Mark PerryPerry's decision to wrestle for Iowa over Oklahoma State was shocking to many at the time, but it proved to be a wise choice for him as he went on to win two NCAA titles, become a four-time All-American, and helped to lead the Hawkeyes to a national team title as a senior. Following his collegiate wrestling career at Iowa, Perry joined the Penn State coaching staff under Troy Sunderland. But after Sunderland was replaced by Cael Sanderson, Perry left Happy Valley to become the top assistant coach on John Azevedo's staff at Cal Poly.
InterMat recently talked to Perry about his decision to come to Cal Poly, whether he ever thought about leaving Iowa during the difficult years, how his relationships have changed with his uncles since college, what it was like wrestling against his uncles' teams and coaching against his brother, whether he plans to pursue an international wrestling career, what the future holds for Cal Poly's wrestling program, and much more.
After your collegiate career at Iowa, you spent a year at Penn State ... before moving on to Cal Poly. Obviously, there was a coaching change at Penn State. But what factored into your decision to go to Cal Poly?
Perry: There were a lot things that played a big role. I had the chance to possibly coach at some programs that are pretty well established and have had success with national champions and even winning trophies in the end when it matters the most. I think the biggest thing was that I had a chance to move up in a position. I came out to visit and got a chance to speak with John. Just the role I was playing out here seemed a lot more intriguing to me ... being able to play a part in our training. Recruiting is a big part of success ... and he has pretty much put me in charge of that. All around, there is a lot more work here than most colleges because right now we're trying to build. There are a lot of things that are important right now ... not just wrestling ... fundraising ... recruiting is huge. Really, just trying to get Cal Poly to that next level. Overall, the biggest thing was I was going to be working a lot harder. I was going to be involved with pretty much all aspects of coaching. When you're dealing with six or seven people involved with the program, your limitations are pretty small at some of those larger, more established programs.
Your wrestling career has taken you all over the country. You grew up in Oklahoma, moved to New Jersey to attend Blair Academy, then to Iowa, then to Penn State, and now to California. You have been a part of many different programs. Do you think being a part of so many different programs is helping you now in your coaching career?
Perry: Absolutely. I think that's kind of what defines my philosophy and attitude toward the sport. I have been very fortunate to be around many of our so-called legends in John Smith, Coach Buxton, Tom Brands, Dan Gable, Jim Zalesky, and even assistants that were there at the time that really helped get me to another level ... Tim Hartung, Doug Schwab, and Mike Zadick. I've been very fortunate to be around a number of guys who have done big things in this sport ... and see different coaching philosophies, different styles, different motivational keys ... everyone is a little different. I think that's an edge that I can bring to Cal Poly. Most coaches have kind of been around the same thing their whole life. A lot of programs like Oklahoma State ... They never really step outside of the box. Iowa people ... They don't really step outside of the box. I don't mean that in a bad way ... but they kind of stick with those programs. I don't want to say it's a bad thing, but I've been lucky to see other philosophies and ideas. I think the more you see, the better off you're going to be in the end.
When you came to Iowa, the program was down by program standards. Iowa placed seventh, fourth, and eighth in your first three years. There was some turmoil. Some recruits didn't work out. Steve Mocco transferred to Oklahoma State. Did the thought of transferring ever cross your mind?
Mark Perry after winning his first NCAA title in 2007 (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)Perry: No, it didn't actually. I have to attribute all my success to my parents. With our family, when you commit to something, you stick to it, you work hard and make the best of it. It was a situation that I don't want to say was bad, but it was disappointing early on. When I went to Iowa, I was looking at all these recruits that they were getting. Growing up around a program like Oklahoma State, my philosophy is you want to be the best or it's a failure. With the recruits they had, I was pretty confident that we were going to get the job done multiple times. Things kind of fell apart pretty quickly when I got there. Willie Parks ... Todd Meneely ... Steve Mocco ... Mark Mueller ... Israel Martinez. A lot of guys that I came there thinking I'm going to be a part of a team with. I ended up being the only one that stuck around. That was tough. But I had a positive outlook. When you're in a program like Iowa, they expect success. Their expectations are extremely high. I just stayed positive. Things ended up working out in the end.
I know you're very competitive as is your family. You had some great battles with Johny Hendricks of Oklahoma State, who was coached by your uncles. Have your relationships with your uncles changed since your collegiate career at Iowa ended?
Perry: I would say so. And I don't know if it's because I left Iowa or because my whole family grew from me going to Iowa. I would say on my part, I just matured a lot in different ways ... emotionally, mentally putting everything aside. It was definitely tough for me and I'm sure it was tough for my uncles when I did go to Iowa. It was a hard process because I never looked at like me vs. Hendricks or me vs. my uncles. That was just a program that I was very committed to and it meant a lot to me. It was definitely tough competing when growing up your whole life you saw yourself wrestling for them. That was probably the hardest part. The people I looked up to outside of my father ... my uncles, who were the coaches there at the time. Everyone in my family is extremely involved in the program. It's tough on someone who is 18, 19, 20 years old to take all that in.
