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Endless coaching changes make college wrestling off-season anything but quiet

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Summertime, and the livin’ is easy… except for college wrestling writers. While it’s officially the off-season for the sport, that’s hardly the case when it comes to coaching changes… especially this summer. As summer draws to a close this Labor Day weekend, there’s no better time to take a look back at the ever-changing landscape of coach changes.

Wrestling writers and fans sometimes refer to college wrestling coaching changes as a game of musical chairs. While job changes are a serious matter for those involved, the process does resemble the children’s game; in this case, coaches vie for a limited number of open seats on college wrestling programs. As head coaches retire or get fired, they open up new “seats” for existing head coaches to jump to a new school… and for assistant coaches to advance their careers by either being promoted to take their boss’ seat, or to take the helm at a new school. Assistants passed over for head coaching jobs fight to grab an open seat as an assistant coach at what they consider to be a more attractive school… while a new crop of recent graduates scramble for any opening that will launch their coaching careers, oftentimes as a volunteer or graduate assistant.

This summer, the “game” has become even more frenetic, with far more participants than in years past. What’s more, there have been more departures for reasons not often seen in college wrestling.

Coaching changes, by the numbers

Since I became College Wrestling Examiner at the start of the summer of 2009, there were typically a couple dozen coaching changes at any level -- from head coach down to volunteer assistant -- in a given summer. Not this year.

By my quick count of College Wrestling Examiner stories, there were approximately 90 coaching changes since the conclusion of the NCAAs in March. The actual number of new hires is even greater… and not just because I undoubtedly missed a few hiring announcements over the course of the summer. For example, some of my “Coaching Changes” stories would be more accurately classified as “two-fers” where a head coach announced two new assistants at once; University of Oklahoma’s Mark Cody welcoming recent grads Kendric Maple and Andrew Howe to his coaching staff at the same time is a prime example from earlier this summer.

At least a dozen of these changes were at the top – coaches who command NCAA Division I wrestling programs. There are new faces in head coaching positions stretching from Arizona State to Hofstra. According to the August 8, 2014 issue of “WIN” (“Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine”), that’s twice as many head coaching changes as the previous summer. Just one indicator of the volume of changes at the top: Three Division I service academies – Air Force, Army and Navy – all had new head coaches, as did the Coast Guard Academy, which wrestles in Division III.

Reasons behind the changes

Why do head coaching positions become available? Usually, a school’s athletic director decides it’s time for “new leadership” in the wrestling program, and the head coach is fired outright, or doesn’t have his contract renewed, or is “strongly encouraged” to resign. Sometimes, a coach has the luxury of deciding on his own that it’s time to retire… or is offered the opportunity to close out his career by moving up to an administrative position at the school. (Two younger head coaches moved into positions within athletic departments at new schools: Army coach Joe Heskett took an assistant athletic director job at West Virginia University, while King University men’s wrestling coach Nate Moorman was named AD at Emmanuel College.)

This summer, there have been some situations where head wrestling coaches announced their departures long before reaching traditional retirement age… and without any rumors of being asked to leave. Some examples: Rob Anspach left the head coaching job at Hofstra University for a sales career. Derek DelPorto, who headed up the Eastern Michigan mat program for eight years, departed Ypsilanti for a non-wrestling job in Nashville. Augsburg’s Mark Matzek resigned to accept a middle-school teaching and high school coaching job in his Wisconsin hometown. Rob Eiter announced his resignation as University of Pennsylvania head coach earlier this summer… only to surface weeks later as an assistant at Maryland.

None of these coaches could be described as “old” or fast approaching traditional retirement age. So why would they leave positions that just about any assistant coach would want? One can imagine that there are issues beyond won-loss records and number of team and individual titles.

These days, more and more professionals are seeking a better work-life balance. They don’t want to miss out on the significant family milestones ranging from “baby’s first steps” to “daughter’s first Little League game” to “son’s college graduation.” Coaching a college wrestling program is all-encompassing – a time-consuming, physical and emotional grind – that doesn’t leave much time for a spouse, family or outside interests. It would appear that more and more college mat coaches in their 30s and 40s are realizing this, and getting out while they can.

The days of the college wrestling coach who stays at one school for 30 or 40-some years would seem to be headed in the same direction as horsehair mats and wool uniforms – a relic of the past. Then again, how many of us outside college wrestling expect to retire with a gold watch from our first employer after decades of faithful service… something that was more often than not what happened to dedicated, hard-working employees. The changing world of work – where there’s a lack of loyalty on the part of both employers and employees -- now seems to be affecting the oldest and greatest sport.

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