WSU bowling coach Gordon Vadakin reflects on long-time career after retirement
After 41 years and 18 national championships, Wichita State bowling coach Gordon Vadakin announced his retirement on Tuesday following the 2019 season.
Vadakin bowled at WSU from 1971-75, then became an assistant coach with the program following his graduation and ultimately took over the team in 1978.
Former Shocker bowler Rick Steelsmith will replace Vadakin as head coach for the men’s team, while Holly Harris will be promoted to head coach for the women’s team. Current assistant coach Mark Lewis will be promoted to director of the bowling program.
Four decades under Vadakin’s leadership has produced 18 team national titles, nine individual national titles, 25 bowlers of the year and 145 All-Americans for the Shockers.
“It’s my life’s work,” Vadakin said of the program. “I was a paper boy before this, but for the last 46 years, this has been it. It’s been a labor of love, there’s no doubt about it. We worked awfully hard to create something special. It’s fun to be a part of that and I’m very proud of what it became and I’m proud of the direction we’re going to be able to take our program moving forward.”
So what led to the decision to finally retire?
The short answer: he wanted to spend more time with his family. He has been married to his wife, Cindy, since 1979, and has two children in Andrea and Kenny, who was recently married last weekend.
“When you’re in a job like this, you go to a lot of places but they all start looking the same,” Vadakin said. “The bowling alleys all look the same, the hotel rooms all look about the same. I haven’t really seen anything. My wife and I want to travel, just old, retired people kind of things that we haven’t had a chance to do and while we’re still physically able to do.”
Vadakin and those in the program knew the time was coming, but that didn’t make the finality of the announcement any less emotional.
Mark Lewis has bowled and coached with Vadakin for almost all of those four decades at WSU and he admits it will be a strange sight going to bowling tournaments without Vadakin in charge.
“You can’t expect it’s going to last forever and you know it’s going to come at some point,” Lewis said. “But at the same time, it’s going to be weird to think about Shocker bowling without him. The building has changed, our campus has evolved, but there are some things that have been fixtures at Wichita State and he’s one of them.”
Rocio Restrepo, a standout bowler from 2006-10 under Vadakin, was in Wichita in preparation for a professional tournament next week.
She was stunned by the news, but said the reaction quickly turned to reflecting on the great career of Vadakin and how he empowered bowlers spanning four decades to become successful in whatever careers they pursued.
“What made (Vadakin) so special is that he really cared about his athletes,” Restrepo said. “He always pushed us to be better than what we were before. He was like a father figure to me when I was here. He truly cared and he always wanted to make sure I was OK. It’s obviously sad to see him leave, but he told me that he will still be in my life. That’s good to know that he was my coach, he is my coach and he’ll always be my coach.”
It was that compassion and love for the sport that made Vadakin not only a Wichita State legend, but a legend for collegiate bowling across the country.
Lewis believes that there will soon be awards, events and and alleys named after Vadakin to honor his achievements.
“His legacy is just enormous with his longevity and his success over the decades,” Lewis said. “If you were looking for help and information to start a program, you went to him. A lot of the growth in the game, he’s helped contribute to that helping other programs and other coaches start out. We knew what it was like back in the beginning when it was just a small operation with all local players.”
Vadakin reminisced about the turning point in the program’s history when WSU made the commitment to him and his coaching staff and started paying them as full-time employees in 1996. In Vadakin’s estimation, they were the only full-time paid college bowling coaches at the time.
Tuesday made for a somber day around the WSU bowling alley following Vadakin’s announcement. They knew it was coming, but it still was an emotional day.
Vadakin’s last day as coach will be June 13.
“It’s been a tough day,” Vadakin said. “This was my love all along. Collegiate bowling is the most fun, the purest love our sport probably knows and probably in all of college sports. Meeting with central management, it was hard to hold it together. They were a very key part of our support structure over the years. They’re the secret behind the success. Telling them about it was difficult. I’m going to miss them terribly. They’re my colleagues and I’ll never work with a better staff or professional group than the staff in the Rhatigan Student Center.”