Roberts, much older & wiser, meets Hafizov again in Final X
Photo: Dalton Roberts (left) beat Ildar Hafizov at the 2023 U.S. Open...
Photo: Rob Koll begins his first year coaching at Stanford after spending nearly three decades leading Cornell to eight Top-5 NCAA finishes. (Stanford photo)
By Mike Finn
Rob Koll, the former long-time Cornell coach, is aware of Stanford’s expectations after hiring him this spring.
“Yes, there’s a new sheriff in town. They didn’t bring me in to lose,” said Koll, a few weeks before his new team will entertain Oklahoma State, Nov. 13. The meet will be the Pac-12 program’s first home action since March 7, 2020, when that Cardinal team finished second in the conference in Maples Pavilion.
Of course, a lot has changed with Stanford wrestling, thanks in large part to the pandemic that did not allow the Cardinal to compete in its home arena last winter … and nearly led to the California school discontinuing its Division I wrestling program. On July 8, 2020, the school announced wrestling was among 11 Cardinal sports that would be cut after the 2020-21 academic year.
Fortunately, the school changed its mind last May after friends of Stanford wrestling provided enough funds to keep the program alive. And this was shortly after last year’s team, coached by Jason Borrelli, caught the attention of those at the NCAA Division I Championships, where fans cheered on the six Stanford wrestlers competing in St. Louis. This was especially true for Shane Griffith, who became just the school’s second NCAA champion while wearing an all-black singlet in protest of the school’s decision to cut wrestling.
So, the only question that remained — after Borrelli left the program to coach at American University, shortly before Stanford announced it was keeping wrestling — was who the right coach would be to pick up where Borrelli left off and to take the program to even greater heights?
That proved to be Koll, who oddly did not get a chance to enjoy one last season coaching the Big Red wrestlers from Ithaca, N.Y., after the Ivy League announced all conference sports’ seasons were cancelled last year because of the pandemic.
“There’s never a perfect time to leave because you are dealing with 18- to 20-year-olds who you adore,” said Koll, who spent 28 seasons at Cornell, where eight of his teams finished in the NCAA’s Top 5, twice as runner-up, while they also won 11 EIWA team championships and produced 16 NCAA champs and 71 All-Americans. “The hardest part is leaving the kids and the friendships. Should I have waited until (two-time champ) Yianni (Diakomihalis) and (All-American) Vito (Arujau) are done? There was never going to be a wall in that program.
“They are going to have it great because Mike (Grey, the former Cornell All-American and assistant, named head coach) is going to do a great job. That’s just the nature of that program.”
Koll, who won an NCAA championship for North Carolina in 1988, has been around success most of his life. He is the son of the late Hall of Fame wrestler and coach Bill Koll, who was a three-time NCAA champ at Northern Iowa, where he coached for 11 years before taking over the Penn State coaching job from 1965-79.
Stanford, on the other hand, has never finished in the Top-10 of the NCAAs (finishing as high as No. 11 in 2011), has won only one Pac-12 title (2019) and has produced just two individual champions (Griffith and Matt Gentry in 2004) and 28 NCAA All-American honors.
That could change this year as Griffith and fellow All-American Jaden Abas (149) return this winter as does Real Woods (141), who earned NWCA All-American honors in 2020. The Cardinal is ranked No. 10 in WIN’s updated preseason Tournament Power Index.
Koll, who admitted he has not spent a lot of time in California before taking this job, said he saw a lot of potential in this program.
“There are some fundamental differences (compared to Cornell) that are striking. For one, it was difficult to get people to come to Ithaca. I think it will be easier to attract people and teams to come out here and have big matches,” said Koll, who hopes to fill Maples Pavilion when Oklahoma State visits in November. “We have big-time football and basketball here. There is an excitement that we have at Stanford that the Ivy League could not offer. I wanted to be part of this and to see what I could do.”
Koll also has had experience in recruiting wrestlers to a school that has as many academic demands as what he faced at Cornell.
“I used to have people say I could never recruit at Cornell because it was too expensive and too hard for kids to get in (academically),” he recalled. “Five years later, those same people said we (at Cornell) had all the advantages because we had great financial aid.”
Koll does not want fans to think he’s changing Stanford’s national wrestling results overnight, and he also does not see Stanford as a diamond in the rough, which could shine even brighter under his leadership.
“That would be an insult to Borrelli,” Koll said. “(The former Stanford coaching staff) were doing a good job because they brought in some good kids. I think I can do a better job of bringing in even more talent.”
Koll expects to sign a strong class this fall in the early signing period. Among those could be Jack Darrah, WIN’s No. 8-ranked wrestler at 220 pounds from St. Louis, who originally committed to Cornell, but will now follow Koll to Stanford.
Koll also said he hopes to keep wrestlers from the state of California, who notoriously left for better-known program in the Midwest and East, to stay in the state and consider Stanford.
“You talk to California kids. They don’t want to leave,” Koll said. “I think they’d love to go to Stanford.”
Koll’s arrival in Palo Alto, Calif., could also play big dividends on the Pac-12 Conference. The conference has just six schools competing in wrestling: Stanford, Arizona State and Oregon State, three schools that compete in all Pac-12 sports and three schools — Cal Poly, CSU Bakersfield and Little Rock (Ark.) — that are associate members of the conference.
Oddly, Arizona State was another Pac-12 school that was threatened to be cut in 2014. But, the Sun Devil wrestling program was also saved and they brought in Zeke Jones, who has produced six national champs and 29 All-Americans in the past seven years. Koll said Jones and the other Pac-12 coaches have welcomed him to the West Coast.
Koll welcomes the high expectations that have been placed on him, including making Stanford a true national power like he did at Cornell.
“If it doesn’t happen, you won’t see me here because I’m not going to sit around and not do the job,” he said. “It can be done. But, it will take an inordinate amount of work. I like working and I’m good with a lot of skills that are necessary to be successful.”