The Mountain Hawks of Lehigh University have had a long tradition of wrestling. Located in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the university sits on South Mountain overlooking the historic city, which came to prominence during the Industrial Revolution as a steel-production town. In conjunction, the surrounding area was known to have some of the largest cement plants in the world, for a period of time. Generations of hard-working families representing these blue-collar jobs has led to, arguably, the biggest hotbed of wrestling in the entire country. The University’s nickname is fitting for the only Division I wrestling program located the Lehigh Valley.
Any wrestling junkie can tell you the historical impact this area has had on the sport of wrestling. This is why, in 2008, when the head coaching position at Lehigh University opened up, Pat Santoro jumped at the opportunity. Coach Pat Santoro said, “Getting back home was pretty big for both of us. The opportunity to coach back in the Lehigh Valley was really big. And, we know what’s capable here.” The “us” Santoro is referring to is his longtime assistant, Brad Dillon. Brad grew up in the Lehigh Valley, and attended Lehigh, earning All-American status twice. Santoro grew up in Bethlehem, and attended Pitt where he was 2X NCAA Champ, and 4X All-American. Interestingly enough, Santoro’s father, uncle, and brother all wrestled for Lehigh. Some may still wonder why Pat did not follow in family footsteps to attend the university to wrestle there himself… Regardless, he’s here now leading the brown and white.
At the time of the hire, Santoro became just the eighth Head Coach in the program’s 99-year history. As the program reaches its 115th season, it goes to show the loyalty to the program each coach brings to the table. It speaks volumes to the tradition of it. Also, this job is not used as a “stepping stone” to move onto another, “better” program. Lehigh has always been that better program. This has been the cream of the crop, in terms of head coaching jobs in all of NCAA wrestling. It is no secret that Santoro was chosen to lead Lehigh based on his previous coaching credentials.
Coach Santoro coached for five years at the University of Maryland. His long-time wingman, Brad Dillon, was his assistant there for four of them. It took some convincing from Santoro, as he smirked “He (Brad) was going to go to dental school… I tricked him into a life of not making money and long hours.” Both were vital in the resurgence of the program, winning the conference title in 2008 – the school’s first ACC title since 1993. It was quite a shock to Coach Dillon’s system, “Coming from Lehigh where we were a top-five NCAA team (as a competitor), and going to a team without a single qualifier was very different.” It seems like this was a positive step for them – needing to learn how to dig deep and really look in the mirror to find a way to recruit, develop, and coach to improve a program that needed a complete culture change. To be blunt, they had to do more with less - in terms of talent, support, and other things that Maryland could not provide at the time. This made the transition to Lehigh much easier, in my opinion.
from left: Evan Henderson, Brad Dillon, and Pat Santoro; Photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com
Both coaches loved being at Maryland. “I loved those guys. The wrestlers, staff, everybody,” Santoro stated. It was no accident that Maryland secured three All-Americans the first year after Santoro and Dillon left. The team they helped build earned 10th place at NCAAs in 2009. It’s incredible once you realize the team Santoro took over five years prior had zero national qualifiers. Coincidentally enough, the coach who took over for Santoro at Maryland was Kerry McCoy. Coach McCoy is now the head coach at the Lehigh Valley Wrestling Club – the Regional Olympic Training Center based out of Bethlehem, PA. It’s a small world sometimes.
When highlighting some of the good and bad times at Lehigh, it was no shock to me that two low points for them were off the mat issues. If you need an example of a staff who really encapsulates “there’s more to life than wrestling” this is the staff. Two different, and very unfortunate, career-ending diseases forced two top recruits to give up the sport before ever really getting started in brown and white. First, Eric Hess of Benton, Pennsylvania, was forced to medically excuse himself from the sport while he battled Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Secondly, Austin Meys of Shenendehowa, NY, was an NCAA qualifier his true freshman year before he was sidelined with an illness named Guillain-Barré (Ghee-YAN Bah-RAY) syndrome. This rare disorder causes your immune system to mistakenly attack your nervous system, leading to a variety of issues in your peripheral nerves.
Obviously, this is horrible for any team to go through. Strangely enough, both stud high school wrestlers were teammates. Austin graduated high school in 2009, while Eric was a 2010 high school graduate.
What a challenging environment the team must have been in – worried about the health of friends while training at a high level in order to achieve their dreams. This is all while two star-studded individuals had to give up on their dreams and focus on an entirely different life battle. Thankfully, both guys are much improved and living normal lives. Looking back at the much-less important wrestling aspect, this did hinder the team in a way. While Eric and Austin were focused on their health, they were still under a full scholarship (if not full – close to it). As unfortunate as it sounds, the team was forced to compete down two full-ride scholarships until they both graduated (approximately $120,000 +/- per season in total).
