A coach doesn’t stop coaching, does he? Even far removed from the wrestling room and nowhere near wrestlers, Zach Tanelli couldn’t help himself. I saw this firsthand during my recent visit to Columbia University within minutes of stepping foot on campus. Tanelli met me just before 10AM, so the entire campus was filled with students heading to or from classes. We headed over to an outdoor elevator to make our way down to the Dodge Fitness Center, home of the Andrew F. Barth Wrestling Room.
Since real estate in Upper Manhattan is extremely valuable many athletic offices and on-campus facilities are underground. An outdoor elevator that the majority of students walk by without a second thought and reminds me of the old TV show (or movie) Get Smart, is our mode of transportation. Tanelli would later tell me that the underground tunnels currently used by the school and athletic department were important during the Manhattan Project.
Tanelli and I got into the elevator along with two student-athletes, presumably from the women’s swim or dive team. One of them was slumped against the elevator wall and sighed, “Man, I don’t wanna go to practice.” Tanelli couldn’t help himself. In a sharp voice that shows hints of his New Jersey roots, Tanelli says, “You can’t say that. You’ve gotta love practice. One day you’ll be working an office job and think how you’d give anything just to have another practice.” The girl reluctantly responded, “Yeah, I know.” Her teammate jumped in and added, “We’ll be fine when we get to the pool and hit the water.”
Even though those were not his student-athletes, Tanelli had to jump in and try to work some of his coaching psychology; honed as an assistant coach at Hofstra and Purdue, before getting hired to lead the Columbia program in July of 2016.
A recurring theme during my visit, one that the swimmers saw firsthand, is that Tanelli is an open book. He reiterated that multiple times during the day. That characteristic is key to the culture of this Columbia team. Without prompting, the first four wrestlers I interviewed after their morning RTC workout, mentioned the excellent culture on this 2023-24 team. Veterans mentioned how it has drastically improved throughout their tenure. Later in the day, I tell Tanelli this and while appreciative, he refuses to take the bulk of the credit for overseeing this growth. He’s quick to credit the wrestlers on the team and how they maintain and foster this team chemistry.
The culture and chemistry starts during the recruiting process with Columbia. Tanelli’s “open book” policy has him and his staff very up-front about expectations during the recruiting phase. The current wrestlers, the ones that host and interact most with potential recruits are also very frank with Tanelli about how a potential recruit may fit in with the current team.
With Columbia being an Ivy League school, Tanelli says, “Most people expect us to have a certain type of Ivy League student-athlete. We appeal less to the bow-tie crowd and more to the blue-collar crowd. Our team is full of really gritty kids that happen to be among the smartest in the entire world.”
The Lion wrestling squad may have some of the smartest kids in the world, but at the end of the day, they’re like most other wrestling teams in the country. After I walk into the wrestling room and Tanelli gives a quick pre-practice talk, they engage in a warm-up that consists of handball. As you would expect, it can get heated, in a friendly, yet intense manner.
During the handful of mini-games, it becomes evident that one of the veterans, 2023 NCAA qualifier Lennox Wolak, and Tanelli have one of those friendly rivalries. There’s constant chatter between the two whenever their teams square off. Later, during the workout when talking wrestling technique, Tanelli claims, “You do this and you’ll be stuck in fourth place…..like Lennox’s team.”
Post-workout, I mentioned to Tanelli how Wolak came up after I was done with my interviews to ask me about my background and talk about his future. He quickly won me over with his outgoing personality, but also his genuine nature. Tanelli agreed and said how the two intensely compete at any activity they can find. While they could team up and win, they both get a weird satisfaction at beating (or losing to) the other.
Jaime Franco leading the team through a workout
The workout itself was one that newly hired assistant coach Jaime Franco led, focusing on top/bottom work. Franco and Tanelli go back to Hofstra together. Tanelli says that Franco, while competing for the Pride, had a maturity that led to everyone calling him “Coach” long before he was officially one.
