Lucas Byrd after winning the 2021 NCAA fifth-place match (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
On Thursday, the wrestling world was shocked by the retirement of Illinois head coach Jim Heffernan. Coach Heffernan had been at the helm of the Fighting Illini program since the 2009-10 season and was an assistant coach at the school for 17 years prior. Needless to say, Heffernan has been synonymous with Illinois wrestling for generations of wrestlers.
Heffernan's departure has led to plenty of speculation between wrestling fans as to who the Illini's next head coach will be. Before InterMat plays that guessing game, we've decided to outline precisely what the new leader will have to work with. What does the opening have going for it and what will need to improve going forward? Those questions and many others are answered below.
The Big Ten speaks for itself. Any vacancy in the Big Ten will elicit interest from top-tier coaching candidates. Blue-chip assistants and current head coaches-alike. The name-brand recognition when recruiting, as well as the in-conference schedule, are attractive to big-time recruits. In addition to the schedule, the number of national qualifiers is always intriguing. In other conferences, low-level competition (low RPI numbers) coupled with only one or two automatic qualifying slots, make it challenging to push wrestlers through to nationals. No need to worry about either in the Big Ten.
It's relatively rare for Big Ten jobs to open, so whenever one presents itself, most coaching candidates tend to pounch. Since 2015, only seven head coaching hires have been made in the conference. Of those seven, five went to an assistant already on staff (Angel Escobedo - Indiana, Sean Bormet - Michigan, Roger Chandler - Michigan State, Brandon Eggum - Minnesota, Matt Storniolo - Northwestern). Only Maryland (Alex Clemsen) and Wisconsin (Chris Bono) went outside of their existing staff. With highly qualified assistants like Jeremy Hunter and Mike Poeta on staff, there's the possibility that Illinois stays in-house, too.
While we'll get into the facilities and salaries later, as a whole, the Big Ten is going to be at minimum competitive with each of these areas, which helps it look attractive to potential coaching candidates.
Illinois is a public institution located in Champaign, Illinois, with over 30,000 undergraduates. US News and World Report's latest rankings had Illinois ranked 47th nationally and 15th among public universities. Only Michigan and Wisconsin were among public Big Ten schools ranked higher. Northwestern ranks higher when factoring in private schools in the league. That bodes well for recruiting, which has trended towards academically strong institutions in recent years. In particular, Illinois' engineering program is well thought of, ranking sixth nationally.
Provided there is no mass exodus after the next head coach is announced, there is plenty of talent returning for the Fighting Illini. Illinois had five national qualifiers in 2021 and four of them were either freshmen or sophomores. The only senior was All-American Dylan Duncan. At this time, there is no news about whether Duncan intends to return for the 2021-22 campaign. The second All-American last season was Lucas Byrd, who was just named to InterMat's All-Freshman team years. While Lucas emerged late in the year this season, he should develop into a consistent national title threat for the Illini. The remaining three qualifiers are all sophomores. Heavyweight Luke Luffman and the Brauangel twins, Danny and Zac. Luffman was a true sophomore, while the Braunagels have used redshirts.
After the big five is Justin Cardani, who qualified for nationals in 2020, at 125 lbs, along with Matt Wroblewski. Matt is a junior 197 lber that spent the bulk of the year in the national rankings. This nucleus helped Illinois to a 5-3 dual record in 2021 and should keep the Illini competitive against almost anyone not named Iowa or Penn State. Illinois started the 2021 campaign off with four consecutive wins over Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Purdue. Their final win came during the last two weeks of the year, against in-state rival Northwestern.
Looking past the leading returners for Illinois, the cupboard is far from bare as they have been able to keep some in-state talent at home after the return of Poeta in the summer of 2017. Most likely to take a leap in 2021-22 is Danny Pucino, who could be Duncan's successor. Pucino was 6-0 at 141 lbs last season (0-1 at 149) and logged a win over national qualifier Dylan D'Emilio (Ohio State), 12-7. Luke Odom was a true freshman in 2021 and went 2-3 between 157 and 165 lbs. While all three losses came to legit competition, Odom's closest margin in those defeats was six points. Others like E'lan Heard and Trey Sizemore were highly touted coming out of high school and have lots of potential.
The Illini also has a promising class of incoming freshmen. If the current coaching staff is retained, I'd expect most of them to continue to Champaign. It's hard to tell if they will matriculate if an outside crew is hired. Leading the way is Dylan Connell (Marian Central, IL) and Maximo Renteria (Buchanan, CA). Both were not able to get a chance to win their fourth state title this year. With Illinois having a long history of pulling in California kids and Renteria's high school coach an alum (Troy Tirapelle), he may not be swayed by the idea of having a new staff. Another incoming freshman is Joe Braunagel (Althoff Catholic, IL). It's safe to say that he probably comes in, provided the rest of his family is satisfied with the school/staff.
