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Man from Missouri Remakes Maryland
Photo: In his third year at the Maryland helm, Alex Clemsen (center) enjoyed helping coach team leader Kyle Cochran (left) to a Southern Scuffle title. (Maryland photo)
Clemsen helping Terps recapture school’s winning tradition
By Mike Finn
As happy as Brian Smith was in watching his Missouri Tigers dominate the 2022 Southern Scuffle, Jan. 2 in Chattanooga, Tenn., the veteran coach couldn’t help but “feel like a proud papa,” after watching Maryland’s Kyle Cochran in the 184-pound Scuffle championship that evening in McKenzie Arena.
Cochran is no relation to Smith, the 23-year Missouri coach, who has three children of his own. But watching the unranked Terp win three Scuffle matches against ranked opponents, including a finals victory over Cornell’s Jon Loew, couldn’t help but also make Smith think about the current Maryland head coach Alex Clemsen, a former assistant of Smith’s at Missouri.
“It feels like it’s come full circle,” said Smith, who has headed up the Tiger program since 1998 and has featured many top aides like Clemsen, a native of Moberly, Mo., who spent five years (2014-19) as an assistant to Smith before taking over the Terp program in April of 2019.
Smith can still remember trying to convince Clemsen he was ready to head up a Big Ten wrestling program.
“Alex loves Missouri and is a Missouri kid, but I kind of had to kick him in the rear to do some interviews,” Smith said. “I kept telling him he should be a head coach and (the Maryland job) was a good opportunity.”
Some might have argued with Smith’s opinion about the opportunity of success at Maryland, considering the Terps — once a strong ACC program that had won four conference team championships over a five-year span (2007-12) — had struggled once Maryland joined the Big Ten in 2014. Since then, Maryland had won just 21 out 114 dual meets, stood 1-61 in Big Ten competition, and placed in last place five times (including 2019-20 and ’20-21 under Clemsen).
But Smith convinced Clemsen Maryland had more potential for success than what Smith had at Missouri when he took over the Tiger program that was a perennial last-place team in the Big 12. Since then, Missouri won a Big 12 title in 2012 before dominating the MAC for a decade before returning to the Big 12 this winter.
“I told him not to focus on 10 years from now but focus on what you can do today to get the team better and improve or change the culture,” Smith said. “He’s doing it. I see it.”
And Maryland certainly has seen improvement in Clemsen’s third year in College Park, Md., as the Terps split their first 10 duals (as of Jan. 15) and saw 184-pound Kyle Cochran win a Southern Scuffle championship.
“I knew it was going to be hard, that the program was not in a good place,” said Clemsen, a 2007 graduate from Edinboro, where he earned All-American honors and qualified for four NCAA tourneys before he started coaching with stops at Oregon State and Virginia before returning to his home state in 2013.
“But I knew there were some kids within the program who were capable of competing at a much higher level. I had always believed in myself and the guys who chose to come with me from a staff perspective. I really believed in them and that’s why I asked them to come.”
Among those Terps assistants are Nick Brascetta, a former three-time All-American at Virginia Tech, and Devin Mellon, who also wrestled at Missouri before rejoining his former coach Clemsen at Maryland.
“I considered them my first two recruits,” Clemsen said. “I knew we were capable of coaching kids out there and get them to do things. There were some guys on that roster who could do some better things. It’s somewhat gratifying to see that success come to shape.”
While the Big Ten features many of the top Division I programs in the country, Clemsen does not look at that competition as an impediment to success.
“Competing in the Big Ten, you have instant credibility,” he said. “Kids know they are going to have opportunities to compete against the best. If you are serious about wanting to wrestle in the Big Ten, win championships and become an All-American, there is no place better to do so than in our league.
“It’s a double-edged sword, our league is a monster. There is nowhere to hide. Maybe it’s harder to get the wheels initially going.”
Clemsen, a former three-time Missouri state champion at Moberly, also remembers how much Missouri had to overcome and spoke about the comparisons to Smith before taking the job.
“I’d be picking his brain all the time,” said Clemsen, who recalled his former boss calling him after Clemsen’s first Big Ten tournament experience in 2020, when Maryland wrestlers went a combined 1-26.
“First, he said, ‘How are you?,’ but then he said, ‘I remember my first Big 12 tournament and we didn’t win a single match.’ That’s an awesome perspective and I kind of thought of his trajectory, his genesis and where he’s been. Even when he and I don’t talk about it, it’s something in the back of my mind that keeps me sane.”
Of course, Clemsen realizes the Terp program has a ways to go before success is a normal function in College Park.
But he has learned to put this experience in perspective. And, he believes he has the right athletes, like Cochran, where soon more Terps will have success like the senior had at the Scuffle and it won’t be such a surprise.
“He does the extras all the time, so do all the kids on our team,” Clemsen said. “There is a high standard and now there are high expectations. We are tired of losing. I can tell you that! Some of our guys are putting their foot down and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”
While Clemsen took pride in being from Missouri, he loves being a Terp now.
“I definitely learned a lot and like my time as a Tiger and have nothing but good memories,” he said. “I think I’m better prepared now.”