Since it’s an RTC workout, the Columbia Women’s Club also practices. Emma Randall puts her young women through the paces. Normally, they tend to do similar workouts; however, since it was a top/bottom day, there wasn’t much use for them to participate in riding drills when wrestling freestyle.
Seeing the women’s club wrestling alongside the college team was a nice sight. Many programs talk about helping grow the sport on the women’s side, but this one shares mat space with them.
As the workout winds down, the team focuses on :30 second live go’s on the mat. Once the bottom man escapes, he’s done for the day. As can be the case, one freshman struggles with the task. So much so that Tanelli is going through his post-workout talk as the young man is still fighting to get out from the bottom and redoing his : 30-second go’s. Eventually, he gets it and joins the team.
Related to that situation with the freshman, Tanelli addresses a few of his teammates. “When he was struggling on the bottom. After the drill was over, you guys were whispering in his ear. I love you guys and you’re good for doing it, but stop! You can’t do that in a match, I can’t do that in a match. He’s gonna have to figure it out on his own. We want to fail here, so we don’t fail out in a match. We have a great culture and there’s a time to pick up your teammate and a time to not do it.”
The moment was kind of harsh for a group of good teammates who were trying to pick up a struggling brother. But, after thinking about it, wrestling is a harsh sport. Many, many freshmen struggle the most from the bottom. The “warm-fuzzy” approach is probably best after practice or before another workout, not on the mat itself.
Zach Tanelli addressing the team post-practice
As Tanelli finishes with his lesson regarding the freshman, RTC athlete Anthony Ashnault asks if he can chime in. Ashnault tells the team about his true freshman year at Rutgers. Despite developing the reputation as one of the better mat wrestlers of his era, Ashnault says it was “December before he was getting out on bottom.” He claimed to have cried and pouted after practices wondering if he’d ever be able to consistently get out. With a 2019 NCAA title under his belt, semi-local ties, and a collegiate career recent enough that these team members likely followed, Ashnault has the street cred to get through to the squad.
I didn’t realize it initially, but I got to see Tanelli’s “open book” attitude along with his team’s culture on display for my own eyes. Many teams and coaches may preach these traits, but don’t always apply them.
As I prepped for the visit, one question I was looking to answer was “Where is the team’s mindset after a strong 2022-23 season?” Columbia sent a program-high six wrestlers to the 2023 NCAA Tournament, had eight EIWA placewinners, and established a new program-high for points at the EIWA Tournament. They also have a preseason national ranking for the first time. Tanelli and a handful of team members are quick to acknowledge last year’s accomplishments, but also have higher goals this year and in the future.
Columbia is located in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights. The main campus spans over six city blocks; however, once on campus, you almost forget you’re in New York City. As we’re walking away from the famous Low Memorial Library, Tanelli, who knows I’m a baseball fan, points out an area that used to be the baseball field. He points to some building in the distance and says how “Lou Gehrig used to hit dingers off those.” The Iron Horse played for two years at Columbia before going on to a Hall of Fame career with the Yankees.
The famous "Tom's"
Earlier in the morning, as I was circling the area looking for a parking garage, I hit a red light. It turned out to be perfect timing as “Tom’s Restaurant” was facing me. I snapped a picture because it looked familiar, I felt like I knew it from somewhere. Later on, I’d confirm that it was the diner used for exterior shots while filming “Seinfeld.”
The string of unexpected, welcome coincidences continued after lunch and walking around campus with Tanelli. As we got back to his office to record our interview, US Women’s Freestyle National Team Head Coach Terry Steiner stopped by. He wasn’t in town for business, as he was assisting his daughter who recently moved into the city. With some free time, he figured he’d quickly drop in.
When you’re in New York City, I guess those types of situations are commonplace. “Hey, that's where a Yankee legend used to play, look a restaurant from an iconic TV show, and one of the most important figures in USA Wrestling.” It's all just another day following the nation’s oldest collegiate wrestling program, one that could be on its way to becoming a new power in the Ivy League and beyond.
Below are our interviews from the visit: