In your first season as Clarion's head coach you went 5-10 in dual meets, qualified two wrestlers for the NCAAs, and coached your first All-American in James Fleming. How would you characterize this past season?
Troy Letters (Photo/Clarion Sports Information)Letters: This past season for me was a big learning curve, taking over as head coach for the first time, really getting to understand the full scope of being a head coach. Here at Clarion we have a lot more responsibilities than other places I've been because we're understaffed. We have a staff of three guys. It was definitely an eye-opener on the amount of work that needed to be done. At the same time trying to get these guys to accomplish their goals. We were expecting to take four or five guys to NCAAs, and some guys fell short of their goals. That was a disappointment. The positive note was James Fleming leaving here a two-time All-American and tied for fourth on the all-time wins list. He's tied with Mark Angle for 126 college victories. That's something to celebrate.
Our schedule is not easy. We wrestle the best teams. Next year we're wrestling the best teams. We're wrestling Oklahoma State and Penn State in a dual meet. That's something that I promised my guys and my recruits that are coming in. We're going to wrestle the best teams. We're going to seek out the NCAA champions at each weight class. We're going to try to put you in front of them as many times as we can. My ultimate goal isn't to go 20-0 in dual meets and beat up on a bunch of teams. My ultimate goal is to sit in the corner and watch my wrestlers win NCAA titles. For me, that was the ultimate ... You can't even put it into words. I was able to win a national title, and when I did it the feeling that you get it's just all emotions, and hard work, your workout partners, and your coaches, and your family, and support structure, everything at once just hits you when your arm is raised during that match. The feeling is really indescribable. I want to be there when my guys do it. I want to be a part of it again. That's what I'm coaching for. That's what I'm looking forward to doing.
What was the biggest adjustment for you going from an assistant coach to a head coach?
Troy Letters (Photo/Clarion Sports Information)Letters: More responsibility. When I was an assistant coach I could be a partner wrestling with the guys a lot more, banging heads, making them better. As a head coach, juggling working on the schedule, doing the recruiting, plus overseeing practice, I wasn't able to be in the room as much as I wanted to be this year. I was more on the road, talking to kids, talking to parents, recruiting. More of a role in recruiting, building this program back up, and filling our roster up, as opposed to being in the room three or four times a day wrestling with guys. I plan to get back to that this year. We really hustled and worked hard this year to make that possible. So the biggest adjustment for me was not being in the room banging heads with the guys as much as I wanted to be or needed to be. I was more running the workouts, overseeing practices, and obviously on the road recruiting more.
There was speculation that James Fleming would possibly go the MMA route after his college wrestling career. Is that something he's pursuing?
Letters: Coaching and/or MMA. I don't know what order. It's pretty close. People don't know this about James, but he's a two-time Golden Gloves boxer. Obviously, on the mats they know how flexible he is and how unique of a style he has. I think it will fit into MMA very well. I have some pretty good connections with wrestlers who are in MMA that could give him a shot to bring him to a training camp to see what he can do. So I do think MMA is a possibility for James Fleming.
You have landed a large recruiting class. How are you feeling about your recruiting class?
Troy Letters spent one season as an assistant coach under Matt Dernlan at Clarion prior to taking over as head coach (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)Letters: I'm fired up about it. We have a great class coming in. More importantly, we have great character coming in. I recruit talent, obviously, but more so I'm recruiting an attitude. I'm going to take the guy who has a better attitude over the super talented wrestler any day of the week. This year, when I said I was focusing on recruiting, I was really focusing on getting to know these kids, finding out what their attitudes are like, talking with their coaches, talking with their parents. Attitude is what wins in Division I wrestling. Attitude takes you a long way. If you get attitude with talent, then you have something special. That's when you're winning NCAA titles and you're dominating.
Attitude means a lot of things. When I say it I mean sacrifice, commitment, dedication, hard work, holding yourself to a higher standard than every student on campus. We're Division I athletes training to win a Division I title. Students here can't even fathom what it takes to do something like that. I want guys coming in knowing they have to sacrifice something. For everyone it's something different. For some guys it's cutting weight right. For some guys it's going to class every day. Sacrifice is different for everybody. But I need 30 guys to buy into that and realize they need to give up something to accomplish their goals. That's why I'm excited about this recruiting class coming in. I have a lot of guys who are on board with my coaching staff, my game plan of where Clarion is heading, where it should be, and the future of our program. They're on board with what we're doing and what we're trying to do. We're really going to look at these freshmen as leaders. They're going to be the majority of my team. We recruited a lot of guys. We're going to have a very, very young team. I'm going to look for these guys to be leaders immediately. I've already been telling them that. I have been telling them, 'I'm putting a lot of pressure and expectations on your back because I know you can handle it. But you guys are going to be leaders and we're going to create a big snowball effect here.' We're just going to keep building and building and building until we have 30 guys or a full roster of guys who are willing to sacrifice and dedicate themselves to being a Division I wrestler. For me, the standard is super high.
