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One-on-One with Rob Koll

Andrew Hipps

5/13/2014
Andrew Hipps, InterMat Senior Editor
andrew@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @InterMat

Rob Koll has built Cornell's wrestling program into a perennial national power. The Big Red finished in the top five at the NCAAs every year from 2009 to 2013, and had back-to-back NCAA runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011. This past season Koll led the Big Red to a 13-1 dual meet record, a runner-up finish at the National Duals, an eighth straight EIWA title, and a seventh-place finish at the NCAAs in Oklahoma City.

InterMat talks to the Cornell head wrestling coach about this past season and next season, recruiting class, Big Red wrestlers, Kyle Dake, NCAA championship proposal and more.

This past season Cornell finished seventh at the NCAAs with three All-Americans and three wrestlers reaching the round of 12. You won your eighth consecutive EIWA title. You had a runner-up finish at the National Duals. Looking at the big picture, how did you and your staff feel about the program's performance this past season?

Rob Koll and Kyle Dake coaching at the NCAAs in Oklahoma City (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Koll: If you told us at the beginning of the year that those would be the results we would be jumping for joy. But you evaluate the season based on how you do at the national championships. Since our expectations going in were higher we were a little disappointed. We had four freshmen in the lineup. We had one senior. So we should have been thrilled, but the problem is the kids overachieved and got a little better quicker than we expected them to. It was just hard to be satisfied with taking seventh. We had six guys in the All-American round. Now in hindsight I go back and Rational Rob says, 'That was a great season.' Emotional Rob says, 'It could have been better.' So in order to quell my disappointment I look towards the future. Everybody's back. We have to replace Nevinger, but we already have a cast of characters in the room that can do that. We just have to worry about knocking off schools like Ohio State, Minnesota, and whoever else shows up.

Looking at Mike Nevinger's college wrestling career, he was still a two-time All-American despite not placing as a senior. This past season he clearly wasn't healthy, which hindered his performance. When you recruited him, did you expect him to have the kind of career at Cornell that he had?

Koll: We don't recruit backups ... so, yeah, we're looking for everyone to be successful. The problem is if you have 30 guys on the team, 20 of them at least are not going to reach their goals in a given year. When you're 17 or 18 years old everyone is going to be undefeated and a four-time national champion, so it's hard for those kids to reach their goals. But we also have somewhat realistic goals when we recruit kids. But as I said, we don't recruit backups. So we all expected Mike to be able to make the team. But he was a two-time All-American, and we feel if he would have been healthy would have been a three-time All-American. He looked great in the summer. He hurt his back early, and then tore his knee up at the Easterns, so he wasn't able to obviously achieve his goals. He was a two-time state champion, but the reason he wasn't a three-time state champion is because he had a guy named Kyle Dake in his weight class. So it wasn't like he didn't have a great high school wrestling career. He just didn't do a lot of freestyle, so he probably didn't get the accolades because of that.

Nahshon Garrett was an NCAA runner-up this past season. He recently competed for Team USA at the Beat the Streets event. What's his ceiling in wrestling?

Koll: Well, he didn't look good at Beat the Streets. We were in finals at Cornell and it wasn't conducive to training. Honestly, he didn't train. Or he would come in for a couple minutes, and then he would be gone because he had to get ready for his testing. So this was probably the worst time of the year to have him wrestle in that event, and yet he wanted to do it. Nahshon started wrestling in ninth grade, so if we look at his upward mobility ... His potential is limitless. He has a great style for freestyle. He's good on top. He's good on bottom. And obviously he's fantastic on his feet. He's just got one roadblock ... and that's Delgado. He's back. So we've got to figure out how to finish those singles and doubles.

Chris Villalonga seemed to make a big jump in wrestling this past season. He went from 23-13 to 34-4. What do you attribute his improvement to?

Chris Villalonga compiled a 34-4 record this past season (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Koll: I know it's all confidence. It's just a matter of him believing in himself. The two years prior to this year he had a real rough stretch in December and January where he literally hit eight out of the top ten guys. Now this year he would have beaten those guys. But he didn't have the confidence last year and the year before, and he ends up losing 5, 6, 7 matches in a row. Just didn't believe in himself. This year he had a little easier schedule, got a couple wins under his belt before he hit the real tough stuff, and by the time he had some tough matches he was able to pull those out and just build upon himself. By the end of the year he felt like he was unbeatable and looked great. He got a little careless at nationals against Sakaguchi, and ends up getting pinned. He didn't wrestle a smart match. Then he came back and had Grajales, who was hot in the wrestlebacks. So Chris could have just as easily been in the finals and been the champion, if not placing, and that's what nationals are all about. We tell guys every year, 'Don't think there's next year because there might not be a next year.' In Chris' case we're telling him, 'Hey, we got next year.'

