InterMat caught up with Ludwig and talked to him about why he is the right fit for the position, whether people put too emphasis on wrestling credentials when evaluating coaches, how he should be evaluated as a head wrestling coach, and much more.
You were recently hired to lead the Northern Illinois wrestling program. This is your first opportunity to be a head wrestling coach. Why do you feel you are the right person to lead the Northern Illinois program?
Ludwig: I feel that I'm the right person to lead the program here at Northern Illinois not only because of my drive, but also because of my experience here at the school. I have great relationships within the athletic department and school, and also with our wrestlers. I really think that between my assistant coaches and me, we have the right vision and the right determination and work ethic to take this program to the next level.
You had a lot of success as a college wrestler at the NAIA level, finishing as a three-time All-American and national runner-up, but never competed at the Division I level. Do you think people put too much emphasis on wrestling credentials when evaluating coaches?
Ryan LudwigLudwig: I do. I don't think necessarily that it always translates as far as your success as a wrestler versus what kind of coach you're going to be. Ultimately, you have to have a vast knowledge of wrestling. But I also think that guys who things haven't come as naturally for understand what it takes to progress through the different levels of wrestling to get better, to stick with your training, to believe in the program, and to ultimately reach your goals. I think that typically when you're dealing with most kids coming into the wrestling world, they've got a lot of improving to do, whether it be physically, mentally, or technique-wise, and as a coach you have to know how to get there. Having all the ability in the world and being blessed with certain gifts that make things easier in your life may not quite translate as far as understanding how to coach a kid who might not have those certain gifts.
What are some of the changes that will happen in the program with the coaching change?
Ludwig: First and foremast, there's an extreme level of excitement about the program right now. There's a lot of excitement and enthusiasm in the air. We've got tremendous leadership, not only from the coaching staff, but also from our leaders within the team. There have been elevated levels of training in the offseason that have really elevated the levels of some of our guys. We are already seeing differences. Expectation levels have risen ... That is coming from the coaching staff and also within the peers. I think generally here, with a fresh look and some fresh excitement and some higher expectations, I think the air and the excitement in the Northern Illinois wrestling room right now is at an all-time high and we're excited about this year.
Northern Illinois is viewed by many as a potential goldmine because it is one of only three Division I programs in a powerhouse wrestling state and it is surrounded by some strong wrestling states. How much potential do you think the program has at Northern Illinois?
Ludwig: I think there is a vast amount of potential here. We're very excited about that, especially being in a state like Illinois. Obviously, it's a traditional high school wrestling powerhouse state. These kids are top-notch kids here. We start recruiting in the state. We're looking to build our recruiting base from these kids in the state. We're getting some fresh looks from some in-state kids that we're really excited about. That hasn't been the case in a couple years. Being in the Midwest, we're surrounded by states that are traditional powerhouses. With the amount of Division I opportunities out there, I think there are a lot of kids who will be taking a hard look at Northern Illinois.
What are some obstacles that Northern Illinois' wrestling program faces?
Ludwig: I would say basically the same obstacles most programs face. We're going to bring our kids in and train them as hard as possible. Obviously, when you're sitting in the middle of Big Ten country, there are those kind of aspects as far as recruiting the same kind of kids as they are. You obviously want to get top-notch athletes and things like that. I try not to look so much at what our challenges are. I try to look at what our opportunities are. We're offering an elite training environment, a Division I opportunity. We're in the heart of the Midwest. I think within time and selecting the right recruits, we're going to be in the running with all the teams around us.
I saw a quote recently from UFC fighter Jacob Volkmann where he talks about his opponent, who wrestled at the NAIA level. Volkmann said of his opponent, "He's an NAIA wrestler. You know what NAIA is? It's like a high school wrestler, so it's like a college wrestler going against a high school wrestler." As a former NAIA wrestler, what do you make of that quote?
Ryan Ludwig (Photo/NIU Media Services)Ludwig: I think to downplay wrestling at any level is a bit risky as far as keeping programs and building our sport. I have a tremendous amount of respect for wrestling, period. Wrestling is the same, whether it be junior college or Division I. Of course, the bulk of the talent is in the Division I level. But everybody at every level is working as hard as they possibly can and wrestling the toughest opponents that they can. I have nothing but respect for wrestling at all levels. For anybody who can through a season and train as hard as these guys do, to have anything less than mutual respect for any wrestler out there is ridiculous.
