Sitting across from John Biddiscombe in his modern-style Freeman Athletic Center office, one can still see the face of a young, enthusiastic coach. Beneath his neatly-parted grey head of hair and lined forehead, rimless silver spectacles hover over his dark brown eyes. It is easy to imagine him in an outfit similar to the Wesleyan-branded white polo shirt and slacks he still wears today, calling out plays to a red-hued huddle of exhausted linebackers, or else putting a bracing hand on the shoulder of a determined wrestler waiting to hit the mat.
Biddiscombe’s coaching days are far behind him, however. Though he coached football, wrestling, and track and field for the first ten years of his career at Wesleyan, his coaching career ended in 1989, when he left his position as celebrated head wrestling coach. He was winner of the 1984 New England Championship and New England Wrestling Coach of the Year awards in 1984 and 1989. Since then, Biddiscombe has overseen even greater feats as the Director of Athletics, including the construction of the Freeman Athletic Center through the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Today, however, he is a man content: ready as always for the year ahead, but aware that it is the last he will spend at Wesleyan, a school he has dedicated nearly four decades of his life to serving.
Biddiscombe arrived at Wesleyan in 1974 after working for three years as an assistant football and wrestling coach at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.
“I got a call from the athletic director from Wesleyan, Don Russell,” Biddiscombe said. “He said they had an opening for an assistant football coach and head wrestling coach. I said, ‘Well, I’ll certainly come up with you and talk to you about it.’ Two months later they hired me.”
Upon his arrival, Biddiscombe was also asked to help with track and field, a position that involved coaching female student-athletes. Biddiscombe’s start at Wesleyan came four years after women were admitted into the University for the first time since 1872, and two years after the creation of the first women’s sports team in 1972. He described the situation as chaotic.
“There was only, at that time, one full-time woman in the department who was coaching at least two, maybe three sports. And so a lot of the men, who had been assistant coaches in men’s sports, were now becoming head coaches in women’s sports, which wasn’t necessarily the best solution to providing coaching for women. But because of funding resources, that was the path that they took initially,” he said.
Biddiscombe recalled that it was a time of rapid growth, with the University adding about a thousand women to its ranks over the first five years. Unfortunately, the athletic facilities at the time could barely support the male student population, much less the influx of female students. Not only were there too few locker rooms for the student body, but the facilities were ill-equipped to handle more than one gender.
“The athletic training facility was actually in one of the men’s locker rooms,” Biddiscombe said. “So women who wanted to see the trainers would have to go into the men’s locker room to the other end of the building—this is over in Fayerweather gymnasium at the time—to get access to the trainers. So you would be in there getting dressed in a locker room area, and you would hear, ‘Woman in the room!’ and everyone would have to cover up or get out of the way or something and the woman would come through. Well, it was a ridiculous solution to the problem. So it only lasted one year, and the next year they moved the training room out to a common space.”
Biddiscombe has great respect for those first female athletes.
“It’s amazing, really, how little tension there was,” he said. “You’d think there would’ve been more. I think the women were amazingly patient with us. They were really pioneers, and my hat’s off to all of those Wesleyan early women athletes. They were very successful—but they had hand-me-down uniforms in some cases. That was a real learning experience for me, it really was.”
During those early years, Biddiscombe wasn’t sure that he would stay at Wesleyan for much longer.
“After three years, I started applying to other places for jobs, and I’d come back from the interviews and think, you know, I’ve got a better job here,” he said. “The University respected the rights of the individual—whether they were the student or the faculty or the staff. They let people do their thing, without a lot of overhead interference.”
Ultimately, Biddiscombe stayed not just for the administrative policies, but for the students he worked with.
“A lot of my personal values changed because of my relationship with Wesleyan students,” he said. “I valued that a lot, and it just got better, instead of worse. Rather than becoming more tiresome, it became more exciting. And 10 years became 20 years and 20 years became 30 years and here we are. You know, it’s an evolution process. I evolved along with Wesleyan and I’m very comfortable here.”
What Biddiscombe described as Wesleyan’s evolution was in many ways helped along by his own efforts. Before Biddiscombe assumed office, the athletic facilities at Wesleyan were failing—stretched thin for many years by the increase in both male and female students.
“We were really not able to meet the needs athletically for our student athletes through the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he said. “It wasn’t until the ‘90s that we started to catch up to other schools and to, more importantly, really physically meet the needs of the student body.”
The key to meeting these needs was building the Freeman Athletic Center, which broke ground in 1988 and was opened in its first incarnation in 1990.
“That just changed everything,” he said. “But it was a huge commitment. It was a 20 million dollar project. It required us, I think, to take control of eight to ten houses and tear those down. It was an impact on a neighborhood in Middletown, and that was some concern at the time. But it was an instant success. It changed the program a great deal.”
Despite these moments of growth and achievement, Biddiscombe is ready to leave Wesleyan.
“Physically, I feel great. I feel like I could work at this job at least another year, maybe two years, maybe three years, I don’t know. But emotionally, I think I’ve reached a point where I need change and I need to think about a different pace in my life,” he said. “I’d like to leave when I can walk out the door saying, ‘I worked just as hard the last day as the first day I came here.’”
Biddiscombe is also excited about his replacement: current head football coach Mike Whalen ‘83. Biddiscombe not only coached him as a student, but also coached alongside him early in Whalen’s career.
“How many athletic directors, ever, get to turn over an athletic program to someone that they coached and have as a friend? That’s a special moment in my career. I can walk out the door knowing Wesleyan’s in great hands,” he said.
Satisfied that Wesleyan Athletics will carry on without him, Biddiscombe is looking toward the future.
“I’m an avid fisherman. I would like to think that I’ll get better at it, but if I don’t get better at it, at least I’ll do more of it,” he said.
Biddiscombe also may work part-time with non-profit organizations such as United Way and the Middlesex Community Foundation. He has been involved with both organizations for several years.
He also stressed that he will not be leaving the University entirely.
“I’ll be coming back next fall to help out on a part-time basis,” he said. “I’ll transition out a little bit.”
Biddiscombe also wants to spend his time experiencing those aspects of the University he was unable to fully appreciate during his career.
“I want to come back to watch Wesleyan teams,” he said. “I want to come back to attend theater performances, art openings, and lecture series. One of the things I look forward to in retirement is having time to do those things. Because often it will happen that there will be a speaker coming to campus and a basketball game at the same time—and well, you know where I’m going to be.”