One-on-One with Joe McFarland

Andrew Hipps

10/11/2012
Andrew Hipps, InterMat Senior Editor
andrew@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @InterMat

Michigan's wrestling program has been the model of consistency since Joe McFarland took over as head coach in 1999. McFarland has helped keep Michigan's wrestling program among the nation's premier programs in his 13 seasons as head coach, with 12 top-15 NCAA finishes, including six top-seven finishes. The Wolverines earned a runner-up trophy at the NCAAs in 2005. McFarland has coached 19 different wrestlers to five NCAA championships, 42 All-American honors, and 17 Big Ten titles.

InterMat caught up with McFarland and talked to him about recruiting, Midlands, freshmen, key returners, dual meet championship proposal, matside review, and more.

Joe McFarland is in his 14th season as Michigan's head coach (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Official practice kicked off on Wednesday. What's the focus of these early-season practices?

McFarland: A number of things ... getting those young guys meshed in with the older guys, building that conditioning base that you need, and working on those things that you think your team needs to be working on this time of the year.

You have had a strong recruiting season. I know you can't speak specifically about unsigned athletes, but can you talk a little bit about how recruiting is going from your standpoint?

McFarland: From our standpoint the recruiting is going very, very well. We're going to have an outstanding class coming in behind a strong freshman class that we have here. I think our staff is pretty excited about it.

How much has the recruiting process changed since you have been head coach at Michigan?

McFarland: It has changed a lot ... No question about it. Years ago you would have to go to a tournament to see a kid. Now you can actually watch a lot of their matches from Junior Nationals and all these different tournaments online. It has definitely changed a lot. But you've still got to do some of those same things ... You've still got to get out to see these guys and have them on campus. All that stuff has stayed relatively the same. But technology has definitely changed the game. I think it has been great for wrestlers because they're able to get themselves out in front of coaches.

Joe McFarland (second from left) was on the world television broadcast production crew for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, along with Jim Humphrey, Russ Hellickson, Tim Johnson, and others (Photo courtesy of Doug Brooker)
I know you were at the Olympics this summer working on the television production crew for Doug Brooker. What was your biggest takeaway from the London Games?

McFarland: It gave me a whole new perspective. Working the Games and being matside, it's a little different. I'm not used to that kind of thing. Just seeing the other end of it -- the production side of it -- was pretty neat. Getting a chance to work with guys like Doug Brooker and the other people on the production crew was great. Also, being able to work with Jim Humphrey and Russ Hellickson was great. I go back a long way with those guys. It was a good experience for all of us. But it was an experience from a side that I'm not always used to.

This year you have the Midlands Championships on your schedule. That's not an event that has been on your schedule in recent seasons. What went into the decision to attend the Midlands?

McFarland: Ken Kraft had been talking to us about it being the 50th year. Michigan was one of the original teams. We had gone to the Midlands for a long time. We went there when I was a student-athlete here at Michigan. So our coaching staff just felt like it would be a good change for us. Obviously, it's a very competitive tournament. We want to get back there for the 50th anniversary and be a part of it. We think it's going to be really good for our team.

Sean Bormet and Donny Pritzlaff were hired in 2011 (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Last year you hired Donny Pritzlaff and Sean Bormet on to your staff. What kind of impact have they had on the program?

McFarland: They've had a big impact on this program ... everything from our in-room training sessions to our recruiting. They've just brought a lot of new energy to our program. Those two are very close. I've always been very close with Sean. I've always had a lot of respect for Donny, and have gotten to know him from when he was coaching at other places. I really like my staff right now. I like the energy that these guys bring, the knowledge that they bring. They're going to continue help Michigan wrestling and bring it to new heights.

Many of the top college wrestling programs, including Michigan, have regional training centers. How important is the training center to your program?

McFarland: Very important. I think to be a top program you need to have something like that in place. You mentioned Sean and Donny ... Those guys have been instrumental in helping us build this to where we're at right now. We have obviously revamped our Cliff Keen Wrestling Club. Having guys like Andy Hrovat and Kyle Massey coach the club has been a wonderful thing. I think it's a necessity. You've got to have it if you want to be a top program. Those are the kind of things that top recruits are looking to be a part of. They've got aspirations of going on and someday being a World and Olympic champion. The programs that have those pieces in place are going to have an advantage.

You brought in a very strong 2012 recruiting class, a class that includes Taylor Massa, Rossi Bruno, and Jordan Thomas, among others. You have wrestled true freshmen before who have been successful right out of the gates, like Kellen Russell. What is the likelihood that we see any or all of the true freshmen wrestlers mentioned vying for starting spots this season?

McFarland: I think there's a good possibility you might see a couple of those guys in the starting lineup. We're still evaluating these guys. We're just getting into practice. We've been very impressed with all of them. But I think you'll see a couple of them in our starting lineup this year, and we're pretty excited about that. I think these guys could bring a lot of energy to our lineup.