In a general sense, the facilities available for Illinois are fine. They would compare favorably to most programs in the nation. With 22 All-Americans in the last decade and a pair of two-time national champions (Jesse Delgado and Isaiah Martinez), the pieces are in place for high-caliber wrestlers to thrive in Champaign. The only problem is that many of their rivals have opened shiny, state-of-the-art gigantic facilities over the past couple of years. Others, like Iowa, have one in the pipeline. More than anything, these are a huge recruiting tool, more than a necessity to develop talent. There's also the underlying belief (whether it's true or not), that an administration or alumni support the program enough to build a stand-alone structure that houses six mats (for instance).
Since the facilities don't exactly match up with the Penn State's, Ohio State's, and Minnesota's of the conference, someone on the new staff will need to be a master recruiter; one that able to convince top recruits to sign, even without the fancy bells and whistles.
According to the University of Illinois' "Gray Book," Heffernan's salary was just north of $195,000. Provided a similar amount is offered to the next head coach, that amount should be enough to pique the interest of most, if not all, assistant coaches and many current head coaches. Often, when a coaching position opens at a smaller institution, the head coach's salary offer does not approach that of the first assistants at Big Ten programs.
The athletic department is led by AD Josh Whitman who has been with the school since February of 2016. Whitman played football at Illinois before stints with a handful of NFL teams in the early 2000's. Under Whitman's direction, the school has hired a basketball coach (Brad Underwood) that has taken the Illini from 11th in the B1G during the 2017-18 season, to second in 2020-21. This December, Whitman hired Bret Bielema to head their football program. Bielema was previously in the Big Ten at Wisconsin from 2006-12, where he led the Badgers to a pair of Rose Bowl appearances. After spending five years in charge of the Arkansas program, Bielema worked as a position coach for two NFL teams until his hire by Whitman. Whitman also hired Bielema's predecessor, Lovie Smith, who was famous for leading the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl.
During searches for wrestling coaches, I like to look at the athletic directors hiring tendencies for other sports (especially high-profile ones) to see if there's any pattern. With Whitman's most scrutinized hires (football/basketball), he has preferred prior head coaching experience. Underwood was Oklahoma State's head coach before he was hired and women's basketball coach, Nancy Fahey, was already in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Women's gymnastics coach Nadalie Walsh also had a long resume as a head coach.
Those trends were broken with the hire of women's volleyball head coach Chris Tamas, previously an assistant at Nebraska, and women's tennis coach Evan Clark. Evan had been an assistant coach with the Illini before getting elevated to the head position.
Trying to read between the lines, Whitman probably values head coaching experience. And why wouldn't he? The hire of women's tennis coach Evan Clark, leaves open the possibility of selecting either Hunter or Poeta. However, with so many great assistant coaches potentially interested in this job, it wouldn't be surprising to see Whitman break his tendencies and go with a new face rather than experience.
The Recruiting Base
Aside from the conference, one of the most critical factors Illinois has going for it is the strength of its in-state talent. Any prospective coach would love to hop into a situation with so much DI talent within its borders. While it's possible to win at a high level without being in a wrestling hotbed (Arizona State, Virginia Tech, North Carolina/NC State), most would pick the fertile grounds of Illinois if given the opportunity.
In 2021, 29 Illinois natives qualified for the NCAA Championships. Seven of them went on to earn All-American honors. In sort of a weird, fluke occurrence, North Carolina's Austin O'Connor became the first Illinois native to win an NCAA title since his coach, Tony Ramos, did so in 2014. You have to go back to 2003 to find an Illinois native who won a title wrestling for the Illini (Matt Lackey). Though there's a ton of talent in-state, few have managed to win national championships, though, again, it's probably just an odd stat.
For years, fans have thought Illinois needed to keep talent at home. Generally, they've been able to keep a large chunk of kids in-state. For instance, all eight of their 2020 national qualifiers were homegrown recruits. That statement should be amended to keeping the elite talent at home. Along with O'Connor going to North Carolina, a pair of blue-chippers that finished in the top-four in St. Louis for Iowa were Jacob Warner and Tony Cassioppi. Both are from Illinois.
To entice the top-25 type kids to stay at home, there needs to be a different "aura" surrounding the program. Similar to the feeling that Tom Ryan instilled at Ohio State when he took over in 2006. Before Ryan, did the Buckeyes keep strong talent at home? Sure, but they were also just as likely to leave. That's why, as mentioned before, someone with an inane ability to recruit and bond with the Illinois high schoolers needs to be on staff, whether as the head coach or assistant(s). Poeta had five years of experience on the club level before coming back to the college ranks and it has shown with an uptick in recruiting. They need to continue this and expand on it. The "We Will Win" mantra from Whitman's office, along with the renewed excitement surrounding the football and basketball programs, could trickle into the minds of prospective wrestling recruits down the line.