Obviously, you come from a coaching family. Your father and uncles were long-time college coaches. How much have you relied on them for guidance during your own coaching career?
Perry: Not as much my uncles. When I had the chance this summer, while living in Stillwater, I went to a lot of practices and worked out with their team. When I have the chance, I'm definitely open ears and taking everything in. Mostly it's with my father. I go to him multiple times a day. He coached for a long time. He coached at Nebraska. When he went to Nebraska, the program was pretty down. When we moved to Stillwater, they went from ... I want to say somewhere around 50 to 3. He has a lot of knowledge. He was there when John (Smith) was going through his reign of World and Olympic titles. He has been around a lot. I attribute all my success to my father and mother. They have been very supportive. Without them, I wouldn't be where I am today. I will always use my dad because he is someone I have always looked up to. I have high confidence in the knowledge he gives me. It has worked to this point and I don't see that changing.
You coached Quentin Wright against your brother at the FILA Junior Nationals. What was tougher: Coaching against your brother? Or wrestling against your uncles' wrestlers at Oklahoma State?
Chris Perry defeated Quentin Wright in the finals of the 2009 FILA Junior Nationals ... with Mark Perry coaching Wright (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)Perry: It was definitely wrestling against Oklahoma State. That was definitely a lot harder situation for me. Coaching against my brother is just part of the game. Deep down, my brother knows that I want him to have twice the amount of success I had. I was very close with Quentin Wright when I was at Penn State. It wasn't necessarily like a thing where I'm out to get my brother. When you're a coach, you're committed to your athletes. That's just how it falls. In the end, after the match, I spoke with Quentin and I spoke with my brother about mistakes and the things they need to fix if they want to get to the next level ... and we went from there. My brother knows that I'm his biggest supporter, so he didn't take it personally by any means.
How often do you talk to your brother, Chris? How are things going for him so far at Oklahoma State?
Perry: I talk to him pretty often ... a couple times a week. Things are going well for him. I think he's had a couple incidents this year where he's maybe been behind the eight ball a little bit. But he's a hard worker and he wants it as much as anybody. Things will come. He's been sick. He hurt his collarbone pretty bad early. I think that's typical for most high school kids ... They get beat up a little bit. They have to kind of get in a routine and things will work out. He's definitely going to have a lot of success. I don't want to say it's in the family, but he wants it. When you grow up in this kind of family, it's expected ... and you expect it out of yourself.
After your college wrestling career, you talked about pursuing an international wrestling career, but stated that you're not going to be on the mat competing until you're completely healthy and one hundred percent committed to it. What are your plans for international wrestling?
Mark Perry (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)Perry: As of right now, I don't see a full-out international career ... just because of what I'm doing here at Cal Poly and as much as we're trying to accomplish. I'm not very patient. We have a lot of work on our hands. To be successful at the international level, I don't want to say it's impossible, but I think you need to be in a place where you are very selfish and you're selfish towards what you want to get done. From where I stand, it's not about competing ... It's about winning World and Olympic titles. I would have to put coaching on hold. Right now, I'm not ready to do that. It's hard to make a living if you're just competing.
Obviously, FILA, the international governing body for wrestling, has made various changes to the freestyle rules over the past few years. Have those rule changes played a factor at all in your decision not to compete in freestyle?
Perry: Not really. I love freestyle. I don't think the rules make it any more exciting, but I enjoy freestyle. I feel like freestyle is more suited for me. It's not necessarily all about takedowns. Some people might think it is. There are a lot of ways to score points. You can score points in bunches. I don't like the ball grab or the clinch. I wouldn't expect to go there. But I'm sure everyone gets there. But, no, I think to be successful you need to be at a place where you're not worried about anybody but yourself. I'm grateful for my college coaches. They've put a lot of time into me and they have had success on the international level. That amazes me more than anything ... because I felt like they were putting more time into me than themselves. I definitely think you have to be selfish if you want to get the job done at that level.
In the short time you have been at Cal Poly, you have played a key role in landing one of the nation's top recruiting classes. The class includes four InterMat Top 100 recruits and another nationally-ranked wrestler. What kind of impact do you think this recruiting class can have on the program?
Perry: I think it's going to make a huge impact. I think it lets our boosters, our fans, the entire program, and the guys in the program right now know that we're committed to making a jump. This isn't a job or a paycheck for us. We want to be the best. We know there is a lot of work to be done. But we plan to have recruiting classes like this every year ... and this recruiting class isn't over.
