In everyone’s life, there are certain individuals and events that profoundly impact them for the good.
(PICTURED: Ben Smith, the most recent winner, with his mother Angie and father Mike, as he displays 2019 Larry Wiser Leadership Award / A list of all the recipients to date, is at the bottom of the article.)
Many times they are so profound that the results stay with the individual for a lifetime and snowball to where they effect others for years to come. Such is the situation with 1979 Clarion Area graduate Mike McFerren, who wrestled and played football for the Bobcats. Mike lives in the Atlanta area with his wife Joanna. They have three grown sons, Nicholas, Coleman, Connor.
Mike is the originator and overseer of the “Larry Wiser Leadership Award” and scholarship. Coach Wiser was Mike’s wrestling coach from elementary through varsity and an assistant on the Bobcat football team during Mike’s career.
Mike stated, “The idea (for the award) (came about) maybe twenty years ago, or more, but we actually started (thirteen) years ago.
“When I was in high school, Coach Wiser was my wrestling coach. He was the first coach I ever had, when I started wrestling at probably age seven, in the age program and up through high school. My senior year I won an award called the Leadership Award. What was unique about that award was that I didn’t know it existed, I don’t know if they gave the award before he gave one to me.
“I don’t know if I even asked him why he gave it to me. I’m guessing it was because I always worked hard in practice, I was always giving my best effort. I’m certainly not the most talented guy in the world and the best athlete.”
“So, he’d given me that award and the reason it meant the most to me, that it meant a lot to me was that it wasn’t something I worked for; it just happened. I won a lot of awards at the school, but this was one that there was no measurement for. This was given essentially because of the kind of person I was. So, the award meant a lot because it was not something that I worked at to go get.
“It wasn’t like I was getting the sophomore football participant (Gary Ross Lawrence Award-Outstanding Sophomore); I saw that award in the trophy case when I was in seventh grade. When I saw it, I thought ‘I want my name on that.’ ” He ended up earning that award.
“The idea behind the award was in the spirit of me getting an award, like I did and what it meant to me, was that Coach Wiser could pick for himself, whoever he felt embodied leadership. That would be the sole determining factor. I know he gets input from the coaches and everything, but it is totally up to him. He looks at talent and he certainly looks at skills, but what he really looks at is character and how all that comes together.”
Mike shared about the qualifications for winning the award, “(The recipient) is determined based on who Coach Wiser thinks is the best leader on the team. He knows it is not about talent; it’s about influence, about setting the pace, about working hard. It’s about work ethic on and off the field. It is about earning people’s respect, not because of what you are able to accomplish, but because of the kind of work you put in to something. It is minimizing the difference between potential and reality. It is making the most of those kind of things.
“Leaders aren’t those who set out to be leaders. They are just those ones who say he’s going where I want to go or I want to be like that. And I think Coach Wiser has that all figured out. It means a lot for me to be able to give Larry Wiser the opportunity to make the selection. It is in his wheelhouse, equipping him to honor other people. He’s the kind of guy who should be honoring other people. An honorable man honors other people. That is the satisfaction I get from the award.”
And about the recipients, “The people who receive this award have been esteemed to the highest level. What more can be said about someone than to recognize them for leadership. You can’t give someone else a bigger vote of confidence and appreciation than that. They should take it very seriously. They should be esteemed very highly and carry that into every endeavor in life.
“Leadership isn’t what you do when someone is looking over your shoulder; what are you like with nobody watching. What are you like when there is no crowd?
“If they just apply in life, the things that earned them this award they’ll do well at whatever God has put them here to do. Every winner, as far as I’m concerned, is to be highly esteemed.”
Mike described a time where Coach Wiser’s leadership required some tough love. (It was) eighth or ninth grade, at State AAU Wrestling Tournament. I got all the way through to the finals. I got decked in the finals. I was star struck, I was looking at the lights and I got decked. This guy just cleaned the mat with my face.
“I finished number two in the state. I was acting like an idiot; I was sitting in the locker room; I was mad, crying and hurt, kind of embarrassed.
“I had the medal. Coach Wiser came up to me and said, “You know what, if you don’t appreciate that award, why don’t you let me have it? He was going to take it from me. What he basically said was, ‘Quit your whining and crying. You did a good job. I know you are disappointed, but quit your whining and crying. Man up and let’s move on.
“I remember that to this day.”
There is another time that sticks vividly in Mike’s memory. He and another wrestler were really going hard at it in practice. Coach Wiser shut down other guys’ workout and had the others watch the two going through their paces, showing an example of going full force all the time. “Leadership isn’t what you do when someone is looking over your shoulder; what are you like with nobody watching. What are you like when there is no crowd? I think that was a moment when I connected with the award.”
The trophy for the award is pretty substantial in size. “The reason we did the Wiser Trophy so big, was that it would have been bigger than (the leadership award I received). So that was the way I came up with the idea.
Coach Wiser’s mentorship has had a lifelong effect on Mike, “I’ve had maybe six or eight mentors in my life. All of them did it unselfishly. They poured into me and I had nothing to give in return. They’d just give, because that’s the way they were. Coach Wiser would easily be the first of those guys. I could go on and on about mentors I’ve had and Coach Wiser would be certainly be in the order of my mom and dad, not perfect people. Coach Wiser would have been the first mentor I had.
