While in Krasnoyarsk to cover the tournament I was able to watch a few kids practice, spend time with wrestling golden boy Aaron Pico, and take deep swigs of Russian wrestling culture.
There is plenty to note about Siberia. The bitter cold, surprisingly positive attitude of the inhabitants and frustration of Cyrillic all come to mind, but nothing made a larger impression on me than the relationships between coach and wrestler.
We have the relationships between coach and wrestler wrong. We have it way, way wrong.
First, let's jump back to last January. I was in India to write a piece on traditional Indian wrestling and gleefully donned my superhero shorts for the cameras and participated in a local tournament. It was fun and to repay my hosts for their efforts in helping me with my story I showed up to their akhara (wrestling gym) and showed their freestyle wrestlers some moves. Nothing incredible, just some tricky finishes and a crotch lift.
In Indian tradition the guru (wrestling coach) who runs the akhara is given an amazing amount of deference by the wrestlers. They are the wrestler's everything. The guru at the gym asked the boys to all line up. Snap, done. He asks them to do 1000 pushups. They would stay all night. A total and complete level of obedience and more importantly, respect.
To show that respect the athletes are to touch the feet of their guru upon seeing him. That's a far bend, so the tradition is now for wrestlers to simply tap below the knee of the guru. They do this with consistency. After showing moves, the wrestlers showed me the same respect. I was flattered, but at the time it was just a tiny anecdote for the notebook.
Fast forward to April and I'm back in Delhi to cover the Asian Championships. I see a half-dozen of the wrestlers I met in January and they all hustle over to me and touch below my knee. A brief sign of respect. Maybe I didn't warrant it as much as their guru, but in their mind I showed them moves and I was known as a coach and to them that meant respect.
Back to Siberia.
The Russian system functions on a series of independent club programs. Each club has several coaches, and early on in a wrestlers development they will attach themselves to a coach. The coach will lead that wrestler their entire career. For Yariguin it was Dimitri Mindiashvili whose wrestling school in Krasnoyarsk was where the Siberian giant first learned to wrestle. Later it was the Saitiev brothers who joined Mindiashvili's club and heaped praise on their coach for his efforts and sacrifice.
The kids in the Russian system are attached to their coaches, but unlike what we see in America where the credit is often given solely to the wrestler. In Russia the coach is often given much of the credit, and is considered the person to receive respect. The wrestler serves the will of his coach and will show graciousness in giving them much -- if not all -- the credit.
In America you couldn't name me the coach most responsible for each NCAA champion's rise. The American system is segregated into a growth by school. The kids club coach hands the wrestler off to the high school coach, who then hands them off to the college coach, and maybe over to the national team coach. That's our system, it won't change, but the ethos of respect that is so prevalent in the Russian system could survive if we teach our wrestlers to be a touch more humble about who is responsible for their winnings.
Coach Valentin Kalika and Aaron PicoAaron Pico is a good example of someone who eschews the traditional American system in favor of the Russian. His coach Valentin Kalika is the man who makes his success possible. Trust me, I've been around a lot of coaches and there are very few I've ever met who cares more for his athletes that Kalika. He's traveling the world teaching Pico how to wrestle. He gets video of EVERYTHING and spends inordinate amounts of time perfecting Pico's techniques.
Kalika believes that Pico will be an Olympic champion and World champion. That's THEIR goal, and to be honest after spending time with Pico and Kalika that is a goal I think will be achieved in due time. Pico is still young and the American media (looks at self) has done a great job of making his success a story of physical genius and aptitude at a young age, but that's not the correct story.
Pico is mature, focused and wildly talented, but it's Kalika, the Mindiashveli to Pico's Yariguin, who is the driving force behind his rise in talent level. He deserves much of the praise. Pico is his creation.
As the Yariguin tournament opened the crowd was treated to a highlight film of Yariguin that was almost primarily about his relationship with Mindiashveli. As the program ended the crowd gave the coach a raucous standing ovation.
We may never reach the point where our coaches receive the praise, but we should. The good coaches, the ones who are dedicated and teach moves rather than berate their kids like broke football coaches, deserve reverence for their patience and their expertise. Showing our youth wrestlers that expertise and success isn't a result of their own divine powers, but a result of the hard work their coaches put into their careers would teach them all to be a bite more humble and respectful when accepting accolades for their achievements.
I'm likely in the minority, but I think there are more than a few coaches in America who deserve attention, respect and adoration on par with what is being given their athletes. They deserve something in return for their efforts. It doesn't have to be a car, or a house, or a book about their incredible coaching career. It can be something modest and subtle, a tap on the knee, a mention in the papers.
It's about time we balance out the celebrity scale in wrestling and realize that it's not just the wrestlers who win championships, but the coaches as well. From Brian Smith at Mizzou to Jody Strittmatter at Young Guns, there are some coaches who deserve much more praise and adoration from fans, wrestlers and parents.
