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Riehm estate donates $3 million to SOU wrestling program

ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University athletic department is no stranger to the generosity of late men’s wrestling coach Bob Riehm.

This past weekend was just another sign of that.

The Riehm estate formally presented SOU athletic director Matt Sayre and the rest of the Raiders wrestling program with a $3 million donation during a celebration of life event Saturday. It is the largest single donation that SOU has ever received, and will be marked as the latest gift from a man that, even while no longer with us, can still make an impact at the school.

“As a coach and mentor, Coach Riehm made an immeasurable impact on the lives of so many student-athletes who came through his program,” said Sayre. “His legacy, first and foremost, will always be that. This gift’s significance is an enduring reminder of his commitment to SOU, the sport of wrestling, our student-athletes and coaches. He will continue to be a positive and tangible contributor to the development of them all.”

One-third of the $3 million donation will go to formally endowing the men’s wrestling head coach position, which is currently held by SOU alum Joel Gibson, and be named in Riehm’s honor. The other two-thirds will go directly to scholarships for the wrestling program.

“It’s just going to help us continue to get high-level athletes that can compete at the national tournament and at an All-American level or a national championship level as well,” said Gibson. “Obviously, it’s great and Bob dedicated most of his life to this program, so that he decided to leave this money to the university and the program is a pretty special thing.”

The donation didn’t catch anybody at SOU off guard, with Sayre and Gibson informed that it was coming their way by Riehm’s family this past summer.

But to see it officially here now, it doesn’t make its impact any less important.

“We’re pretty grateful,” said Gibson. “I don’t know what to say … it’s quite a gift and pretty awesome of him to leave that to the wrestling program.”

Riehm, who passed away at the age of 83 in November of 2020, was in charge of the men’s wrestling program for 25 years. During a 2 1/2-decade tenure that began in 1969, Riehm’s Raiders won three national championships (1977-78, 1983-84, 1993-94) and he coached 100 All-Americans.

He has been inducted into the SOU Sports Hall of Fame, the NAIA Hall of Fame and the Oregon Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

As successful as he was as a coach — Riehm never had a losing season at SOU — his objectives were always more than wins and losses.

That’s a big reason why he continued to be such a big-time proponent of the school even though he had retired from coaching.

“Bob was always supportive of the wrestling program and he impacted a lot of lives for a lot of young men,” said Gibson, a Medford native who wrestled at SOU before becoming an assistant coach in 2007. “He was able to get a lot of guys going in the right direction and help them get jobs, help them be successful in the future and be a mentor. That’s why we’re in coaching — the wrestling part is really a pretty small portion of being a coach. What you’re trying to do is help these athletes be good husbands, good young men, good fathers and productive members of society.

“I didn’t know Bob really well, I didn’t spend a ton of time around him, but I knew him enough and his legacy was that — mainly being a mentor and helping young men become successful individuals.”

When his coaching career came to an end after the 1993-94 season, Riehm’s efforts turned to bettering the SOU athletic department as a whole. They centered around fundraising. Following a 2011 fund drive that netted SOU more than $100,000 for scholarships and equipment, SOU named the gymnasium inside of McNeal Pavilion in his honor. He is also honored inside of Lithia Motors Pavilion, with Riehm Arena serving as home for both the SOU men’s and women’s wrestling programs.

Gibson, who was named SOU’s first full-time women’s wrestling coach in 2019 in the fifth year of the program before also taking over the men’s program in April of 2020, knows that the best way to honor Riehm is to try and get the Raiders back to the national power they once were under Riehm and former SOU coach Mike Ritchey.

With the money available to him, Gibson feels like that is certainly possible.

“To honor his legacy, at least on the wrestling mat, our goal is to get back to national title contention and win national titles as well,” said Gibson. “I think he would be proud of the product we’re putting on the mat right now. We’re in a rebuilding phase, but what we’re doing now is pretty good and we’re heading in the right direction.

“We’re just trying to honor Bob and what he brought to the program for 25 years as a head coach. Just trying to make him and his family proud, and I think we’re doing that.”

Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Southern Oregon University athletic director Matt Sayre, left, and new school president Rick Bailey, right, stand with members of the Riehm family during a celebration of life for former wrestling coach Bob Riehm.