New Stanford head coach Rob Koll (left) with new Cornell head coach Mike Grey (Photo/Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
We're only one day away from the calendar turning over into July and there are still dozens of DI programs looking to fill coaching vacancies. Within the last week, InterMat has published a list documenting open positions and another detailing moves that have already been made this offseason. Since this list was compiled, Bucknell and Kent State, released postings looking for new staff members. This list is also not an "official" list because there are other schools with open positions that have yet to be posted by their respective athletic departments.
Unfortunately, there are no records of open positions per day in years past to compare the current phenomenon against. This year just "feels" different, though. In speaking with head coaches who are handling these coaching searches, they have noticed the uptick in vacancies and the difficulty in which they've experienced filling said positions.
So the question is, "Why are so many coaching positions still available right now?" There isn't a single answer to point to, but in talking to a variety of coaches, we've been able to identify three main points.
1) The Extra Year of Eligibility
Whether it's right or wrong, wrestling has the sentiment that the most accomplished athletes will make the best coaches. Of course, this isn't always the case. That is a contrast to most other sports. Still, having a national championship or a bunch of DI All-American finishes on the resume gets your foot in the door. Maybe this will change at some point, but for now, it's still a thing. Wrestling is different in that you can compete one-on-one against legendary figures in your exact role and get a feel for what makes them great. A freshman quarterback doesn't get to clash with an NFL All-Pro QB to improve himself. A first-year collegiate pitcher isn't groomed by a pitching coach who tries to hit against them. So there is a lot of merit to butting heads with an Olympian or a multiple-time national champion everyday, compared to someone with lesser credentials.
If you look at the list of open positions, you'll see that the bulk of them are for volunteer or graduate assistants. Who tends to fill those positions? Wrestlers fresh off of completing their collegiate careers. With the NCAA giving an extra year of eligibility to wrestlers active in the 2020-21 (which is a good thing), it does limit the pool of candidates to choose from among graduating seniors.
The vast majority of senior All-Americans from 2021 have decided to use their extra year in 2021-22. While there are a few seniors that did not publicly state their intentions to return yet, many have. Only a few have announced that they will not use the free year. Of the returning All-Americans, only Louie Hayes (Virginia), Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State), Jesse Dellavecchia (Rider), Daniel Bullard (NC State), and Gannon Gremmel (Iowa State) have been ruled out.
Out of the coaching changes made public, as of 6/30/21, only Dellavecchia was an active competitor during the 2020-21 season.
The lack of top-flight seniors to choose from could end up having a positive impact once new coaching hires have been completed. Without coaches looking for the biggest superstar to hire, they may be forced to think outside of the box more and select a candidate with all the proper coaching intangibles, yet no national titles or AA finishes. For some, just getting their first opportunity is all they need. Once a head coach sees their value, they would be more likely to expand their coaching responsibilities, or it could lead to a more prominent position.
Two Big Ten programs that announced new coaching hires this week have looked outside of the standard formula for finding new staff members. Indiana brought in four-time DIII national champion Riley Lefever as an assistant. Lefever has been a part of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and has a ton of freestyle experience, so it seems like a wise move. But, with more DI All-Americans in the mix, would he have gotten that opportunity?
Yesterday, Maryland announced Elijah Oliver as its volunteer assistant. Oliver was a four-time national qualifier for Indiana that finished up in 2019. By all accounts, Oliver is an excellent selection and will thrive with the young Terrapins. Does someone like him, who graduated two years ago, get lost in the mix in a typical year?
Next year will be the one to watch, as far as the coaching movement goes. With two years' worth of seniors looking for jobs, competition will be hot and heavy.
2) The Accessibility of RTC's
Within the last decade, Regional Training Centers (RTC) have become commonplace, which has proven to be an excellent development for wrestling at the Senior and collegiate levels. Before RTC's, the vast majority of wrestlers were forced to coach at the collegiate level, train for World/Olympic berths with low wages, or take up second jobs. Or maybe some combination of the three.
RTC's have allowed wrestlers to focus on their international aspirations and train in environments conducive to their needs. Having such high-level athletes around also trickles down to the collegiate program. Even if the wrestlers aren't necessarily threatening on the domestic ladder, it still gives a team extra young, talented practice partners/unofficial coaches, if nothing else.
So in years past, wrestlers didn't have that opportunity to train out of an RTC for a few years before moving into coaching or into a non-wrestling-related profession. Now that it's an option, many are pursuing that angle and why not? There are many of the perks associated with being a coach, without the actual responsibilities. RTC athletes aren't officially allowed to recruit. They don't have to work alongside the administration. While you'd ideally like for an RTC athlete to be a good role model and care about the student-athletes they work with, there is no responsibility for keeping up with their academics and such.
While RTC's aren't responsible for taking away a significant part of the potential coaching population, it's a factor.
3) Covid Hiring Freezes
One not-so-talked-about part of this equation is that there were plenty of schools that did not replace coaches that left after the 2019-20 season. Administrators were operating under budget crunches last summer and some teams were shorthanded last season. That has carried into this offseason and coaches are forced to deal with all of the competition for a smaller group of potential candidates. A few coaches I spoke with are just getting the "go ahead" from their bosses to make their hires and round out their staff.
This shouldn't come as a surprise since many athletic departments, even in Power 5 Conferences, went through temporary layoffs or pay cuts to make it through 2020. If these schools were in the financial duress they claimed to be in, then hiring a second assistant for the wrestling team is sadly not a top priority. Especially when it was uncertain whether or not the schools would even compete.
American University was one of these schools. Teague Moore did not have any assistant coaches due to the hiring freeze. Once the team parted ways with him during the season, they were forced to name Jason Grimes an interim coach. Since the school has hired Jason Borrelli. Nothing has been made public about Grimes' status; however, the team still has a few holes on the staff.
Whether it's coincidental or not, the EIWA is a conference that has a lot of vacancies. Two or three on the AU staff, plus Brown, Bucknell, Cornell, Lehigh, and Penn. At least one other school in the conference has a vacancy that has yet to be announced publicly. Army West Point had an opening, but it was filled by Dellavecchia.
Some of these vacancies could be filled by candidates currently coaching at other institutions, so as one is filled, others could open. Expect the coaching carousel to continue spinning into August!