People seldom sees the path that lies ahead when they take that first step.
When he was a novice in the wrestling program at the old Boys Club clubhouse in Lancaster’s Southeast, John Andrew Noel Jr. could not have foreseen wrestling would lead to a 42-year career in coaching and administration in the Ivy League.
“When I arrived in Ithaca 40 years ago,” Noel said via a Cornell University news release, “I did not anticipate that over four decades of my professional life would be fully invested in all things Big Red.”
Andy Noel, a Lancaster Catholic grad and Franklin & Marshall alum, was recognized this October with induction into the Lancaster County Sports Hall of Fame as a J. Freeland Chryst Achievement Award honoree.
Having announced his retirement as the Meakem Smith Director of Athletics and Physical Education at Cornell University in March, Noel may be finding it difficult to completely detach himself from the job he’s held the last 23 years and from the university that’s been his home for 42 years.
Sharing a few moments with a visitor at the Hall of Fame banquet this fall, Noel offered that was not necessarily the case.
“The idea always was in late August, early September, to start a national search,” he said. “Weird timing, but that’s what my boss wants. So I stay in my current role until somebody is identified, accepts the job and shows up.
“You know how sometimes, people get hired, they have a press conference and then they have to go back and finish what they’re doing at whatever school?
“I’m going to stay in my job until that person can come in, sit down and start to work. When that happens,” he continued, “I have an opportunity to stay, do fundraising and projects for the coaches.”
Growing up in Lancaster’s west end, Noel got his start in the Boys Club wrestling program directed by LeRoy Duke and Glenn Springer.
Coached by the legendary Charlie Leddy, Noel broke into the lineup at Catholic High as a freshman. In the late 1960s the Crusaders wrestled an independent schedule and competed in the Pennsylvania Catholic Interscholastic Association postseason.
As a senior, in 1968, Noel forged a 22-0 record winning the PCIAA title at 133 pounds. Opponents scored four points on him that season, three by one wrestler from Shamokin Lourdes High School. In all, Noel, who was also a two-time PCIAA state runner-up, had a career dual meet record at Catholic of 38-4.
He continued his wrestling career at F&M, where he was unbeaten and unscored upon as a member of the freshman team. Over the ensuing three years he fashioned a 31-5 dual meet record and placed second at the EIWA championships his senior year.
Though he may not have realized it, his coach at F&M, Ron Gray, set an example for Noel.
“I didn’t plan to be a coach,” Noel said. “After F&M I went to Colgate for graduate school, earning a Master’s degree in counseling and psychology. I was an assistant coach there, just a part-time job, went to practice every day, worked out with the kids.
“After that, I was an assistant with Stan Zeamer (at F&M) for one year out of graduate school. I came back for an internship in college administration, I worked in the dean’s office and worked in the counseling office.
“As I was applying for Ph.D. programs, I took a job at Horizon House, a halfway house for delinquent boys. Cornell called and said would you please apply (for the head wrestling coach position). I was 24. I didn’t think there was any way I was going to get the job.
“I ended up getting it,” he said, “which was a real surprise, and that’s how the coaching started. It wasn’t a plan at all. I was the youngest coach in the country. I don’t know how I got it. I didn’t deserve it, you know. But it happened and I wasn’t going to say no.”
Noel’s Cornell teams won four Ivy League championships, with four runner-up finishes in 14 seasons before he transitioned to administration.
“I went from coaching to fundraising,” Noel said. “I did that two years and then I jumped into business with Cornell people, twice. I was a project marketing manager for Dean Co. and Bob Dean Inc.; Bob Dean was a Cornell Hall-of-Fame football athlete. Then I went in as a one-third owner of Advantage Fitness with my first (wrestling team) captain.
“I left that to be an associate athletic director at Cornell under Charlie Moore and did that for three years. When he left I was lucky to get the AD job. I’ve been lucky a lot.”
As AD, Noel’s Big Red teams won 106 Ivy League team titles and 37 total national championships. Possessing an eye for talent, Noel was responsible for hiring 11 of the 14 Cornell coaches who have earned National Coach of the Year honors. All were hired as first-time head coaches. Of the top 14 winningest coaches in Cornell history, nine were hired by Noel, or coached under his leadership.
As a fundraiser he has had a hand in raising $70 million dollars in support of capital projects, bringing the number of endowed positions within the athletic department to 36 – the most of any school in the country – and growing the endowment from a marketing value of $24 million to $160 million.
During his watch and under his guidance the University upgraded facilities in 10 buildings and fields and he led the creation of five other facilities.
“I don’t know, I’m actually going to try to retire,” said Noel. “Everybody said, ‘You’re going to flunk that.’ So, we’ll see. Maybe, after three months or something, I might do consulting in athletics.
“You know, the one job I was always fascinated with … you’ve heard of executive search firms? I got to know the AD at the Naval Academy and he made himself available to be an interim AD, to fill in for a sitting AD who may have fallen ill, or got fired.
“I really (had) tunnel vision for so long, and I mean crazy. I have an 18-year-old who will be a freshman in Boston. Plus I want to spend more time with my grandkids, I have four, two in Boston and two in Park City, Utah, and their parents. They’re my sweethearts.”