is very special to the history of Wabash College Wrestling,” he said. “Being the head wrestling coach at Wabash for 40 years is simply amazing. The amount of student athletes he impacted during that period is uncountable. Max set the bar for Wabash Wrestling and for all of athletics at Wabash College while also being the athletic director for 33 years. Coach Servies meant a lot to me, and I always enjoyed getting to talk with him in the morning when I would come into work (he would always be walking around the indoor track). Max gave me great advice when I first started at Wabash, and it really helped me get off to a fast start. He will always mean a lot to the Wabash College Wrestling program and he will never be forgotten.”

Let’s take a look at a few of those early impacts.

A FEMALE COACH AT A MEN’S COLLEGE

“He was wonderful.”

Gail Pebworth’s first comment was right to the point.

She was accumulating state champions as the coach of the Sugar Creek Swim Club through the 60’s.

“We trained at Wabash,” she said. “They had the water.”

Pebworth and Servies worked together coordinating times and schedules at the Wabash pool. The club was also a good neighbor.

“We raised money for equipment at the Wabash pool,” she said. “He helped time at meets and one day told me to apply when the coaching job opened. He was such a wonderful AD. He helped every coach — he was so positive.”

He was also hiring the first female coach in the history of the tradition-rich school.

“I know for a fact that I was treated better than just about any female coach anywhere,” Pebworth said. “It didn’t matter that Wabash was all-male. Max had excellent advice. He was always supportive. He was a resource, a never-ending positive model. He was ahead of his time.”

Servies also kept his female coach, like every other coach, pointed in the Wabash direction.

“His interest and concern for the College never wavered,” she added. “We were always in the pursuit of excellence. We were a small college, but he encouraged that all the time. We were learning life lessons through athletics. It was our job to help inspire Wabash Men to do things the right was all the time. It was a joy to be a part of his staff. He was a gem.”

After both retired, the Pebworth and Servies families stayed connected.

“We attended athletic and cultural events together,” Pebworth noted. “Max and Nancy also hosted social events for faculty and staff and coaches. His love for Wabash never ended.”

THE FIRST BLACK COACH

Rob Johnson was about five miles from the George Washington Bridge, coaching and teaching at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey.

That little piece of geography helped Wabash land the first Black coach in school history.

“Victor Morrow ‘71 was at Fairleigh Dickinson College, working with at-risk and inner city kids on an Upward Bound Program,” Johnson said. “Victor had been among the students who had approached (Wabash President) Thaddeus Seymour about getting some more Black teachers or coaches. He said that Wabash should interview me, but I couldn’t see myself in Indiana. As it was, Richard Traina came out to make that five-minute drive from the bridge and talk to me. They said Wabash was interested, and I said yes, but I didn’t mean yes.”

Well, it did turn out to be a yes, and Coach Johnson in 1971 became the first Black coach at Wabash.

“I was kind of part of an affirmative action project, but Max (Servies) was agreeable to it. Had he not, it would never have happened.”

Johnson, like nearly all other new coaches, was assigned as an assistant football coach and a year later, became the Cross Country and Track/Field Coach.

“Max, the Wabash community and the kids embraced my family and myself,” Johnson said. “Max was very patient. He helped develop me from a high school coach into a collegiate-level coach.”

Who went on to coach a long list of All-Americans, take Wabash into the national level conversation, and who became a coach on a United States Olympic Team.

“Max was a pioneer in affirmative action,” Johnson said. “He hired Al Fye as soccer coach, Gail Pebworth as swim coach and me in track and field. He was a kind man. He gave me my chance.”

The AD also helped his new coach.

“In ‘73 we hosted the College Division National Track Championships,” Johnson noted. “Max pulled everyone together, from the town through the College. He made it a success. It takes so many people to make a national-level event like that go smoothly, and he did just that. He was a unique guy.”

Servies also encouraged his coach to go out on the national level, and Johnson was soon part of the coaching staff of the U.S. Team, moving up the ladder until he was an assistant coach at the Olympics.

“I’ve been blessed,” Johnson continued. “Max was so supportive, the College was so supportive. He was ahead of his time, and I’ll be eternally grateful to him and the College for giving me that opportunity.”

In addition to helping run that national track meet, the track coach saw a busy boss.

“He was the wrestling coach, the A.D. and an assistant football coach,” Johnson listed. “I don’t know if he was ever truly appreciated. I mean, it took about three people to replace him when he retired. He got more done without a paid assistant for many years than anyone. When it came to recruiting, he was a great judge of character,” he added. “His programs stayed at that high level, at a winning level, because he recruited at a winning level.”

The guy from New Jersey also stayed after he retired. It’s 50 years and counting.

“I told my wife that they (Wabash) wouldn’t have me when we first came here,” Johnson said. “There were some people we met that were suspiciously nice, but it turns out they, just like Max and Nancy, were just nice all the time. Max was an outstanding, and a kind man.”

A NATIONAL CHAMPION

Max Servies found out about Mac Petty from a rival.

Not that rival ...

“I got a call from the coach at Rose-Hulman (John Mutchner) and he told me that the Wabash job was open,” Petty said, “and that he had already called Max Servies. He gave me Max’s phone number, so I called Max and he asked for a resume. We had an open weekend soon after that, so Gloria and I came up for a few days. After the season, he called and offered the job. I found out later that Steve Ferguson, a Wabash grad, was Bob Knight’s attorney, so Bob Knight called Max on my behalf. It showed Max listened to people too.”

That was 1976, and after zero winning seasons in the previous 15, expectations about winning might not have been high, but there was a lot more.

“I quickly found out how organized Max was,” Petty said. “He had a notebook for every coach, and it covered everything. From budgets and travel, how to write a purchase order, what the awards system was, office hours, and more. But, most importantly was the philosophy of the College. The football team going to the national championship game in 1977 turned a corner for the department, but for Max, it was still more important that you played hard and played well, not about the wins. His success in wrestling nor our departmental success ever changed him.”

Servies didn’t manage his coaches, but he always knew what was going on everywhere,” Petty noted.

“Almost everyone had a second sport to coach,” Petty said, “and there wasn’t that large of a staff. He was a football coach and the wrestling coach and the AD. He always made it a point to be at the Scarlet Inn every morning for coffee, and that was where professors and coaches all caught up. I don’t ever recall a personal, private basketball meeting with him, but he still knew what was going on.”

And like the other coaches, Servies pushed Petty out from the walls of Chadwick Court.

“I got on the NCAA Rules Committee for six years because of Max,” Petty said of the prestigious appointment, “and how he landed us a Regional Tournament the year of our championship run (1982) was incredible. He just loved Wabash, and wanted every good thing to happen for the school.”

He also found a reward or two.

“The Thursday before the Monon Bell game, there was always a big dinner in Indy,” Petty said, “and the football and basketball teams had practice, so the coaches missed the dinner, but had to be at the program afterwards. Max always took us to St. Elmo’s after the program. He was very frugal, and very budget-conscious, but he made that happen.”

Servies was a meticulous record-keeper, and the many pictures of teams and athletes on the walls were there because of him.

“You had to earn that picture on a wall,” Petty said. “Whether it was an All-American Award or team excellence. It was in that notebook — he was responsible for that recognition. He was a Wabash grad and always showed his loyalty, but he lived the philosophy of the school, and that is what made him a great man and a great leader.”

Two words to sum up the life of a great man. Wabash and wrestling.

The details of that life flow out.

An innovator, a pioneer, a boss, a coach.

All in a days work, all in a career, for Max Servies.

Without a doubt — Some Little Giant.

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