To your questions ...
Q: I feel that Cael Sanderson is not promoting the sport of wrestling in PA. He holds the home matches in Rec Hall that holds about 6,600 people. As a wrestling fan I feel the more people you can expose the sport to the better. Cael is cheating the people of PA and the wrestling world. What do you think?
-- Frank B.
Foley: The man was on a box of Wheaties! Bite your non-Olympic-gold-medalist tongue. That man is a saint!
Sounds like you might be most interested in seeing Cael driving up the attendance records in Pennsylvania. He fills the 6,600 existing seats, but your question is why hasn't he moved arenas to increase ticket sales. First, don't be greedy. Second, there are several real advantages to wrestling in front of a sellout crowd.
In addition to atmosphere, sellout crowds look great to the administration. For fans, the packed arena also creates a velvet-rope effect that drives up demand for attendance, which in turn generates higher ticket prices and revenue for the athletics department. Donors will also give more if they believe their money will get them preferred seating.
Penn State isn't alone in their approach. Cornell could seat a few more people if they took more matches out of the Friedman Center, but they don't because of these, and other, added benefits. Bumping up to the higher seating capacity might work for a few matches, but you also risk losing the packed house advantage you enjoy and instead risk the echo effect.
Coach Cael does a lot for the sport, and though it's appealing to bring the crowds over to the bigger stadium on a full-time basis, they just aren't there yet.
Q: Coach Tom Ryan, Tommy Rowlands, and Coach Sanderson had a discussion on Twitter this week regarding the impact on in-season dual meets. To sum it up, Coach Ryan said dual meets don't really matter in regards to the post-season tournament, while Coach Sanderson said he felt each match is important based on seeding. Both sides have valid points, but I don't know if I like the idea that dual meets aren't taken as seriously by all coaches. As a fan, I want to see the best possible matchups, even if the team score isn't close. A marquee match between top wrestlers can make up for an otherwise so-so dual. How do you feel about the subject?
-- Curt H.
Foley: Though I recently came to accept the National Duals on principal, Terry Brands quickly challenged me on the details of the proposal and how it would be implemented. For me, all dual meets are subject to the pending question of the duals proposal, so this challenge affects my thoughts on current dual meets.
Tom Ryan is correct. The current system doesn't value dual meets enough to consider them can't-lose events. If Ohio State wrestles backups and drops a dual meet to Purdue there is almost no repercussion on the team's chances to do well at the NCAA tournament. Coach Ryan can still qualify his thoroughbreds and walk away with their individual points at the NCAA tournament. The Purdue loss now means nothing.
Fans understand that only certain dual meets matter to their program. Let's assume that I am a fan of the Virginia Cavaliers and I watch their progress this year. If the Cavaliers need to finish first or second in ACC dual meets to travel on to the NCAA team championships, I take great care to follow every single match of the season. As of now I catch the match updates on Twitter and watch the VT match, but in a world where every point matters and Coach Garland is even more cued into results, I'm watching every leg attack from each of their dual meets. No match is insignificant, which means fans WILL tune in.
In some ways the potential of the dual team format reminds me of English Premier League. Though teams can't be demoted to different leagues, the idea that every point in every match matters keeps these teams focused, and the sport growing, through every match of the season. It is much too risky to take a match off, because the points you could acquire might prevent you from being relegated at the end of the season, or can help you win the cup. Every match is a match for the title.
But Coach Brands is also correct. There are lots of details, many that I and others haven't fully sussed out, that need to be discussed and amended. We need to be careful with how we treat the NCAA Individual tournament, while also looking for opportunities to grow the sport.
Q: Wondering if you might weigh in on the whole Agon/Ben Askren calling out Kyle Dake. It seems to be an obsession ... unless it's all some grand pro-rasslin' type scheme to generate more publicity for the organization.
-- Ted M.
Foley: Askren is one of the organization's founding members and still very popular among wrestling fans. Kyle Dake is one of the most talked-about wrestlers in the country. The calculation must be that at some point, with enough prodding and money laid out on the table, that Dake will accept the challenge and wrestle Askren.
That's the calculation. Will it happen? I don't have any insight, but that fact that we're talking about this -- that I'm writing about this -- proves that Askren knows how to generate publicity. And that's not such a bad thing.
Q: For the past several years, I get a bunch of wrestling fans together at a local sports bar to watch the NCAA Division I wrestling finals on TV. The trick is to get as many pumpkin pushing fans interested in what we are watching and of course to have a few.
Each year we do a confidence pick for each weight class and top five team finish. Winner gets the traveling trophy. Any thoughts on how to make our individual bracket and team race challenge more interesting?
-- Nick J.