Typically, once a wrestler is deemed medically incapable of competing, that scholarship money is transferred out of the wrestling team allotment – this was not the case at the time. It goes without saying again, the health and safety of these athletes was much more important than scholarship money – but the fact remains that two scholarships were essentially unused for wrestling in competition.
Thankfully, Eric and Austin did not have their scholarships dropped because they couldn’t compete. This would have been a huge financial burden on top of their life-altering situation. It’s unfortunate, and horrific timing – but the staff and administration did the correct thing.
There are too many on-the-mat achievements to mention, I’ll provide them at the end of the article. A few highlights during the Santoro-Dillon era include two National Champions (Darian Cruz and Zach Rey), 33 All-Americans, 34 EIWA Champions, and 4 straight EIWA team titles – just to name a few. The Mountain Hawks average 7.8 national qualifiers per season and have had an All-American at each of the 10 weight classes. Some off-the-mat accolades include 36 NWCA Academic All-Americans, producing a new wrestling facility, and increasing the fanbase.
If you’ve never been to the wrestling facility, named the Caruso Complex, it’s highly recommended. The $4.2Million space was fully-funded by donors, and includes all things wrestling under one roof – including an athletic training room, locker rooms, weight rooms, offices, etc. It is one of the handful of athletic venues dedicated solely to wrestling across the country. The Wall of Fame includes portraits of All-Americans, highlighting the success they deserve.
While on campus, be sure to go on match day. A wrestling dual inside Grace Hall is one of the coolest atmospheres in all of NCAA wrestling. It doesn’t have a large capacity, but it is very intimate. The fan base is literally right on top of the action – surrounding the abnormally large brown and white mat on four sides. The fans are practically within arm’s reach of the wrestlers. The visiting wrestlers may say the fans are too close – I can see that agreement with that statement, speaking from experience. It gets intense out there! Lehigh can also host matches at the much-larger Stabler Arena on campus, which can hold up to 6,000 people. If you’ve attended EIWAs at Lehigh, one can see the size of the arena. They’ve even hosted a match against Penn State at the PPL Center in Allentown, which houses roughly 10,000 fans.
Let’s recap – what does Lehigh have? Great location to recruit from – check. Incredible, experienced staff – check. Rich tradition – check. Updated facilities – check. I asked the bold question, “what is it going to take to get Lehigh back into the top 5 or top 10?” The coaches assured me they were not that far off – and I cannot argue with them. The team tied for 20th utilizing one placewinner, Josh Humphreys at 157lbs. (Fun fact: Humphreys did not give up a single takedown all NCAA tournament – only losing in the semifinals by a reversal and riding time point to eventual champ Austin O’Connor of UNC).
Michael Beard was a round of 12 finisher, after battling through an injury late in the season. This was all while Connor McGonagle, who spent most of the season ranked inside the top-5, missed NCAAs after tearing up his knee pretty badly at EIWAs. I know excuses are what they are – but a healthy Lehigh team is most-likely nearing the top 10 with 3 placers. Neither coach was thrilled about me making excuses for them, but I feel this was important to touch on. This team is always one injury, or one match result away, from being back inside the top-10.
What about the future of the program? What does it look like, according to Santoro and Dillon? The future is very bright if you are a Mountain Hawk fan. For starters, the school has recently allowed “stacking” of scholarships – simply meaning an athlete can now have both an academic and athletic scholarship. This seems to be a trend more universities are allowing and I’m not sure why it’s taken this long. This enables much more flexibility in awarding scholarships to a wider range of wrestlers. Secondly, the alumni are stepping up in big ways to assist in mentorship programs for athletes. As a parent, knowing your athlete will be mentored by former Lehigh wrestler who was successful on the mat, but also now worth six-figures (or more) is a heck of a recruiting tool. Sure, this concept is not unique, or new, to wrestling – but it is now being amplified by the staff. Coach Zach Rey has been the lead coach on this front – and is already paying dividends for the guys looking into life beyond wrestling.
Pat Santoro after Josh Humphreys' 2023 EIWA finals win; Photo courtesy of Tony DiMarco
Well, the 2021 recruiting class was #17th ranked, while the 2023 class is #21 in the nation. These guys are still developing, coming off redshirt years, etc. and will be expected to make noise soon.
Included in these classes is one of the highest-touted recruits Lehigh has landed in nearly a decade. Plus, he is a local product. Ryan Crookham amassed a 116-3 career record in high school over three seasons.
