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Photo: Central Michigan’s Tom Borrelli, who has produced 41 All-Americans and captured 14 conference titles over the past three decades, ranks as one of the two most experienced Division I coaches (along with Oklahoma State’s John Smith). (Central Michigan photo)
Note: The following column appeared in the September issue of WIN Magazine. Click here to subscribe to WIN, which will publish its annual College and High School Preview issue on Oct. 2.
By Mike Finn
Tom Borrelli will hopefully start his 30th year of coaching this winter at Central Michigan University; a longevity period matched only by John Smith, who also started coaching in 1991 at Oklahoma State, the school with the most national titles in Division I wrestling.
Borrelli, who produced 41 All-Americans and won 14 conference championships, also had his chance to take over bigger schools, but chose to stay in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., population 25,000+, and the home of the Chippewas who compete in the Mid-American Conference.
“I enjoy the quality of life here and I like being the underdog a little bit; having to do more with less,” said Borrelli, who will turn 64 years old this December.
Sadly, the entire college athletic world feels like an underdog now as it deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, which cancelled last winter and spring’s national college sports championships, put this year on hold in many states and has many wondering if sports like wrestling will actually survive the virus that also has put college programs in financial holes that may never be filled.
“Wrestling has always survived other bad times in the long time that I’ve been in it,” said Borrelli, who also serves as a mentor in the National Wrestling Coaches Association Leadership Academy.
“I tell people you control what you can control,” he said. “Put your program in the best light with your university as far as fund-raising, alumni support, ticket sales and budget issues. All of those things go into the health of your program at a particular institution. You have to put your best foot forward all of the time.
“If there are financial decisions that have to be made, make sure you come out on the good end of that. That’s not easy, look at what happened at Stanford.”
Tom was referring to the Pac-12 school’s decision to drop wrestling after the upcoming season. Of course, the head coach of the Cardinal is Jason Borrelli, Tom’s son, who also wrestled for him.
“I feel like my son has done a very good job, but sometimes when it’s your number, it’s your number,” Tom said. “You have to feel like you’ve done everything the right way. It just wasn’t meant to be. If you think that way, you can live with bad outcomes and move on.”
Tom’s frustration deals more with what he sees in today’s college athletics.
“The business model in college athletics is broken and I think this situation with COVID has exasperated it and brought it to the forefront,” he said. “There are Division I programs that don’t necessarily generate the resources that Power 5 schools do with TV revenue.
“I think it comes down to greed and we’ve got to get away from that. We are paying coaches in the major sports way more than they should be paid. We have spent a lot of money on facilities that are not needed. We’ve got to get college athletics back to what it was meant to be, which was part of the educational process and not the business part.”
Borrelli jokingly says some of his wrestlers might think he’s “crazy,” but he believes he can add a proven perspective to young people, who were not even born when Tom started at CMU. Part of his perspective comes from growing up in South Carolina before attending The Citadel.
“I still like being around young people, who need life’s experiences,” he said. “Each generation has unique challenges and I like being a guy who can create a foundation for them. I’m older than their parents and I can talk about growing up in the South in the 1960s when the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement were going on and schools were being integrated.
“Everyone thinks we have social issues today, which we do. But (today’s college students) may not know anyone who had similar experiences. I remember times being pretty tough with protests on college campuses. I just try and keep things in perspective for them.”
As more and more people contract the virus, it’s hard to know when things will return to normal, whether we force normalcy or not. But once we do, this current setback of opportunity should also remind everyone there are more important things than winning a wrestling match.
(Mike Finn, who has served as WIN editor since 2003, has covered wrestling for the past 31 years.)