Back From the Bulge: Bill Courtright's Remarkable Michigan Career and Life

Dec. 17, 2015

Bill Courtright
Bill Courtright

By Leah Howard

Mirroring his legendary coach calmly sitting in the Michigan corner, Bill Courtright remained stoic throughout his finals match at the 1946 NCAA Championships -- a short-notice resumption of the tournament after a three-year hiatus for World War II.

As Cliff Keen, with hands draped over crossed legs, only occasionally squirmed in response to the action, Courtright held the center of the mat, staying low in his stance as Oklahoma A&M's Jack St. Clair danced around the center circle and largely avoided tying up with the Wolverine veteran. After a scoreless first period, Courtright remained in control for long sections of the second and third, using a riding-time point to eke out a 4-3 decision and become the fifth NCAA champion in Michigan program history.

It would not have been possible if Courtright hadn't made it back to Ann Arbor alive.

Seventy-one years ago this week, Adolf Hitler launched a surprise counteroffensive against thinly held Allied lines in the Ardennes Forest in southern Belgium and Luxembourg. In the ensuing Battle of the Bulge, the American defenders, largely consisting of battle-fatigued and inexperienced soldiers, eventually halted the German advance, but not before some 80,000 GIs were killed, captured or wounded -- more than in any battle in U.S. history.

Courtright, who passed away this summer just shy of his 94th birthday, was among those entrenched in the freezing Ardennes, arriving with General Patton's Third Army and helping to break enemy lines surrounding Bastogne and relieve the besieged 101st Airborne Division.

He earned his corporal's stripes as a member of the 91st mortar battalion's Company A communications division, carrying radio supply equipment for the radio man forward artillery observer. In all, Courtright fought through four major engagements with the Third Army, including action in Italy, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

Cpl. Bill Courtright // 1947 Michigan men's golf team (Courtright is seated on far left) // Working toward the pin in a 1946 wrestling match

The war split Courtright's career at Michigan in half. A three-sport star in football, wrestling and golf at Ann Arbor High -- as well as an all-city skating meet champion -- he chose to pursue only the latter two at the collegiate level. His father, Ray, served on Michigan's golf coaching staff for 16 years, including nine years as head coach (1936-44), and played a major role in U-M's NCAA team championships in 1934 and 1935. Like Keen, he was a football assistant and also worked with the tennis, basketball, baseball and wrestling programs over his tenure.

The younger Courtright captured junior national and state AAU wrestling titles while still in high school but struggled in his first season in the Wolverine lineup in 1941, posting a 7-5 record while placing third at the conference tournament and finishing just one match shy of All-America honors at the NCAA meet.

He fared considerably better the following year, going 11-3 while claiming third place at the NCAA Championships. His father coached the Wolverines at the national meet after Keen was ordered to report for training in the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics physical education program and wrote Keen after the tournament that Bill appeared to tire badly in his semifinal loss to eventual champion Virgil Smith of Oklahoma A&M, sacrificing a third-period lead with a late Smith takedown and rideout. At the team's annual banquet a week later, he was elected the Wolverines' team captain for the 1942-43 season, but with the war in full swing, he instead enlisted in the U.S. Army that summer.

Courtright had every intention of continuing his collegiate career after the war but, upset over his father's firing by athletic director Fritz Crisler in 1944 for budgetary reasons, considered going to Michigan State. The rival school's coaches were reluctant to steal one of Keen's wrestlers, however, and Courtright returned to Ann Arbor, promptly reclaiming his captaincy for the 1945-46 season.

"All I want to do now is work hard and be successful both in the classroom and in wrestling," he said just prior to the Wolverines' 1946 season opener. "After fighting through the Battle of the Bulge and going through the Battle for Germany, studies seem to come much easier. It's easier to sit down and concentrate and if my mind starts to wander, all I have to do is think of some of the spots I was in. Then everything back here seems like paradise. I just thank my lucky stars that I'm here, that's all."

Courtright was largely unstoppable in 1946, earning a 13-1 record with nine pins. After suffering his lone loss in a midseason dual meet against Illinois, he dropped down a weight class to 155 pounds and did not lose again, capturing the Big Ten and NCAA titles. At the conference meet, he set a record with 10 team points scored, pinning all four of his opponents in just a combined nine minutes, 35 seconds. On the golf course that spring, he contributed to Michigan's Big Ten title and runner-up NCAA finish, placing 20th individually at the latter event.

He started 1947 on a similar tear, pinning each of his first four opponents, before injuries hampered in his senior season. He bounced back to capture his second straight Big Ten title but could not repeat at NCAA champion, bowing out to Michigan State's Gale Mikles, 2-0, on an escape and a riding-time point in the 155-pound championship. He registered a 12-2 record in his final season, completing his collegiate career with a 43-11 mark over a span of seven years. The Michigan golf team repeated as Big Ten champions that spring and took fifth at the national tournament with Courtright as the Wolverines' low score (75-76) during stroke play qualifying.

Three generations of Courtrights: Bill and Terry with their sons in the late 1950s // Sitting with two of his several grandchildren later in life

After earning his undergraduate and master's degrees in mathematics from the University of Michigan, Courtright was recruited by several aerospace companies, working at Boeing, Lockheed and Honeywell before retiring from Hughes as the executive in charge of its Quality Control Circles program. He became an internationally renowned speaker in the quality circle field, focused on bringing people together to solve work-related problems. While at Hughes, Courtright also earned a doctorate in religious sciences.

Courtright did not stay in wrestling after college -- with his first child on the way, a challenge for the 1948 Olympic team was not economically feasible -- but did introduce his sons to the sport. He continued playing golf until he was 92 years old. At the time that he finally stepped away, he still ranked among the top 55-and-older golfers at his local club.

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Terry, his three sons, Geoffrey, Robert and Peter, and numerous grandchildren.

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