By Katie Finn
As one head coach reflects back on a long-time coaching career, three coaches and four wrestling programs are looking toward the future. After 18 seasons with Oklahoma, former Sooners coach Jack Spates stepped down after last year’s NCAA tournament.
That caused a ripple effect that will in turn bring in a new era at three college wrestling programs across the country. And in their new coaches, each team might be finding just what they need to take it to the next level.
Mark Cody, the 2010 NCAA Coach of the Year, moved from American University in Washington, D.C., to replace Spates in Norman, Okla. Inheriting the AU program was Teague Moore, the former coach of Clarion University. And finally, Matt Dernlan, an assistant coach and director of wrestling operations for Penn State stepped into his first head coaching role, taking the helm at Clarion.
For Cody, the move to OU seemed like a natural step for a coach who quite literally built a program out of nothing. When Cody arrived at AU, they barely had enough wrestlers in the room to field a team and were limited by 4.5 scholarships for seven wrestlers. It took Cody just shy of a decade to bring the Eagles to life. A school known for its high standard of academics, Cody found a way to uphold academic excellence while building a nationally-competitive wrestling program.
In his final season at AU, Cody took his team to fifth place in the NCAA Championships, tallied three all-Americans and still had the second-highest GPA in the sport. And going into the 2011-12 season, American University is ranked No. 7 in WIN’s Division I Tournament Power Index (TPI), the highest pre-season ranking in the school’s history. Cody proved that a good coach, who is committed to building a program from the ground up, can mold young wrestlers into superior athletes and superior men.
Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, describes Cody not only as an excellent coach, but a phenomenal role model who does an extraordinary job in all areas.
“As successful as he’s been, he is that generous with his time,” said Moyer. “He truly loves his athletes as much during recruiting as when they arrive. Because of that, he’s not afraid to hold them to very high standards.”
Cody inherited a Sooner wrestling program that is poised for the future. Unlike AU, Oklahoma has had a storied history of success, with seven national team championships in the school’s history, fourth-most in the history of the sport. But it has been 37 years since its last NCAA title and a decade since the Sooners’ last Big 12 championship. Cody stepped into a role with pressure to live up to the past and to overcome the present.
The experience at AU has shown that Cody is undaunted by hurdles. His commitment to developing wrestlers into whole people, both on and off the mat is just what the Sooner wrestling program needs as the rebuilding process begins.
Recruiting will be key for Oklahoma. Sooner fans should expect Cody to stand fast to his commitment to building a strong foundation with athletes that are committed to the highest standards, on the mat, in the classroom and out in the community.
This may not calculate into a national championship overnight. But no doubt, Cody has proven that not only is it possible to maintain the high standards on and off the mat, it is necessary in building a sustained powerful presence in college wrestling.
“The message is the same here, but that I met with 35 student athletes, not seven, and gave them the same message of the standards that we were going to hold as at American,” Cody said. “I let them know the level of success that we are trying to achieve here and hope this is the group that will do it.”
Cody is leaving his AU wrestling program in the hands of an up-and-coming young coach, a three-time All-American wrestler at Oklahoma State University. Moore later went on to coach as an assistant at Harvard University under Jay Weiss before signing on as head coach at Clarion University.
Once a wrestling powerhouse that produced such wrestlers as Wade Schalles, Clarion was on the verge of elimination with the lowest APR in Division I wrestling, an 0-17 record and no wrestlers ranked in the top 30 in their weight class.
Under these circumstances, Clarion wrestling did not offer much foundation for Moore to build from. But, much like Cody, Moore approached the challenge as an opportunity to build and knew that real, sustainable success wouldn’t happen overnight. And that meant a commitment to high standards for his athletes.
“Clarion didn’t end up 0-17 over just a year,” explained Moore. “And building the program back up would take time. People wanted Clarion in the national championships, but if we tried to short cut it, maybe we would find a transfer or known national contender, but in the long run it was going to make it harder to build upon.”
Moore admitted that Clarion probably did lose very good recruits because they were interested in just wrestling success. And while that may have produced immediate results, the long-term would be more positive. Just looking at the way they have grown in just five years.
“I remember times sitting in my office wondering if I was doing the right thing,” said Moore. “But then I look at where we are. I honestly didn’t expect this kind of success so quickly.
Moore considers Cody to be one of the many mentors he has had in his development as a wrestling coach. So in taking over the AU program, Moore looks to continue the tradition that Cody has built.
“Mark Cody is arguably the best coach in the NCAA right now,” said Moore. “Sure there are expectations following in his footsteps, but I don’t see it as pressure. I see it as an opportunity. Look at the foundation he has laid.”
Off the mat, Moore is committed to continuing Cody’s role as an ambassador of the sport and demanding young wrestlers to do the same. At Clarion, Moore required his athletes to participate in team volunteer activities in addition to three individual volunteer activities. According to Moore, the key is being visible in the community and on campus in order to spread the message that wrestlers are there for more than just their sport.
“Wrestling is at a crossroads. Every coach needs to let their athletic departments know the benefit of having a wrestling program,” said Moore. “And by developing complete athletes, we’re developing an alumni network of very successful young men. We’re making wrestling something that AU can hang their hat on.”
Moore’s legacy at Clarion in his short time there may very well be his commitment to labor-intensive recruiting of athletes that excel athletically and academically. And while it might require a lot more time into recruiting backgrounds, it has allowed Clarion to build a foundation. That foundation will be in good hands as Dernlan takes over the program.
While this may be Dernlan’s first head coaching position, he came with experience working in all facets of a college wrestling program. He spent seven years in various roles with the Penn State wrestling program.
As both an assistant coach and Director of Wrestling Operations, Dernlan was instrumental in building some of the nation’s best recruiting classes over the last decade. His ability to identify young wrestlers with the right combination of determination, skill and integrity is a talent that will fit perfectly in Clarion’s continued march toward success.
These coaching changes will most definitely change the face of each of the programs — both in the absences left by the coaches moving on and in the shifting priorities and strategies as new coaches take the helm. But more importantly this is changing the face of the sport as a whole. Each of these coaches is committed to taking their program to the next level.
“The strength of this sport is through the development of the coach,” Moyer said. “The right coach at the helm and a program will strive and the sport will get stronger.”
And as each program gets stronger, so too does the coaching skills of these men who believe they are still learning as college coaches.
“I feel like there is always uncertainty,” Cody said. “Am I doing the right things to get them ready and make sure they are doing well; that they realize how important academics are? Are we getting the message out? We want to win national championships but want to go the right way.
“I’m still very open to learning. I did that at American and am doing the same thing here. I’m going to try and implement the same philosophy and feel like I’ve learned that I was doing it the right way.