2020 NWCA All-American Real Woods (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Earlier this offseason, we took a look under the hood and talked about everything associated with the vacant Illinois job. With Stanford wrestling saved and looking for a head coach, it seems logical to investigate all that comes along with the wrestling program at Stanford. No two collegiate jobs are the same and you'll notice that if you read the Illinois feature. There are some positives for Stanford that weren't there for Illinois and vice versa.
In early July of 2020, the Stanford athletic department announced that they were cutting wrestling along with ten other sports, effective at the end of the 2020-21 season. That gave the supporters of the program enough time to rally the troops and raise a dollar amount that was in the eight figures. Despite a limited schedule and practice availability, the team had a successful national tournament and saw the program's second national champion crowned (Shane Griffith). Once the season concluded, head coach Jason Borrelli took the vacant head coaching position at American University. Just last week, the school announced that wrestling, along with the other ten teams, would be spared and the wrestling community rejoined.
Immediately after the decision, we released an article with seven great candidates for the Stanford job. Now the question is, what are any of them, or other candidates walking into? What do they inherit? What is good about the job? What are some potential pitfalls? We've tried to outline that below as we look inside the Stanford head coaching position.
Simply put, this is a huge wild card. Most new head coaches can expect some sort of attrition, whether they'll admit it or not. It's natural. When you've wrestled under a head coach that does things a certain way, many student-athletes get used to it and don't want to adjust. Conversely, coaches typically don't want to deal with a kid that doesn't want to be in his room. So we've got that, along with the unique complexities that come along with this Stanford position.
A large chunk of the Cardinal roster is currently in the transfer portal. Based on the head coaching hire, some may return, while others will continue to seek other options. This is a totally unique predicament for a coach to inherit. They could have a young roster that saw a pair of wrestlers make the NCAA podium (one national champion), which led to a 17th place finish at nationals. Or they could have a bare-bones roster that will be lucky to be competitive in year one.
The 2021 Stanford team sent seven wrestlers to the national tournament. Only two were seniors, Requir van der Merwe (157) and Nathan Traxler (285). Since Traxler has been linked to the transfer portal, one could assume he wants to use his additional year of eligibility. Van der Merwe we're not sure about, at this point. The remaining national qualifiers consist of sophomores, Jackson DiSario, Real Woods, and Shane Griffith, along with freshmen Jaden Abas and Nick Stemmet. All except DiSario and Stemmet are said to be in the portal.
Getting a coach from in-house may help to limit the floodgates from opening in the transfer portal. If the administration goes outside of the Cardinal family, who's to say what happens. Additionally, some members of the squad have taken extremely cumbersome course loads in preparation to graduate early and transfer out of the program. If they have already received their degree, or will do so soon, they may be more likely to leave. Or they could enter a grad program at Stanford. Again, lots of moving parts are at play here.
Another factor to consider is that they have no incoming recruiting class. Since the announcement to cut the program was made in July of 2020, the staff obviously did not sign any recruits this year. We'll see if any walk-on's turn up.
Stanford is an actual member of a Power-Five conference, the Pac-12. There are three other affiliate members of the conference for wrestling purposes (Cal Poly, CSU Bakersfield, Little Rock). The west coast has been hit hard over the past decade (and before) with wrestling programs that have been eliminated. Stanford almost joined a list that includes, Fresno State, Boise State, and Cal-State Fullerton. Fresno State was never a member of the Pac-12, but the loss of Boise State, Fullerton, and many others have left the league with only six teams overall.
While the Pac-12 has endured some lean years, it appears to be on the upswing. After only have 17 wrestlers qualify for the 2020 national tournament and 20 in 2019, 27 wrestlers from the conference competed in St. Louis this March. Furthermore, a pair of Pac-12 wrestlers (Brandon Courtney - Arizona State and Griffith) appeared in the national finals. The last time more than one wrestler from the Pac-12 made the NCAA Championship match was in 2011 (five). Additionally, Arizona State won a team trophy (finishing fourth at NCAA's) for the first time since 1994-95.
So Arizona State returns a loaded team poised to challenge for a spot in the top-four again. Oregon State has a renewed sense of enthusiasm after the 2020 hire of Chris Pendleton. In addition to six national qualifiers returning, the Beavers have added three transfers with prior NCAA experience. Cal Poly returns an NCAA semifinalist and head coach Jon Sioreads (and staff) have been crushing in-state recruiting for a few years now. CSU Bakersfield has elevated Luke Smith to a head coaching role and their program tends to get a lot out of its wrestlers. Finally, the newest member, Little Rock. In their second year of competition, Neil Erisman's team qualified its first wrestler for nationals. He has also been tearing up the recruiting trail and the fruits of his labor should be evident soon on the mat.