Austin Matthews, a Pennsylvania state champion and three-time state finalist, is one of your most credentialed recruits. What do you like specifically about him?
Austin MatthewsLetters: I've gotten to know Austin really well over the last few months. I look for a particular style when I watch guys. I watch little habits that guys do. He's got everything that I'm looking for from top to bottom as far as attitude, commitment, and the way he wrestles. He's a mat wrestler. I was a mat wrestler. People underestimate how good Pennsylvania mat wrestling is. That is one of the biggest challenges that freshmen have coming into a college room, getting out on bottom and holding guys down. Austin is very, very talented on the mat, riding, turning, and pinning guys, and getting out on bottom. He can come in ... and who knows, the sky is the limit for that guy. There is no glass ceiling on how good he can be, especially with the attitude he has.
Is there a possibility that some of the true freshmen will be in the lineup immediately? Or do you expect to redshirt all of them?
Letters: That's really been up in the air. I've been going back and forth on that. If a guy is ready to go, I'm putting him in there. That's the way we're going to do it. I'm going to start my ten best guys. In some situations I may have to redshirt guys. I have a kid coming in named Justin Arthur from West Virginia ... He could be anywhere from a 149-pounder to a 174-pounder. He has the body frame of guys I've coached in the past like David Taylor and Ed Ruth ... When they fill out, you don't know what weight they will end up. There is a good possibility we're going to see three to four true freshmen starting next year.
A decade ago you were on of the most dominant wrestlers in college. You won an NCAA title as a sophomore and finished in the top three in each of your first three seasons. Obviously, your senior season you battled an injury that hindered your performance. When you reflect back on your collegiate career, how do you feel about it?
Troy Letters after winning the NCAA title in 2004 over Oklahoma State's Tyrone Lewis (Photo/Danielle Hobeika)Letters: It's something I think about daily. Going into my senior year I was 99-3 and then injury-plagued and my attitude changed. I reflect on it daily. To tell you the truth it's something that eats at me. I came in as a freshman with a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to be the best right now. Why wait until I'm a senior to win an NCAA title? I want to do it right now. I feel like I've worked hard enough and I'm talented enough to do it. That's the kind of chip I had on my shoulder. I made it to the NCAA finals my freshman year. I didn't quite get there. But I kept that chip on my shoulder and won it the next year. Then I was undefeated going into the nationals my junior year and got upset in the semifinals and took third.
I kind of lost that chip on my shoulder. Once you lose that chip on your shoulder that you want to be the best, that you want to prove to everyone in the country that I'm the best wrestler in Division I, not only in my weight class but in our sport. Once you lose that type of attitude and commitment to yourself, you fall short of your goals ... and then you add an injury to it. I think about it daily. I think about how maybe if I would have followed that path maybe I would have won a World title or been an Olympian ... Who knows? It's something I think about a lot. But as a coach it really helps me because I can tell these guys I've been on both ends of the spectrum. I've seen it all. I've been lucky enough to coach a national championship team. I've coached a team that was dead last when I first started coaching.
As an athlete, I've been on both ends. I've wanted it to so bad. Lehigh was built on a mountain. I lived about a mile away from the university. I wouldn't take car rides. I would walk to every class. People would ask me if I wanted to be dropped off on top of the hill, and I would say, 'No, I'm going to walk the stairs.' I would think, 'I'm doing this and Johny Hendricks isn't going to do this. He would take a ride in that vehicle. Or Tyrone Lewis. Or whoever was in my weight class that I knew I would have to beat to be an NCAA champion. These guys aren't willing to make these type of sacrifices. They would jump in a car and take a ride. I'm going to walk or I'm going to run.' It's that type of attitude that wins at this level. Talent takes you so far. Attitude takes you a long way. That's what I'm going to preach to my incoming freshmen and what I'm preaching to these guys right now. Attitude takes you a long way in this sport. Add a little bit of talent to that, and a little bit of fight to that, and you're going to have a successful season.
When you were going through your collegiate career, did you have plans to wrestle on the senior level when you finished at Lehigh? Or did you always know you wanted to get into coaching?
