Willie Miklus before a 2021-22 home dual meet (Photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Kevin Claunch: I am very happy to speak with Willie Miklus, assistant coach at Michigan State University. Willie was a 4x All-American while competing for both Missouri and Iowa State. Willie, I can't begin to tell you how many positive things I've heard from people when I told them that I was going to be doing this interview. You're obviously incredibly well-respected, and I'm pumped to be able to speak with you.
Willie Miklus: Yeah, I'm excited to do this. I've been a big fan of yours and, and your work for a while now. I'm super pumped to do this interview.
Kevin Claunch: I figure we might as well start with Missouri. You had tremendous success there and I was just looking through some of the rosters of the teams that you were on. I had followed those teams pretty closely, mostly because, as a Central Michigan alumnus, and I hated that you guys just kept beating us, you know, consistently, but I was looking back, you had, J'den (Cox) was on some of those teams. Then you had guys like Daniel Lewis, Joey Lavallee, Lavion Mayes, Grant Leeth, a lot of leaders on those teams throughout the years. Since then, a lot of them have transitioned into coaching now. Was the leadership and the sheer number of leaders, something that was discussed amongst that group?
Willie Miklus: It was actually. We had some awareness of the number of real leaders that we had on the team, and we knew that any of us were able to help drive towards the collective goal. Coach (Brian) Smith made sure that was a consistent theme though. To be a leader wherever you were. If it was in the wrestling room, if it was in a wrestling practice, wherever we were we were practicing those leadership skills, so it was something we openly talked about and were aware of.
Honestly, a lot of the guys that we had on the team were great dudes and we competed in everything. It didn't matter if it was kickball before practice. And then we had fist fights break out there or, you know, just competing in the room and wrestling or whatever it was. It didn't matter. We were there trying to do our best. Everybody wanted to be a leader. Everybody wanted to be the guy, and I was super blessed to have a lot of those teammates that you mentioned.
Kevin Claunch: Did you guys talk about post-competition, and getting into coaching or was that something that just happened? I mentioned Leeth and Daniel Lewis, but you know there are a couple of other guys too who have gotten into coaching, which we'll get to in a minute, but was that also an open discussion or just kind of happened?
Willie Miklus: It just kind of happened. I mean, I knew I wanted to be a college coach, or I knew I wanted to be a coach. I shouldn't say college coach, but I knew I wanted to be a coach from the time I was 15. When I got to Mizzou, I was very open about wanting to be a division one coach, and wanting to be a head coach one day. I talked to Brian (Smith) about it several times. I've talked to him since I got this job. So yeah, I was pretty open about wanting to coach. I would always ask questions and always paid attention to what he was doing and saying. I know that Leeth, I'm not sure if he always wanted to be a coach, but he's a pretty darn good one.
Kevin Claunch: Yeah, I had the pleasure of talking to him for just a couple of minutes at NCAAs, this last year, and I was like, "This guy's got a lot of charisma and energy." It would be easy to just want to run through a wall for him. I wanted to focus on coach Smith too, because he built that program into what it is. He didn't inherit some set and established program. He built it into what it is today, and has been for the last several years. So as an athlete, I wanted to focus on that first, and this is going to be a theme throughout a lot of this interview. What were some of the biggest lessons you picked up, from coach Smith when you were an athlete?
Willie Miklus: Probably just compete, compete, compete, compete, expect to win, like all the Tiger Style pillars. I had to do my diet right. I had a train right. I had to sleep right. I had to eat right. I had to go to school and to take classes seriously. I had to focus like it was my job. My job was being an athlete. You know, I got to really pour as much effort as I wanted into it, but doing the right things at the end of the day, it made it a lot easier to look at yourself in the mirror.
I think that was kind of one of the biggest things I got out of it, just the overall mentality towards competition and competing and how we trained and what we focused on. The level and amount of work that was put into each season is a staggering difference (from high school). I shouldn't say a staggering difference from high school because my high school team was very, very mature, and very hardworking as well. A very successful team as well, but yeah, it was just a different level of work.
Kevin Claunch: Now that you've transitioned into coaching, what are some of the biggest lessons that you've picked up from him to have sustained coaching success?
