Back at UNC, Koll is among coaches adjusting to college wrestling changes

Updated: October 19, 2023

Photo: It’s been over 35 years since Rob Koll won an NCAA title for North Carolina. Now (inset photo), he has returned to Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels’ coach.

By Mike Finn

The year was 1988 when Ronald Reagan was completing his eighth year as president and some of the top songs that year were “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson and “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.

The titles of those songs might have also been appropriate to what was happening in Ames, Iowa, that March at the NCAA Division I Championships.

And among the top wrestlers who liked their reflections and were never going to give up by claiming one of 10 individual championships was North Carolina’s Rob Koll, who pinned Michigan’s Joe Pantaleo in 1:14 to win the NCAA title and become the school’s first four-time All-American.

“Fortunately, it was a fast match,” recalls Koll. “I remember I was beat up and hurt, but by the time I got to the finals I was quite confident. I remember I had wrestled a ridiculous number of matches, like 56, which is different than what we see today.”

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As the son of late Bill Koll, the legendary three-time NCAA champion and later the head coach at Penn State, it wasn’t surprising that the younger Koll also found a home coaching in the corner.

That passion first took him to Cornell where he spent nearly 18 years producing 71 All-Americans and 16 national champions, including four-timer Kyle Dake. By 2021, he chose to head west to Stanford and rebuild a program that was nearly cut earlier that year.

And now Koll, who was contacted when former coach Coleman Scott returned to Oklahoma State as an associate head coach, is back in Chapel Hill as the Tar Heels’ newest coach. And so many things have changed about the sport since he wore the UNC singlet.

Among other things, college wrestling has introduced a three-point takedown this season. And while the number of Division I programs (77) are less than the 125 that fielded teams in 1988, many of the programs and coaches are facing other challenges; from the arrival of the “Name, Image, Likeness” payday for athletes, to the transfer portal … to seeing schools no longer competing in conferences for geographical reasons.

In fact, his old school Stanford will now challenge his North Carolina team and other ACC schools by competing in a conference once known primarily as “Tobacco Road” schools.

Meanwhile, Arizona State is among the schools that will soon be joining the Big 12 conference after the Pac-12 was down to only two full-time schools. And four schools that no longer feature wrestling — Washington, Oregon, UCLA and USC — will be joining the wrestling-rich Big Ten.


Zeke Jones, who was an All-American in 1988 when Arizona State ended Iowa’s nine-year streak of NCAA team championships, has been coaching his alma mater since 2014 and welcomes the changes.

 “It’s exciting times. The sports world is spinning where one of the dominoes has fallen, particularly for us in a fantastic fashion,” said Jones, who returned to Tempe to save a Sun Devil program that was also nearly discontinued.

“I know the history of the Pac-12. I wrestled in it. We accomplished a lot. However, the world is changing and the move to the Big 12 is fantastic for us to be able to wrestle in a conference that has dominated the landscape of college wrestling for decades.”

Of course, the Big 12 features Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have won 34 all-time team championships, including five under John Smith, who also won an NCAA championship for the Cowboys that NCAA night in 1988.

Now in his 33rd year, much speculation about his future arose this fall when Scott rejoined his alma mater, leading to the arrival of Koll at North Carolina.

Koll believes today’s coaches have to change with the times, especially at a time when Penn State — seeking a third straight team title and 11th since 2011 — appears to be as strong as ever.

“You have to adapt to the changes,” said Koll. “The ones that don’t are called dinosaurs. You can’t let your pride get the better of you.”

Koll said no matter the changes, all great coaches and wrestlers learn to change with the times.

“I hear people say that wrestlers like Dan Gable or Bill Koll would not do as well today. If they wrestled today, they might look different, but they would have the same work ethic and athleticism that allowed them to be ahead of the pack. There are certain qualities that champions possess.

“I haven’t changed as far as how I approach the sport and all the technical aspects. When I first came to Cornell, it wasn’t about acquiring the greatest resources. Over time, I realized it’s about who has the ability overwhelm your opponent.”

He also realizes today’s wrestlers have a lot more freedom to go where they most want to wrestle.

“They go to where they are being taken care of,” he said. “I have no problem with that. I have problems with people who are looking for one-year fixes, from wrestlers who have been part of your family (team) for four or five years. And those programs should have been able to develop kids without taking a recruit for one year.”

Koll also believes wrestlers have changed since his time, regarding the commitment.

 “It’s a 365-days-out-of-the-year demand,” he said. “I didn’t train that much. I had a lot of the summer off. Most people did, where we would go home and work a job and maybe go in and work out a couple times a week.

 “That certainly has changed, especially in how it translate into international success. These wrestlers are more professional to some degree and I think we are seeing it in results from the past World Championships.”

Despite all the changes, Koll doesn’t expect a lot of growth from other schools, including those that do not have a wrestling program but will be part of a wrestling conference.

“Some people think schools like Washington and Oregon will restart their programs after joining the Big Ten,” Koll said. “But, now there are four schools in the Big Ten that do not have wrestling.

“I think you have to worry about schools that have programs that are underfinanced. Will those schools still want to keep wrestling when others do not?”

Koll is happy to be back where much of his success started because he has the same passion.

“I know what it takes to win and I don’t think I do it for my own personal glory,” he said. “I do it vicariously through the joy of others. Every day I get to play a game that I love.”