Taylor Massa, a four-time undefeated Michigan state champion, was the nation's No. 2 overall recruit from the Class of 2012 (Photo/MichiganGrappler.com)
When will the decision be made on whether they wrestle in the lineup or redshirt?

McFarland: That's interesting because I'm doing some stuff for wrestle-offs right now. I'm just getting all the information up on the board. Obviously, we've got to have wrestle-offs just to make things official. We won't be completed with our wrestle-offs until Oct. 25. That's when our final championship matches are going to be held. Just from what we have seen so far in the room, like I said, you might see a couple of those guys in our starting lineup this year, and the other guys will probably end up redshirting.

What do you like about Taylor Massa?

McFarland: Everything. He's just everything that I expected and more. He's very competitive. He's attentive to everything that the coaches are talking about. He's absorbing everything. He's a great worker. He's doing well in the classroom. He's been doing all the right things. He has obviously been a great addition to our program. I think he's just going to continue to get better and better. He doesn't look like a freshman in our room. He's got all the tools, so we're pretty excited about it.

When Eric Grajales was a freshman at Michigan he initially tried to make 133 pounds, but couldn't maintain the weight and ultimately moved up two weight classes to 149 pounds because Kellen Russell was occupying 141 pounds. Now that Russell has graduated, is there a chance Grajales could wrestle 141 pounds? Or is the plan still to keep him at 149 pounds?

McFarland: We're going to keep him at 149. 141 is still to be determined. Steve Dutton transferred in. We'll have to go through the wrestle-offs at 141, along with all the other weight classes. But Eric is certified at 149.

Eric Grajales has reached the round of 12 at the NCAAs in each of the past two seasons as Michigan's 149-pounder (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Grajales has reached the round of 12 at the NCAAs in each of the past two seasons. What's going to be the key for Grajales to take that next step to not only get on the All-American podium, but contend for an NCAA championship at 149 pounds?

McFarland: Consistency is going to be a key for him, being consistent in his training, being consistent in everything that goes into that championship lifestyle. Being focused on all the right things, pushing hard in practice, listening to coaches. He's got all the tools. Eric has been working hard and been pretty focused. But we need to keep him focused on the right things throughout the course of the season. I think if he does that, good things will come because he's very talented. He's got all the tools to do it.

Dan Yates is moving up from 165 pounds to 174 pounds. What went into that decision?

McFarland: I actually wanted to move him up the year before. He had to be very, very disciplined to make 165. I just see how much more horsepower and grind he has in our room when he's feeling good and he's up heavy and strong. I actually wanted to move up him up to 174 last year ... It just didn't work out that way. With Justin Zeerip, he wanted to stay at 174. I wanted to actually bump him up to 184. But I'm excited about Danny moving up to 174. I think it's going to be a great weight class for him.

Sean Boyle is coming off a redshirt season. What kind of impact do you expect him to make this season at 125 pounds?

McFarland: It's going to be an interesting weight class. We've got a number of guys in there battling in that weight class. Sean is coming back off that surgery ... He's coming back very strong. He has been looking great in our room. He has had absolutely no issues with that shoulder. And then we have Conor Youtsey too. So those two have been scrapping pretty good in the room, so we're pretty excited about the wrestle-off at that weight. Sean has shown a lot of signs of maturity in all aspects, so I think he's going to be a big part of our program this year.

Joe McFarland coaching at the 2012 NCAAs in St. Louis (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The topic of potentially moving to a dual meet championship to crown the NCAA team champion was hot top topic in August and September. Where did the Michigan staff stand on the dual meet championship proposal?

McFarland: We had a lot of discussions about it. To be quite honest with you, we were a little bit divided. I think initially I was on the fence. Until I saw a full laid-out plan, I wasn't comfortable with moving in that direction. But I think in the end it's going to be a neat thing that we've got to support. Of course we've got the coaches' summit coming up in Chicago later this month where we're going to do some more work on that. I think that's going to be very helpful. We were a little bit divided on it, but we had really good discussions here on it. Everybody is entitled to their own opinions on it. There was a lot of information put out on it. But in the end we voted for it.

The NCAA recently approved matside video review. You have been on the wrong some side of some controversial calls in big matches. Do you have an opinion on matside video review?

McFarland: If we can keep the flow of the match going and be efficient with the matside video, then I think it could be a great thing. You hate to see kids pour their lives into the sport and come out on what I would consider an extremely bad call that would cost them a match, possibly a championship match ... I think back to one of our formers wrestlers, Ryan Churella. I think that's going to be a great thing that's needed in our sport. At the same time I think we've got to be careful that it doesn't interrupt the flow of the match and that it's not abused.

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