He's back again. You throw in Nahshon Garrett at 125, Mark Grey at 133, to be announced at 141, Brian Realubto at 157 ... He's getting knee surgery this week. He should be back full strength by second semester, if not sooner. We felt like he could have won it this year if he hadn't torn up his knee in the semifinals. Dylan Palacio at 165. He was a couple seconds away from placing. We'll see what happens at 174. We're not sure who is going to be there, but we'll have somebody great. Then of course Gabe Dean at 184. Jace Bennet, who is right there, at 197. And then whoever we have at heavyweight. Jacob Aiken-Phillips had a really strong year. We don't have a lot of holes. I feel like we'll have the best dual meet team we've ever had. If we can get All-American-caliber kids at 141, 174 and heavyweight, there's really not a weight where we can't place.

The success of Gabe Dean came as a surprise to many this season after he struggled in open tournament competition the previous season. When did you realize that he could be a major point-scorer in Oklahoma City?

Gabe Dean's lone loss at the NCAAs came to Ed Ruth (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Koll: He got better every tournament we saw him wrestle in last year. Then in the summer he placed at the Junior World Team Trials, and he had never wrestled freestyle up to that point in his life. Then in the fall I remember wrestling him one day and going, 'Oh my God. I just can't believe how good he is.' He put me into retirement. He and a couple other guys. I'm 48 years old ... I probably shouldn't be wrestling anyway, but it made it easier to retire after trying to go in there and spar with Gabe. It was no secret ... We could tell in the fall when he was dominating very, very good wrestlers that he could place high. We didn't know if he could win it or not because you had Ed Ruth there, but we certainly felt like he had the ability to be right there in the top three.

Alex Cisneros was one of the nation's top recruits coming of high school. He has not been able to break into your lineup to this point. How is his development coming along?

Koll: He grayshirted two years ago, and last year he actually took a semester off from school, so he's going to be coming back as a freshman. So assuming he can make the weight, 141, I expect him to be on the podium. He's that good. But he's got to get a little leaner and stay focused for the whole year. Assuming he can do those two things, there's really not anybody he can't beat.

Kyle Dake obviously made his mark on your program as a competitor. Now he's on your coaching staff, but still competing. What's he like as a coach?

Koll: He's incredibly intense. I'm not a guy who is going to be barking a lot in the corner ... I try to do it in practice. Kyle is over the top, and I usually don't like it. But his enthusiasm is so sincere and so intense that it's contagious. It's obviously great having him on our roster because people want to be here. But in the room he's fantastic and of course mat-side he's very inspiring as well.

When you were competing on the international scene, your weight class, 74 kilos, was one of the toughest in the U.S. You were in a weight class with Dave Schultz and Kenny Monday. Now 74 kilos in the U.S. is arguably the toughest with Jordan Burroughs, Kyle Dake, and Davis Taylor. How much is that domestic competition going to help push those three wrestlers to higher levels?

Koll: I don't know how much it has to at this point. You have a World and Olympic champion, so it's not as if he has to get much better to be competitive at the world level. It's certainly going to help Kyle and David, and of course Howe. It can help. It can hurt. It could certainly help if they can make the team. But it's not going to help them if they can't make the team. I think a lot of the development comes in being in those big matches at the World Championships and the Olympics. Those are the kind of experiences that you can't duplicate in practice. It's not as if these guys aren't incredibly intrinsically motivated to start with, otherwise they wouldn't be where they are right now. So is it going to help them? They're not practicing together, so I don't know if that's going to be a benefit. Two of the three aren't going to get the competition. So I don't think it's necessarily good for development.

You signed the nation's No. 3 recruiting class. It includes six top 100 recruits. What do you like about your recruiting class?

Jon Jay Chavez is one of six top 100 recruits Cornell signed (Photo/John Sachs, Tech-Fall.com)
Koll: It covers almost every weight class. We've got a couple recruits who are not mentioned in that top 100 who I think are outstanding. Time will tell if it's the third best, first best or 20th best. Everyone looks good out of high school winning state championships and having grandiose records. But at the end of the day the ones who succeed in college are the ones who can manage the daily grind, and a lot of them can't. We've been very fortunate in my 25 years at Cornell. We haven't had a transfer and people don't leave our team. So when we bring in nine guys, we graduate nine guys. Whereas at a lot of other schools you have nine guys come in, and by the end of their career you will see three guys graduate. That's one of the keys to our success ... the continuity and consistency of the kinds of kids we bring in. We might not always have the No. 1s, but we have kids who are No. 1 in the classroom and society, and they don't tend to go whirlybird on you and end up in street clothes during wrestling practice. When you don't have guys leaving your team, even if they're not the very best as freshmen, by the time they're juniors and seniors they're going to be better than ninety percent of those guys. So every year we're replacing great kids with kids who were in the room already. Every year we have a kid no one has heard about who steps in and if he's not an All-American, he's close to it, and I don't think this year will be any different.