“I’ve been around a lot of coaches in sports, and in business at the highest levels. To me, Coach Wiser is the best, if not the perfect balance between the love to win, the love of the game and the love of the kids. He would never subordinate the kids for winning. But at the same time he would never say ‘Oh, Que sera’, sera’; he would inspire the boys to win.
“There was no conflict between the three. He still loves the game, he still loves to play, he still loves to win, he still loves the kids.”
The positive effect is multi-generational with the McFerrens. “When my son was getting ready to play, he thought he wanted to play football. His older brother was trying to talk him into it, down here in Atlanta. He was going into ninth grade and the first thing I did was take him up to Coach Wiser.
“Coach Wiser talked to him and let him work out with the team. You could just see Coach Wiser was the perfect balance of the love to win, the love of the game and the love for the kids. They say, ‘people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care and you can’t be around Coach Wiser without seeing how much he cares for the kids.”
“Over the years, I’ve stayed in close touch with Coach Wiser. He is one of the biggest coaching influences I’ve had.
“I don’t know where Coach Wiser got mentored, how he got like that; but if I wanted my kids to be coached by anyone, it would be Coach Wiser. The one regret I have is that my kids didn’t get to be coached by him.”
The effect of receiving that award many years ago, has carried over into Mike’s professional life. He describes himself as “just a businessman that believes in God and has put his faith in Jesus.” He is a national division sales manager for an equipment company; owns Industrial Selling Skills (industrialsellingskills.com), a mentoring service), and is involved with Lakefield Ministries (lakefieldministries.com), a Christian equipping ministry.
“Over the years was, when people asked me in interviews and things, and job interviews, ‘What did you do that meant the most to you?’ What would happen was that I’d talk about that leadership award.
“That award being given and my not knowing it was there, meant a lot to me. I’ve always tried to be an example of leadership and as I developed it, working in a corporate career for decades, leadership and all those things; I’d be on steering committees for leadership development kind of things, leadership was always a big topic for me.”
Describing one particular example of getting to pay it forward Mike said, “Over the years, I’ve been blessed to mentor a lot of young business guys. I mentored a young guy… who was just new with this company, that I’m working with and we became close. (He worked with Mike for a number of years.) He was a F.A.T. guy, faithful, available, teachable He’s done a great job.
“I had the chance on I think my last trip with him, because he ended up growing so much that they recruited him to be a part owner in a care facility in Minnesota. I had a chance to introduce him to Coach Wiser. He heard me talk about Coach and we had the chance to have breakfast together. It was fun for me as a (coach) to introduce the guy that I coached over the years, to my coach. That was a blast.”
And some closing remarks from Mike:
“It seems to me that, when the things you read about in books, things like leadership, are lived out in the life of someone you know over a long period of time, you gain an appreciation for the importance of things like diligence, a love for what you are doing, an genuine interest in the lives, the well being, and the good of others – all coming together as if it was a sense of purpose.
“I think Coach Wiser was born to be a coach. That (is) his purpose in life. I don’t ever recall him talking about creating some legacy for himself, earning a place in the record books, or even being recognized in the papers. I have been blessed, much more than I deserve, by great mentors. All of them, as I look back, could be described in this way.
“I heard a quote by Buckminster Fuller (again) the other day – “What is my job on the planet? What is it that needs doing that I know something about that probably won’t happen unless I take responsibility for it?” I do not imagine that Coach Wiser ever thought about his purpose in this way when he was younger. He just set out to do what he loved the way he loved to do it. Now, after all these years, we see his name in the record books. But more than that, we see his influence in the lives of a lot of young men who were influenced by him.
“That, to me, is leadership. I think that is what makes the Larry Wiser Leadership Award such a good thing. What a great way to honor him and a great way to pass on such a great sense of character. I see the award as a way to honor him in a similar way that he encouraged me – by giving him an award, even on an annual basis, that thanks him and appreciates him, not for what he has accomplished for himself, but simply for being the man he is and for accomplishing what he has in the lives of others.
“I am hopeful that everyone who reads your article will like it, share it, talk about it, and maybe even call him to share something they learned from him. If I googled the word “Coach” and his photo popped up, I would say, “OK – now I know what a coach is supposed to be.”
(For anyone liking to contribute to this fine award: send a check in to the business office at Clarion Area High School to increase the amount of the award. Each recipient receives the trophy and a $400 scholarship toward higher education (but if a kid doesn’t go to school and can use the help in another way they will do it. An example, they purchased an electronic device, for an awardee who went to the military, so he could easily communicate with folks back home.)
Larry Wiser Leadership Award Winners:
2007 Eric Grejda
2008 Jon Kemmer
2009 Kevin Grejda
2010 Dan Walters
2011 Ian Matson
2012 Tanner Klein
2013 Damien Cherico
2014 Jacob Troutman
2015 Brendan Miller
2016 Kyle Patterson
2017 Colton Rapp
2018 Nick Porciello
2019 Ben Smith
(This article was provided by Clarion Sports Zone. All photos submitted or taken from Facebook)