Why does this matter to Stanford? NCAA qualifying bids and competition. The years with only 14 or 15 automatic qualifying spots available, leave little room for error at the conference meet. One slip-up could essentially end your season. With higher quality wrestlers in the league, more bids are available and more can be stolen from other conferences after upsets at the Pac-12 Tournament. Also the competition aspect. Iron sharpens Iron. The Big Ten beats up on each other all year and hardens each other for when it really counts at nationals. It's beneficial to Stanford and its conference members to have to defeat a potential All-American in the P12 finals, rather than cruise by a technical fall.
The Stanford brand is very strong and very enticing for high school students that are focused on more than just wrestling. Stanford is a private institution in Palo Alto, California. It is one of the most selective in the country (in terms of acceptance rates - 4%) and is on par with most Ivy League schools.
Even before the stench of this cutting sports debacle has worn off, many parents of academic-minded student-athletes, will probably overlook this ordeal and send their kids to a school with Stanford's academic reputation and brand name.
While the 2020-21 tuition was very high ($56,000+), the school has plenty of financial aid, need-based scholarships, and grant packages available. According to US News, over 90% of those surveyed said their financial needs were fully met by the school.
The current Stanford facilities are definitely enough to get the job done, as evidenced by their success on the mat in 2021. Would they be better off with some more of the latest bells and whistles that many Power-Five programs feature? Probably. Would the next head coach like to have some upgrades? Sure. With the new money coming into the program, maybe that happens.
As we mentioned above, Stanford is typically recruiting against the Ivies, Northwestern's, and Virginia's of the world. I'm not sure if having a brand-new, beautiful locker or more comfy leather seats in the team room sways a recruits opinion, when weighing these institutes against each other. It doesn't hurt having those new features and coaches will push for them, but the education, alumni connections, and the product on the mat speaks for itself.
Rumors have leaked out about possible salary offers to highly sought-after candidates. If these figures are accurate (or even close to correct), the Stanford administration should have no problem landing a big fish in the head coaching role.
The Administration. How will they support wrestling going forward? That's the 12 or 13 or 14 million dollar question. Those are reportedly the amounts raised by supporters of the program.
Quite frankly, the school and the athletic department disrespected and ignored the wrestling program for almost a calendar year. There was little fanfare from the school after Griffith national title win and there were no discussions between the team, its alumni, and the decision-makers until late April of 2021. Had the support from the alumni and members of other sport not been so immense (physically and financially), the athletic department would be okay with letting the program die a slow death.
During the interview process, potential head coaches have to pepper the interviewer with questions about the future of the program and how their bosses will support them going forward. While most coaches are aware of how their program falls on the athletic department hierarchy (Football, Basketball, everything else at most schools), the Cardinal administration showed their lack of interest and respect for wrestling. While potential candidates from within the current staff have their finger on the pulse of the situation, anyone from outside of the Stanford coaching ranks needs to do their due diligence.
The department is "led" by athletic director Bernard Muir. He has been on the job for eight years. Stanford has continued to collect the Learfield IMG College Director's Cup during his tenure, which is presented to the athletic department deemed most successful in the nation. The school has long prided itself on an extensive, diverse athletic program, which made the potential cuts of 2020 so confounding.
Earlier this year, Muir was implicated by fired ex-sailing coach as being knowledgeable about a scandal surrounding the program and athletic department that involved bribing coaches to secure wealthy children's admissions to the school. So far, the fallout from this scandal has not officially affected Muir.
At the end of the day, the money raised by the supporters of the wrestling program should be able to help alleviate the concerns about the future of the team. The less input from and reliance on the current administration, the better.
The Recruiting Base
While Stanford is located in California, which is traditionally one of the top wrestling states in the nation, that shouldn't mean as much as with other jobs. Based on name and academic reputation, Stanford can recruit more on a national basis. Only 9 of the 32 members of the 2020-21 roster hail from California. It's great to have that local talent available, if needed, but the staff tends to look outside its borders more than most other schools in power states.
The connection with Ray Blake (Chicago native) and Alex Tirapelle (Illinois grad) has led to a nice pipeline from Illinois. Two members of the current roster (Stemmet and Traxler) are from Illinois, while Woods went to high school in the state. Stemmet was the fourth different Illinois native to qualify for nationals representing Stanford since 2017.
Oregon has provided Stanford with some of its best wrestlers in program history. 2004 NCAA champion Matt Gentry along with two-time national runner-up Nick Amuchastegui hailed from Oregon. As did, 2011 AA Zack Giesen. Two Oregon natives are currently on the Stanford roster. We'll see if the Pendleton regime at Oregon State cuts into this for the Cardinal.
You may not associate New Jersey with being a natural place for Stanford to recruit, but they have some success stories there, as well. Not only did Griffin come from perennial power Bergen Catholic, but van der Merwe and the program's first freshman All-American, Joey McKenna, went to Blair Academy. Aside from Griffith and van der Merwe, there were two others from Jersey on the team in 2021.