Jim Gibson (left) coaching at the 2019 NCAA Championships (photo/VMI athletics)
Jim Gibson's journey to college wrestling wasn't a traditional route. Growing up in northwest Pennsylvania, on a horse farm between Pittsburgh and Erie, Jim wrestled throughout elementary and middle school. This was also at a time where club teams weren't common. When transitioning to high school, Jim had shifted from public to private school. Kennedy Christian, now Kennedy Catholic, housed many state placers and champions before Gibson's arrival. As a freshman and sophomore, the team wasn't too strong; however, Gibson's junior and senior seasons took an interesting turn. During team sign-ups, the wrestling team didn't get the interest it had seen in years past - only six kids signed up for the team. After seeing how small the team would have been that year, the school's administration decided to no longer sponsor the wrestling program. "Where do we go from here? What's the next step for us? What's my future in this sport?" were a few of the questions running through Jim's head. He had a couple of options: go back to public school and risk issues with eligibility due to transferring or transfer to another private school. Jim and his family decided to approach the administration at Kennedy Christian to petition the school's decision to no longer sponsor the wrestling program that year. The school agreed to keep the program but with one condition: Jim would be the sole competitor that season. No dual meets. No team tournaments. Just Jim. The coach decided to stay to help him train, with his dad filling in as the assistant coach.
The season was difficult, making phone calls to get into individual tournaments throughout the school year, adding one additional slot into a weight class. Most schools were receptive to the situation and allowed Jim to wrestle in eight individual tournaments that year. At the State Tournament that season, Jim took home eighth place. Hungry for another season, Jim, his coach, and his father were able to stick to the one-man show for his senior season. Jim placed second his senior year. This situation forced him to mature quickly and take more self-responsibility in his career. Being in this unique situation, Gibson stood out as a recruit. Edinboro, Clarion, Pittsburgh, and the University of Buffalo were possible landing spots for Jim. He headed to Edinboro, where he was a four-year starter and a national qualifier as a senior. His unique junior and senior high school seasons gave him the perseverance, commitment, and accountability he needed to succeed during his college, and eventually, coaching careers. As a recruit, Gibson definitely stood out. While wrestling in college is a team sport, the dedication to training, keeping up with school, and staying healthy all typically fall on the discipline of the student-athlete. Jim's self-discipline prepared him for his career ahead.
As a coach, Gibson has seen the recruiting process evolve in many ways. One of the most significant changes has been social media. Coaches are now able to hop online to see how recruits performed at tournaments and matches without having to travel to every event. Before social media, wrestlers would have to reach out to coaches individually, by sending tapes with footage or letting coaches know which tournaments they would be competing at. It's much easier for the recruiting process now with the use of social media and viewing platforms for wrestling content. Wrestling under Tim Flynn, "one of the best wrestling minds in the country," he broadened his mindset and approaches to coaching. "I think that's one of the biggest things, especially as a coach, don't ever think you should ever stop learning. There's always a different way, always a different approach. There's a new approach, an old approach, and you have to be able to really take what you've experienced around others, use what you think works and what doesn't work, and also build it into your own program." Gibson's coaching debut was made at Clarion University, as a graduate assistant under Teague Moore.
Coach Gibson's first full-time coaching job was a head assistant coaching position and the recruiting coordinator at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His experience as an assistant for six years further prepared him for his first and current head coaching position at Virginia Military Institute. "Ultimately, the responsibility falls on me, to make sure I'm giving the right guidance and utilizing my assistants to their strengths. I think that's something I learned as an assistant coach is to understand how to best use assistants. I was prepared to evaluate my assistants to be able to get the most out of them and use them in the areas where I may not be as strong." Jim began coaching at VMI in March 2018, ready to get to work with staff and bringing on assistant Ty Schoffstall, who also wrestled under Tim Flynn at Edinboro. "I think any time when you put a staff together, it's important that everyone's like-minded. You have to be on the same page, relaying the same information and message to your athletes, but even if there's a disagreement within the coaching staff, that's okay. Coming from that Edinboro system with Coach Flynn and his development, I feel that we're on the same page more often than not, which is putting us on our way to being successful."
The recruiting process is another important piece in a program's success. When recruiting for a military college, cadets are expected to take all aspects of their careers seriously due to the responsibilities that come with attending a military institution. Their days are meticulously planned out, with little free time nor flexibility. Coach Gibson's recruiting approach for VMI is to look for potential cadet-athletes who have high academic and athletic goals, and who are able to manage and balance the responsibilities that accompany being a cadet-athlete. Coaching for a military college can be more difficult when it comes to scheduling; however, the school sets aside time for the teams to practice. Outside of those times, there are no guarantees that team members can do one-on-one drills or extra lifts. "The most challenging aspect is the time piece related to what they have to do here and how we have to work around it. It forces us coaches to almost be extra prepared, to have a system in place of what we need to do and things we need to work on."
As for next year, Coach Gibson and the VMI staff are excited to get back to a more normal season, with more normal preparation and recruiting processes. "I think COVID has taught us some things about training, preparation, and competition that maybe we wouldn't have thought about before. I was trying to find some sort of positive in every situation. Going through a pandemic, you have to persevere through it. You always talk to your guys about it, that they're going to run into adversity and tough times, but this was the time to show them how to make adjustments on the fly, try to be successful, and persevere through some adversity and this tough time."