How different is it recruiting at Cal Poly, a Pac-10 school, as opposed to Penn State, a Big Ten school?
Mark Perry celebrates after Quentin Wright defeats Iowa's Jay Borschel in the semifinals of the 2009 Big Ten Championships (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)Perry: Well, last year was kind of a unique year. I didn't have a lot of say in what we were doing at Penn State, which is normal for a kid that is just in his first year out of college. I was kind of getting to know the ropes. I realized how important recruiting was. It was stressed pretty hard. But last year at Penn State, we had a lot of scholarships, but we pretty much recruited the junior class. We didn't recruit the senior class very hard. We had a number of kids that we could have signed but we kind of held off because the Alton twins (Andrew and Dylan) were coming up ... and (Sam) Sherlock and (Dirk) Cowburn ... There were a bunch of tough Pennsylvania kids we recruited very hard. I'm definitely glad to see them going to Penn State. Cael brought them in, but Matt Dernlan deserves a lot of credit for that. We put a lot of time into those kids. Last year was a little bit different, whereas this year at Cal Poly we're going after immediate help. Last year it was more towards the future.
Cal Poly has already defeated Missouri, a team ranked in the top 10 at the time. How big was that victory for the program?
Perry: I think it's really big. I definitely think it's big for future recruits and the recruits we just signed. We told them that we were a better team than them and that we thought we were going to win ... that we prepare to beat teams like that consistently. Last year Cal Poly didn't have a good season to put it nicely. Last year they got beat by Fullerton pretty badly and they got beat by Missouri by 30 points. We felt like we could have won seven matches at Missouri, but it didn't end up that way. But getting two wins over two programs that beat Cal Poly pretty badly last year is not for the coaches, but it's extremely important for the athletes to see what we're doing is making a difference. They're starting to believe and totally buy into this is a new program and we're going to get the job done here. I think it's more important for our athletes. Obviously, it's important for the programs, but mostly for the guys who are putting in all the work.
Obviously, you have come from very successful programs having wrestled at Blair Academy and then Iowa. So being No. 1 is the expectation. Now you're a part of a program at Cal Poly that hasn't been contending for national championships as a team. How much emphasis is put on changing kids' attitudes in the program to believe they can compete with the top individuals and teams?
Mark Perry (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)Perry: That has probably been one of the biggest keys to our early-season success and our future success ... expectations. That was one thing I was a little nervous about when I came here. But kids are turning it around. Pretty much what we told them is that we don't want to hear about being All-Americans, NCAA qualifiers, or Pac-10 champions. That's expected. The expectations are to be national champions at each individual weight class. Is that going to happen? No. It never has happened and it's never going to happen. But if each individual is focused on being an NCAA champion, good things are going to happen. There's no reason to set the bar lower than the top. That's the big thing we have stressed. Our kids don't talk about being All-Americans anymore ... They talk about being NCAA champions. Is it going to take time? Yes. But when you have that kind of attitude and mentality, your chances are a lot better.
You're heading out to the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational this weekend. What do you look for out of your team this weekend?
Perry: I think more so than a team aspect, we're looking individually, like I said on the national championship kind of theory. Each guy is going in there trying to win an individual title and the rest will take care of itself. We have some big key matchups. It's an early season tournament, but it's a big indicator of where we are right now ... and where we need to be at the end of the year. Hopefully we're there right now. We believe we're definitely prepared to wrestle with any team in the country. It's just a matter of getting the job done. We're going to see some very tough teams and some extremely talented wrestlers there. We're ready to go. It's just a matter of getting the job done. It's an important step. It's important that we wrestle well and hopefully we're high up there as a team.
On Jaunary 2, you will be heading to Stillwater to wrestle Oklahoma State. How much are you looking forward to that dual meet?
Mark Perry went into the crowd to hug members of his family after winning his first NCAA title in 2007 (Photo/Tech-Fall.com)Perry: It's always nice to go back home and see my family. But it's just another dual meet to me. Early on in college, I put way too much into it. Now it's just another team in the way that we have to be ready for. Against programs like that ... Oklahoma State, Missouri, Iowa State, Iowa ... Whatever it is, any program that is established, has won trophies and has had a lot of success recently and in the past, you're not going to go there and get a fluke win. The expectations are to go there, wrestle hard, and win. You have to take it from programs like that. They're not going to give it to you. We're going to go there, wrestle hard, and again, just focus on each individual and hopefully the outcome is good. I think either way, as long as we compete hard and push the pace, we're making a step forward. That weekend overall is just an important weekend when you wrestle Oklahoma State and OU on back-to-back nights. Those are two programs that have had a lot of success and have a ton of talent right now. We're definitely looking forward to it. It's just another measuring stick of where we are and where we need to be.