Why are other local studs leaving the area to attend other wrestling powerhouses when one is in their backyard? It comes down to the simple factor of them not getting past admissions at Lehigh. Remember, they are student-athletes. The word “student” is before “athlete” for a reason. There are certain academic criteria that need to be met no matter how fantastic of a wrestler one may be. This extends to any recruit obviously, not just local. On this topic, Coach Dillon explained “If you can’t put the work in (inside the classroom) you won’t make it at Lehigh” This is another implication to recruiting you see across the EIWA, and other private institutions. In good news, all three of us agreed the attitude towards education is becoming more positive and a greater focus for athletes and families compared to in the past. The trend appears to show that education, and life after wrestling, is now more of a forefront thought than ever before. Coach Santoro buttoned this topic up by stating, “We see this happening locally, and we are hoping we can retain some of these athletes and make trophy runs by letting them wrestle in front of a great crowd and great community where wrestling is really important on campus.”
Speaking of the EIWA, both Coach Santoro and Dillon agreed the conference is a much better place than it was 15 seasons ago. “The rise of the Ivies, and military schools has greatly impacted the conference” Santoro stated. “Recruiting against them is tougher than ever, as the playing field is more equal than before.”
This is only the rise of competitiveness inside the conference. Lehigh must battle it out against the likes of Big Ten and up-and-coming ACC teams, which seem to be the first to roll out high-paying NIL deals to athletes. To be very clear about NIL, per NCAA rules the coaching staff cannot approach recruits about NIL deals. But, for example, if word gets out to a local wrestler that a certain business wants to get behind them and help sponsor said athlete via NIL to sign with Lehigh and keep them local – this is legal. Imagine the capability to do so in the hotbed of wrestling. What other D1 wrestling program has such a plethora of talent in its immediate area without any other larger distractions like a big-time college football program, or professional sports team? It’s easy to argue Lehigh may be the perfect example of this situation.
The NIL aspect of the sport is the third future endeavor the staff highlighted. It has taken the wrestling world by storm lately. As mentioned, Lehigh hopes to be in the conversation with the “big schools” soon, once they can really get the alumni, and local businesses involved with potential NIL deals for current and future athletes. “Give them a reason to stay” was one way Coach Santoro directly stated on how to keep local talent. As much as people may disagree with NIL, if a wrestler has a full ride from two schools, but one has a nice NIL package (potentially 5 or 6 figures worth)– which school would 99% of wrestlers pick? This is the trouble many schools, including Lehigh, are facing during the recruiting process. It’s a matter of keeping up with the Jones’s if we’re being honest. Plus, keeping the RTC alive with nine sponsored wrestlers is another goal they are actively improving upon. The recent signing of Mikey Labriola is an example of that. The Nebraska Husker standout was a 5X All-American, returning to the Lehigh Valley where he grew up to compete on the freestyle circuit.
My overall conversation with Coach Santoro and Coach Dillon was a fantastic one. They are both incredible minds for the sport, and some of the best guys to have in your corner in both wrestling and life. They were very self-reflecting as well. They understand the wrestling landscape is changing, so they need to change with it. The way they recruit, coach, and approach the sport in general must evolve as well. COVID set them back for a few years, which is no surprise. It pretty much set the entire world back. They feel like they are learning from it and focusing on weak points that were exposed during that time. The CEO-like coach position is an expanding role they are navigating while still being in the room with wrestlers.
The first 15 years of the Santoro/Dillon era at Lehigh were impressive by all measures. Could they have been better? The coaches believe so. This is why the future of the program is promising – the strive to be better year after year starts at the top. It sets the precedent for the culture. They understand the potential Lehigh is capable of, and the success they’ve had in the past. Most importantly, they live and breathe Mountain Hawk wrestling – knowing the importance of tradition while continuing to develop successful young men for the next 15 years to come.
2011 NCAA champion Zach Rey (left) and Brad Dillon at the 2022 NCAA Championships; Photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com
List of Accomplishments under Santoro and Dillon:
- Coached Two NCAA Division I National Champions- Darian Cruz (2017), Zach Rey (2011)
- Coached only 5X EIWA Champion - Jordan Wood (2022,2021,2020,2019,2018)
- Coached 33 NCAA Division I All Americans
- Coached 34 EIWA Champions
- Coached 36 NWCA Academic All Americans
- Coached 4 EIWA Tournament Championship Teams (2021,2020,2019,2018).
- Defeated NCAA Division I Tournament Champion in Dual Meet for 1st time in School History (Ohio State 2/21/15)
- Brought in Eleven Top 25 Ranked Recruiting Classes by Intermat
- Defeated #1 Ranked Team for 1st Time in School History (Cornell 1/20/2011)
- Lehigh Record for Most Dual Meet Wins in a Season (23 in 2008‐2009)
- Santoro named EIWA Coach of the Year 6X
- Santoro named NWCA Coach of the Year in 2018