After elimination of USOEC boxing program, famed coach moves on

gordon.beedle

Life is only as good as the memories you make.

This is the philosophy former United States Olympic Education Center (USOEC) boxing coach Al Mitchell lives by.

Mitchell, who has led Northern’s boxing program for the past 19 years, has made thousands of memories in that time.

Some of the more important moments, captured in picture frames, used to hang on the walls of his Superior Dome office. Those photos were illustrations of the long and winding road that has been the coach’s life.

“I’ve got unbelievable memories,” Mitchell said, reminiscing. “The countries I’ve been to, the world champions I’ve had.”

On the bookshelf were a pair of photos, one of Mitchell and Mike Tyson in 1981 and one of him and Evander Holyfield, taken at the 1992 Olympic trials.

Across the room was one of him and his first professional fighter, Charlie “Choo Choo” Brown. Brown trained with Mitchell for four years and became an International Boxing Federation (IBF) lightweight Champion in 1984.

To the right of the desk were portraits of Vernon Forrest, who played an instrumental role in convincing Mitchell to coach at NMU. Forrest was the first Olympian to come out of the NMU program in 1992 and is currently the World Boxing Council Super Welterweight Champion.

Then there was the photo of USOEC boxer David Reid, who took Pan-American Gold in 1995 in Argentina and won another gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

To the left of his desk were the two largest pictures in the office. Those frames held the mug shots of each USOEC boxer to ever graduate from Marquette High School or Northern Michigan University.

Recently, though, Mitchell was informed that budget troubles had forced NMU to cut the USOEC boxing program. His last day on the job was slated as Jan. 31.

One by one, the coach removed the memories from his office and-along with the rest of his personal belongings-he packed them into boxes.

With the walls of the room now bare, the man who has been coaching since he was 18 was forced to find a place to make new memories.

“Once you’re a coach you are always a coach,” Mitchell said.

A diamond in the rough

On Friday, Feb. 1, Mitchell will start a new memory. Ringside Fitness in Marquette will open the only boxing facility in town and Mitchell will run the program. The coach said he would teach sessions to both youth and adult boxers, but his heart is set on finding more boxing glory.

He knows that without the Olympic program nearby, Marquette likely won’t draw a large amount of prominent young boxers.

“If anybody can find that diamond in the rough it would be Al,” said Sue Micklow, owner of Ringside Fitness.

As Mitchell tried to move on, the 13 boxers on his former NMU team and USOEC boxing coordinator Bill Bergin had to do the same. Four boxers stayed to get their degrees, while Bergin retired to his home in Michigamme.

USOEC director Jeff Kleinschmidt said that this was a heartbreaking time and that the program was a great loss.

“The boxing program has so many stories, more than any sport here,” Kleinschmidt said. “This program has literally changed the lives of many people.”

Despite the elimination of the program Kleinschmidt added that the chance exists for a program to return, but that $110,000 would need to be secured from USA Boxing.

“I can’t complain about the Jeffs and I can’t complain about Northern because I would have never had those memories,” Mitchell said. “I would have never been to the places I went to and I would have never achieved the things I have.”

List of Success

Mitchell achieved many great things in the boxing realm, but it all started in northern Philadelphia, where he grew up in a neighborhood nicknamed “a bucket of blood.”

Mitchell’s mother knew the neighborhood was dangerous, and gave her seven children a strict set of rules: Treat people like you want to be treated, don’t pick any fights, be strong, work hard and good things will come to you.

“My mom was tough. She was old school,” he said. “I think part of my old school mentality comes from my mother.”

When Mitchell was eight years old, two boys chased him home. His mom made him fight the boys, who beat him badly. His aunt broke up the fight and later took Mitchell to a boxing gym.

At the gym, he met his coach and life-long mentor, a man he calls Mr. Goodman.

Goodman taught Mitchell the basics of boxing, to be a gentleman both in and out of the ring and to put his education first.

It was also Goodman who introduced Mitchell to coaching. When Mitchell was 18, his coach had a heart attack the night before a scheduled tournament. Mitchell stepped up and coached the team.

“I was the smallest one, but [Goodman] said that I was the smartest one,” Mitchell said. “We went to the boxing show and I did what I saw other coaches doing and we did well.”

After that, Mitchell went on to train many amateurs and professionals in Philadelphia before coaching at Northern.

While coaching, Mitchell has been involved with 97 national champions, eight Olympians-including one gold medalist and two bronze medalists-and five world champions.

He has traveled to over 15 countries, been to every state in the union and coached on HBO and Showtime 15 times.

He has run the steps like Rocky Balboa in Philadelphia and has met boxing legends such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Oscar de la Hoya.

He has shaken the hands of influential political figures the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Clinton. Despite all of the people he has met, Mitchell still takes the most pride in the influence he has on everyday people.

True Success

Chad Kirby was a skinny kid from Montana when he came to Northern in 1991 and joined the team. A year later, he won a junior national championship in the under-19 class. Afterwards, a tearful Kirby told Mitchell this was the proudest day of his life.

Kirby went on to graduate, get married and have two children. He met up with Mitchell just one month ago.

Mitchell said the children look just like Kirby did years ago and that the former boxer is running a bagel restaurant chain.

Mitchell has touched the lives of many, but simple moments like that mean the most.

“It’s not about when they get their degrees and it’s not about when they get their world title,” he said. “It’s about five, six or seven or eight years after that and when you see them with their kids and you realize you had something to do with that. That’s the part I remember.”

Kirby is now just another memory Mitchell has made through USOEC boxing, a program that took many kids away from their homes and gave them the chance for something more.

“For some of the athletes, the program gave them hope because a lot of them weren’t going to go to college. USOEC made it easy to go to school and be an athlete, but now it’s sad that athletes don’t get the guidance they could,” said former USOEC boxer Greg Carter who is currently completing his degree in finance.

Carter is another success in the eyes of Mitchell. Not only is he scheduled to graduate in May, but he has also qualified as an alternate for the 2008 Olympics in China. Carter is hopeful he can compete, but will not know until late spring.

If Carter goes to China, Mitchell will not be in his corner. The coach has vowed to stay close to his family and only travel to do professional fights as little as possible.

As the USOEC boxing program fades to nothing but a memory for Mitchell, he unpacks his belongings in the basement of Ringside Fitness. He still knows Marquette is his home and hopes to continue his past success.

“I always think that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I always think that way and that is how I’ve been successful in life,” he said. “My mother always used to say that I was lucky and that the man was always smiling at me.”

Now, as he hangs the photos in new places, Mitchell hopes to create more memories to place alongside his storied past.