The innocuous gift, which didn’t seem like much at the time, turned out to be a black Hugo Boss shirt, given to him by his wrestling team. Day wore the shirt with pride, with the only thing he had available to match it a pair of black pants.
Lassiter won the traditional region title that year, also finishing fourth at the Cobb County Invitational and fourth in the state.
“After we won region, the kids said I had to keep wearing it,” Day said. “Plus, it made it easier for me to pick out my clothes — and it made me look slimmer.”
He hasn’t changed his wardrobe since. True to his word, Day has worn all black for each of his team’s matches.
However, after more than 350 dual wins, five region titles, 13 individual state champions and more than 75 state-placers, Day announced recently that he would be retiring from coaching after the season, ending his 31-year run at the Trojans’ helm.
Day made his decision due to health reasons, as he said he’s put off major knee surgery for the past 12 years.
“For the past five or six years, everybody’s been asking me when was I going to retire,” he said. “Now is the time. I won’t coach, but I will teach my physical education classes. I’m getting surgery done on both my knees to have them replaced, and because of how long I’ll be out, which is at least a month, it wouldn’t be fair to my guys to be their coach but not be around to coach them.”
Day, who said he doesn’t have cartilage in either knee, didn’t want to wait any longer on the surgery, which is scheduled for next December. At the same time, he’ll have surgery done on his right shoulder and left thumb.
“I’m surprised I can still do anything,” he quipped. “I want to be able to walk.”
Lassiter’s varsity wrestling coach since the program’s inception in the fall of 1982, Day has also spent time as an assistant coach in football and baseball during his time at the school. He’s also spent the past several years as the girls golf coach.
A native of Normal, Ill., Day, who turns 58 on Feb. 1, was a state-placer in Illinois as a junior and senior. He won the 178-pound Greco-Roman state title and finished third in freestyle as a senior. He also was a Greco-Roman junior nationals runner-up and placed third in freestyle.
Wrestling came natural to Day in high school, and he focused on the sport after his parents made him quit basketball his freshman year. In the third grade, he knew he wanted to be a teacher, so by the end of his first year in high school, Day knew he’d be a wrestling coach.
Day went on to earn his associate’s degree from Black Hawk College and a bachelor’s from Illinois State University. He then spent time as an assistant wrestling coach at Illinois State, Illinois, Clemson and two other high schools before landing the job at Lassiter for the 1982-83 season.
“This is the only job I’ve had for more than one year,” Day said. “I came here and it just felt like the right fit. This place has been unbelievable. It runs itself. They have the athletes, parents and support of the community, and the extracurricular activities, like the band, are some of the best in the world.
“It’s a safe environment and, every year, the programs seem to get better and better. I fell in love with the place. I knew, once I had my first state champion, that this program would take off, and it did.”
The Trojans’ first state champion — Chris Williams in 1986 — won each of his five tournament matches by one point and he beat three wrestlers who had pinned him earlier in the season.
Another one of his state champions, Cody Runnels, who won titles in 2003 and 2004, is now a successful professional wrestler with World Wrestling Entertainment. He uses the name Cody Rhodes, adopting the surname made famous by his father, Virgil, otherwise known as Dusty Rhodes.
“It’s going to be hard to think of Lassiter wrestling not attached to coach Day,” said Cody Runnels, who still keeps in touch with Day. “From guys wearing all black, to the way the team warmed up, he was the identity of that.”
Runnels told the story of when, as a freshman, Day told each of the 16 newcomers to the team that they weren’t freshmen anymore. But when he got to Runnels, Day told him that he can’t be a baby anymore.
“I was like, ‘Ouch!’” Runnels said. “But it was the truth. (Day) was the catalyst as to why I grew up. He was with me every step of the way. Wrestling wasn’t my strong suit — it was football. I had no real background in the sport, even though I was around it all the time because of my father. Coach Day made me into a wrestler.”
Runnels feels that Day could experience success on the college level because “he specializes turning guys into outstanding wrestlers.”
“He didn’t treat guys like kids,” Runnels continued. “He was perfect because he made it your match. He taught guys how to be men and talked to us like we were men. He was someone you could talk to and knew your family and was dead-honest with you.
“I’m forever grateful to have had and still have Steve Day in my life. He was intimidating, but he was the best.”
Another of Day’s former wrestlers, Pope coach Jim Haskin, was only with him for the first half of the 1984-85 season, but the experience meant a lot to the two, who have since become close friends.
“I almost cried when he told me this was going to be his last year,” Haskin said. “I’ve been through everything with this guy. He was my coach my senior year, and when I came down from Illinois, he was a massive influence on me.
“I was new to the area, so it was a comfort to have him as my coach because he was also from Illinois. We related well. He was a friend to me then and he’s a friend now.”
Day and Haskin grew to have a competitive, but friendly, rivalry as coaches, and Haskin credited Day with influencing some of his teaching style.
“He was always the best at moving guys around, and he taught me that team concept,” Haskin said. “We’re going to miss his knowledge. He’s probably the most knowledgeable coach in Georgia. We’ll miss his wrestling style, and people will miss being around him.
“He’s a fun-loving guy. You always know, when he walks in a room — ‘Hi. I’m Steve Day.’ That was his thing.”
Part of Day’s legacy at Lassiter includes establishing the long-running MTXE Invitational, an acronym for “Mental toughness. Extra effort,” and hosting the Cobb County Invitational for more than 20 years.
In addition to Haskin, two other alumni of Day’s system include Sprayberry assistant Travis Schmid and Central-Carroll coach Marcus Marenda.
Inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009, Day also spent 12 years as the coach for Team Georgia, and he was the national wrestling chairman for the National High School Athletic Coaches Association for three seasons.
He’s only cut one player in 31 years, for the wrestler’s own safety.
Lassiter enters today’s Region 5AAAAAA duals championship as a two-time defending champion, and Day would like to win a third.
“Officially, I’m retiring,” said Day, who has been married to his wife, Susan, for 27 years and has two daughters, Stephanie and Savannah, “but that could change. I’ll think this through after the surgery. I’m done coaching at least for 2013-14 and, as of right now, my decision could change after that year.”
Whatever Day decides to do following his year off from coaching, he’ll still be around teaching life lessons.
“Life’s a game,” he says. “Win it.”