The Northern Illinois program has produced seven All-Americans at the Division I level in wrestling. The last Northern Illinois wrestler to become an All-American in wrestling is Ben Heizer in 2004. How important is it for the program to get wrestlers on the podium in March?
Ludwig: It's extremely important. As a matter of fact, that's one of our primary goals. I think we've got a great shot at doing that this year. We're super excited about that opportunity. We've got some guys working very hard for that goal, not only get on the stand, but to get to the top of the stand. In any program, especially when you're trying to break through to a new level, not only recruiting-wise but competitive-wise, it's always one of your primary goals to get a guy on the stand at the All-American level. Not only that, but also in the conference we're looking to do big things. This conference has become a power. If we can do things within our conference, I think that's going to translate nationally as well.
Northern Illinois finished 5-11 in dual meets last season and qualified two wrestlers for the NCAAs. One of those wrestlers, Brad Dieckhaus, returns this season. What is the outlook for the program this coming season?
Ryan Ludwig (Photo/NIU Media Services)Ludwig: We're really optimistic about this year. Of course, Brad Dieckhaus is returning at 184. He's a tremendous leader. He really has his head in the right spot. He really tries to get his teammates motivated. He's an absolute workhorse. He has his eyes and his mind on the prize this year. He's looking to do big things. He has been training his tail off this summer. I'm excited about what he's capable of next year.
We're looking kind of exciting in the lower weights. Nick Smith returns as a true sophomore down at 125. He had 22 wins last year as a true freshman. He got a little dinged up at the end of the year. We were hoping to get him to the tournament, but he just got a little bit too nicked up at the end of the year. But he had a great season for us as a true freshman.
An exciting transfer is Rob Jillard from Liberty University. The kid has a lot of potential. He is kind of an unorthodox wrestler, but I think with the right training and being in an environment here where he's going to be wrestling the kind of teammates pushing him every day, he's looking to break through.
Another kid that I'm looking for big things from this year is Kevin Fanta. He's a former state champion here in Illinois. I'm looking for a breakthrough year for Kevin. He has been spending a lot of time in the weight room this summer, making a lot of gains. Pretty powerful kid.
It will be interesting to see how things shake out at 149. It's going to be someone young, but we also feel that it will be somebody talented. We've got Matt Smith, who will be a redshirt freshman for us. He's from Allegan, Mich. He's a guy who won quite a few matches in redshirt last year and we think that he could possibly be a frontrunner for that position.
At 157, we lose Bryan Deutsch to graduation. He was a three-time national qualifier for us. It always hurts to lose someone like Bryan because he was a real soldier, but I think we've got some talented, hard-working kids coming up behind him. Sam Bennett is going to be a redshirt freshman that is looking to fill that role. I also look for Ty Loethen, an incoming freshman from Missouri, to possibly challenge for that spot too.
At 165, Matt Mougin is returning for us. He dealt with a few injuries last year. He's getting healthy this year. We're looking for him to make some strides this year at 165.
Ryan Ludwig (Photo/NIU Media Services)At 174, Caleb Busson out of Wadsworth, Ohio, is the frontrunner for that position. He was kind of thrown out there in the middle of the year last year. Our starter got injured and we called on Caleb to be the starter ... He kind of went in as a baptism by fire. He had a few rough goes, took a few lumps, but started to piece some things together at the end of the year and actually placed at the MAC tournament. So we're excited about his potential. He's been working hard this summer too, spending a lot of time in the weight room and wrestling room.
Again at 184, we've got Brad Dieckhaus, returning MAC champion.
At 197, we look for some contested battles there as far as the starter. We have a MAC placer in Mike Lukowski returning as a senior, but I expect some younger guys to also challenge for that spot.
At heavyweight, we will have a new face in there as far as the last couple years go. A kid named Jared Torrence, who is a bit of an unknown, but a super hard-working kid with a lot of hustle. I think he may surprise some people this year.
So I would say our strength right now is probably the lower weights, but I think we've got some guys in there who are really going to open some eyes and do some big things for us.
How do you believe that you should be evaluated as head wrestling coach at Northern Illinois?
Ludwig: I think if you've got your kids doing the right things, behaving themselves, working hard ... I would say the key word is progress, making the right strides to where you want to be on a yearly basis, making improvements, doing the right things in the classroom and the community, and also raising your level of wrestling each year, I think that's the key to evaluation. I'm a guy who wants to build this program correctly and with the right kind of people. If that's not translated to overnight success, that's OK with me. It's constant progress to where we want to be. I think ultimately if we do that the right way, we'll be successful not only for one year, but for years to come.