You have had freshmen perform exceptionally well in your program over the years. This past season alone you had four freshmen earn seeds at the NCAAs. Looking at next year's group of freshmen, do you expect any to immediately contend for a spot in the lineup?

Koll: Normally I would say yes, but we have so few holes that it's going to be tough for any freshman to step in. We'll see. We have Jake Taylor anywhere from 174 to 197 who will be a freshman this year. He's outstanding. He had a great grayshirt year. So he certainly has the ability to do some damage if he can make the team. But you've got Jace Bennett at 197, Gabe Dean at 184, and a plethora of talented kids at 174. So I don't think this is the year we'll have as many freshmen in the lineup because we have so many young kids returning.

You return a tremendous lineup next season and on paper you are expected to be in the mix for a national title. Obviously, Penn State is losing David Taylor and Ed Ruth. Ohio State has some talented wrestlers stepping in the lineup. Other programs return a lot. Obviously, we're still almost six months away from the start of competition, but do you look at the team race as being wide open in 2015?

Koll: Well, it's certainly more wide open than in the past. Penn State doesn't just lose two national champions. They lose two national champions that pin about everybody they wrestle, so in essence they have a third national champion because of those two. I'm very thankful they're gone. But you've got schools like Oklahoma State and Minnesota that are also on the horizon. People tend not to talk about Cornell as being one of the schools in the mix. They always talk about schools like Ohio State. It seems like everybody talks about Big Ten schools and Big 12 schools. I would love it if people really start consistently mentioning Cornell. Even if they don't know of all of our guys, they know that we're going to have some guys nobody knows who will be All-American-caliber kids. That's really the key for us this year. We've got a find a 141, 174 and heavyweight. We're not going to go find one on the street right now. In the room we need to make sure we can manufacture some All-Americans in those three weight classes if we want to have a realistic shot at winning it. We do have some guys who can put big points on the board. Nahshon and Dean, if not favored to win it, they're right there, and they're also big point-scorers. So hopefully we can not just have a couple national champions, but those guys will put some pins on the board. Realbuto is a big pinner. He's another guy who should be ranked in the top four in the country. You get two or three national champions you're going to be a contender and then it's just a matter of what your supporting cast of characters are doing. You're going to have a couple teams fall off the board and you're going to have some teams that you don't expect putting points on the board. I think it's going to take six or seven All-Americans to win it.

The 2016 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championship will take place at Madison Square Garden in New York City. What do you think that event will do for wrestling?

Koll: At Beats the Streets there was an amazing amount of excitement. It's a great place to have a sporting event. It's going to draw a lot of non-wrestling fans to the event. When we had nationals in Philadelphia we sold almost 1,400 tickets. These are Cornell people. At Madison Square Garden if we could get 3,000 tickets we would sell 3,000 tickets. So I think it's great to get it out of the Midwest. Those guys always get to go to the tournament. Of course, we're going to have ten times as much media accessibility at Madison Square Garden compared to what we had in Oklahoma City.

Earlier this year the Division I Wrestling Committee released a recommendation that the championships include a team component and an individual component. Where do you stand on that recommendation?

Kyle Dake hugs his coach Rob Koll after winning his fourth NCAA title in four weight classes (Photo/Larry Slater)
Koll: I'm not opposed to the recommendation, but I don't want it to be the deciding factor. If you're going to have that, make it 10 points for the champion, 9.5 for second, 9 for third, 8.5 for fourth. So OK you go in with a half-point lead, but at least it makes the National Duals relevant. It makes them important. Nobody would not go to them. People would want to host them. Those who have not been supportive would be doing it. I do think when you throw the NCAA banner on any championship event, it makes it more important. If we play Syracuse in lacrosse and it's the NCAA championship quarterfinals, we'll have five or six-thousand people there. If we play them on a regular day, we'll have a thousand. I think if you look at anything that has NCAA ramifications it just adds a certain element of excitement. We need to have the NCAA's organizational structure behind us, and the media behind us. It would certainly be much more likely that a major TV network would follow, whether it's Big Ten Network, ESPN or whatever, and cover it more thoroughly.

Comments

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2xTCAA (2) about 6 months ago
There may be guys who are as good a coach, but there is nobody coaching today who is at Rob Koll's level as a person and leader. 25 years and not 1 kid transferred? That is just unheard of in the "win now" world we live in. How cool would it be if Cornell could win a national championship?