Letters: During my collegiate career I considered wrestling. I spent time out at the Training Center wrestling with Joe Williams and Donny Pritzlaff, who was the guy. I was right there with those guys, going back and forth, beating them and them beating me. I thought, 'Hey, I'm going to be ready when I graduate to pursue this Olympic dream of mine.' And then something happened and I ended up getting right into coaching instead. I started realizing that I'm going to be a coach because I started doing camps and clinics and really loved working with kids and seemed to have a good chemistry working with the kids. I knew this is something I could be good at. I know what I'm doing. After I graduated from Lehigh, my roommate Derek Zinck, who had the same major as me, went on to law school, which was both of our plans at one point. I ended up going into wrestling. Now here I am head coach at Clarion University. I grew up 45 minutes down the road from here. My brother went to school here. So coaching kind of found me. I never really thought about it. I just kind of fell into it. It was just a natural transition.
InterMat senior writer T.R. Foley was an ACC champion and NCAA Division I All-American in 2004 while wrestling at the University of VirginiaYou wrestled InterMat senior writer T.R. Foley during your college days, and came out on top 5-4. What do you remember most about your match against Foley?
Letters: I underestimated T.R. Foley. I can tell you that much. I was on a run that year. I think I had majored, teched, and pinned everyone except four or five guys. I was a frontrunner for the Hodge Trophy. I was like, 'I'm wrestling a kid from Virginia.' I knew who he was. But I still thought I was going to go out and pin this guy. He was very goofy. You take a guy down, you expect him to fall a certain way ... well, he would fall the opposite way. I underestimated how good he was at scrambling and how funky he was. It ended up turning into a hard-fought match. He and I laugh about it today, but ... yeah, it was a tight match. I would say I underestimated how talented he was.
I heard that you initially said no to joining the coaching staff at Clarion. What changed for you to decide to take a coaching position on the staff?
Troy Letters was on Penn State's coaching staff when the Nittany Lions won the NCAA championship in 2011 (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)Letters: I was a part of something so unbelievable at Penn State. Casey, Cody, and Cael are good friends of mine. The opportunity to coach there with them was awesome. I planned on staying there and not leaving. I loved it there that much. It was just one of those things ... I woke up one morning after I had said no to going to Clarion. I talked to my wife a little bit about it. She works in Pittsburgh, so she commutes every other week. I just said, 'How would you feel about moving to Clarion?' She said, 'It's up to you, Troy.' I just woke up and made the decision. I loved it at Penn State. I love my friends and the guys I was working with who I'm still very, very tight with ... Eddie Ruth, David Taylor, Nico, Quentin, the Alton boys. Those are guys I wrestled with every day and I still talk to them a lot. David Taylor comes over to my house a lot. I'm really close with his father and mother.
It was hard for me to leave. But to tell you the truth, I just woke up one day and just decided to make the move. Eight months later I end up being named head coach at Clarion. I didn't expect it to happen, but it ended up working out pretty well. I do miss my friends and the guys I was working with dearly. But I'm not too far away from them. I have those guys to call when I need help. I'm a young coach who is learning the ropes right now. I've been blessed to have good friends that I can always call ... Pat Santoro, Greg Strobel, Cael Sanderson, Cody Sanderson, Casey Cunningham ... and ask for advice. That's the greatest thing about wrestling. I could call anyone in the EWL. I could call Coach Flynn from Edinboro for advice or John Stutzman, who is now leaving the EWL. I can talk to all these guys. They're all open and willing to give advice and help any way they can. I'm a lucky man. I have a good wife that is supportive of what I do. She knows me. She knows that I'm not going to stop until I have 30 guys that want to be NCAA champions. It might be 30 guys who don't have the talent to do it, but they want to do it. If they're willing to put in the sacrifice and dedication, I'm going to be happy coaching them.
What's your vision for the Clarion wrestling program?
Letters: My vision is to get into the top ten and have All-Americans and NCAA champions year in and year out. That's my vision and where I see it going. We're getting a brand new wrestling facility. It's going to be one of the biggest in NCAA Division I wrestling. We're getting all brand new mats. Brand new weight room. I'm in a good place. Right now everything is just piling up. We just need one more thing to tip it over and Clarion wrestling is going to be one of the programs that people are going to be afraid to wrestle. I want Penn State, Iowa, Oklahoma State, and all these top teams to want to wrestle us, and know that when they come to wrestle us they're going to have bring their A-game because we're going to fight you from whistle to whistle and line to line.