Foley: First, I fully endorse your celebration of libations during the NCAA wrestling tournament. A few cups of draught beer and a discussion of alternatives for singlets is an excellent at-the-bar remedy for the crushing boredom of a March Saturday night.
There are several systems in play, all of which are complicated and difficult to describe online. We have a system where we are able to choose eight wrestlers at each weight class, and place them in order. We earn a variety of points for various tasks and keep them on an Excel spreadsheet.
Maybe this would help? Here at InterMat we also have a fun pick 'em contest that is free. Be sure to join that as well!
Q: I just saw that Matt Lester (AA at OU) is going to grad school and wrestling his last semester at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, who is in their second year on a full Division I schedule. Having a guy like that around, who's been to the dance and been an AA before, could really help the confidence of a program going through that transition. Is there anyone else that you can think of that has recently transferred/been ineligible/coming off injury that we will see in the second half of the season who could make the podium (besides the Altons)?
-- Sean M.
Foley: Citadel's returning 141-pound All-American Undrakhbayar will be back in the lineup after a prolonged spat with the NCAA regarding eligibility. There is no use in hashing out the details, but trust me that Ugi was not treated with the type of respect he deserved. As for now, it doesn't matter. He's back in the lineup for the Bulldogs and joining Turtogotkh in a senior campaign that could end with two All-American finishes.
Q: I'm looking forward to seeing the freestyle season get under way, probably more so than the NCAAs, with the Ivan Yariguin Memorial getting started today, and regarded by many as the most prestigious tournament in the world. Why do you think it is that the U.S. is only sending one guy? Is the tournament too early in the season for our guys? Is it a strategic move on the part of the U.S.? Do you think it shows a lack of excitement on part of the U.S. team? I would think that winning gold at this tournament would be a quite an accomplishment. Would have liked to been following a big group of guys.
-- Scott M.
Foley: The tournament was awesome and like you I'm totally psyched for freestyle. One of the nice things about the Yariguin were the new rules. Eliminating the three-point move simplified the scoring and made it much less subjective. Wrestlers can no longer end a match with two scoring maneuvers from their feet to the back, which helps create insane scrambles instead of tight wrestling. Finally, the ten-point differential (with four-point moves) is a more accurate representation of technical superiority.
Metcalf did well, but dropped a match to Romanov who he'd beaten twice previously. Bummer, but he will learn from the technical mistakes he made and improve. Don't tell anyone, but he's a very nice guy. Enjoyable company.
The Americans had planned to send 4-6 guys but a variety of last-minute issues kept the guys from heading over. Maybe most entertaining was the rejection of one wrestler's Russian visa based on the condition of his passport!
Keep an eye out for American competitors at next weekend's Golden Grand Prix of Paris and the following week's tourney in Istanbul. The big dogs are all coming out to play.
Q: Did you and Brian Muir have a falling out, or has he gone in hiding to avoid some bookie by the name of Joey Knuckles? These are my two theories as to why there hasn't been a Back Points podcast in some time. Am I at least on the right track?
-- Curt H.
Foley: We both love doing the Back Points Podcast, but with my travel schedule and Muir committed to growing his hair, we haven't been able to do a weekly show this year. You're right to assume that he was attacked by a bookie named Joey Knuckles as I've never known anyone to be so bad at something for which they hold so much talent. Muir can make the best lines in the business, but when it comes down to choosing sides he's like an ATM for the opposition. The man pays my rent.
Despite our time away from the set, I think we are going to do a big show for the conference tournament and another show for the NCAAs. Will keep you updated!
COMMENT(S) OF THE WEEK
By Chuck P.
I was a bit surprised that Henry T., in his question about the four most dominant high school wrestlers, didn't include Ty Moore of North Allegheny High School in Pennsylvania. Moore was a four-time state champ and was easily as dominant -- or more -- than Kolat. If memory serves, his only loss was a DQ for an illegal slam over another swell wrestler named Tim Queen. Moore never achieved a great deal in college, but his high school record was remarkable.
By James R.
I was reading your column on InterMat, and thought I would mention that Dick Hutton was NCAA heavyweight champ in 1947, seeded No. 1. I looked in my History of College Wrestling by Jairus K. Hammond and they said in 1947 five freshmen won titles. Dick Hutton won titles in 1947, 1948 and 1950, losing on a referee's decision by the tiniest margin to Verne Gagne in 1949. Bill Nelson and Lowell Lang won three titles and were both injured during the 1948 seasons. Joe Scarpello placed four times, winning two titles and Dickie Hauser only won that one title in 1947 never recovering from an auto accident in 1948.
Another note would be that freshmen were eligible to compete during the 1952 NCAA wrestling season also, but no freshman won a title that year, and they went back to having freshmen ineligible to compete in the season for 1953 and later.