Willie Miklus: Honestly, Coach Smith, like he coached everybody as an individual, or tried to, as much as he could. You look at J'den Cox and the way he wrestles, versus me, versus Grant Leeth with the neck brace or, you know, Jaydin Eierman or Daniel Lewis, or Lavallee, any single one of those guys. We were all incredibly different people. We all had different things that made us tick, we all had different styles, like different things that we did well, as well as different things we struggled with. As a coach, you know, you work on general things as a team, but then you also tailor it towards the individuals. I think that that's probably one of the biggest things I've taken away from him and just on my own, I noticed as an athlete, I had to do things my own way. I had to do things differently, and try to work to perfect each and every single one of those things.
Kevin Claunch: Awesome. Speaking of some of the other coaches there, I remembered that while you were at Missouri, so was Alex Clemsen (current head coach at the University of Maryland). I also remember him being so passionate and exuberant, I knew that given the time and attention at Maryland he would do well. He was just really, really intense while coaching. So now fast forward and you're coaching against him in the Big Ten. What's it like having him now, as someone that you're competing against? I'm sure it was great having him in your corner, but how is it having him on the other side?
Willie Miklus: It's really cool. We went to the Maryland dual this year and I got to see his son Porter. When he came to staff (as a Missouri coach), his daughter, Peyton, and his son Porter were, we're really young and Porter is starting to get really big. It was pretty cool. You get to see that, I have gotten to be around Porter as he's grown up and his daughters have grown up. And getting to know his wife. Having him as a coach was like, he texted me yesterday actually. And he's just like, you know, 'You always had fun'. He kind of brought that up like, 'Dude you were just so fun to coach', but just wished me well and happy Memorial Day. He was, he was super fun to have in my corner. A guy that I, I really enjoyed, while I got to be around him.
Coaching against him now is kind of fun too, because I told him before our dual meet I said, 'it doesn't matter what you say, I'm just going to yell the opposite.' So he just kinda chuckled because he didn't know what do you say to somebody that said something like that? I'm not even going to worry about coaching my guys, I'm just going to coach opposite of you.
Kevin Claunch: (Laughing loudly, and regaining composure) That is… that's unbelievable. I love it. So, from Missouri, you transferred to Iowa State to be closer to home. Clearly, it's a very unique situation for you to be able to come into a new program, at that point you were already a three-time All-American, anybody would have been happy to have you join their team. To be closer to home you got to jump into this program at Iowa State, work with Kevin Dresser, Brent Metcalf, Derek St. John. Obviously under tough circumstances with your father's illness, so not ideal. However, you got to do something really cool, in coming home. I hope that you still really value and appreciate it all these years later. You were happy to have that chance at the time, but has the appreciation grown over the years?
Willie Miklus: Yeah, what I got to do was super special. I don't know that I even understand the magnitude of it yet. I know for sure, I didn't understand it then. Yeah, it was, it was such a special thing, such a special opportunity that I had. I'm forever grateful to the Missouri staff for helping me with that and doing whatever they could for me in that time and understanding that that was kind of what I needed.
Even when I was doing it, I know they didn't see it all. They didn't understand what was happening with my dad fully. But it would be impossible to, unless you were living in it, and I was living in it, but it was a really cool thing that I got to do, and then the magnitude of it is still lost on me a little bit.
Kevin Claunch: I think it was crazy. Like, so not to make this about me or anything, but just as a point of emphasis, I'd had lost my father about a year or so before, the news came out with your transfer and the reasoning behind it and everything.
So, I just respected everybody involved. Like you said, Missouri being willing to let you transfer, not that I think most people wouldn't. You like to think that most coaches would help their athletes in that situation, but it doesn't make it any less remarkable that they did, and it worked out that way. So, it was really cool to watch everyone be so human and for you to have the opportunity to be closer to home and to have the experience of being in another wrestling room.
Being in the Iowa State room, and having that opportunity, what did you take away from Coach Dresser and that staff as an athlete?
Willie Miklus: He liked to coach you old school, that was kind of his thing. He was like, you know, "I need your permission to coach old school". And I was super about it. That's how my dad always was, he was super old school and really blunt to the point.
Dresser never pulled any punches with me. He'd always just tell me exactly how it was, and I knew exactly where I stood with him. I may not have agreed or liked it at the time, but I always knew exactly where I stood. So that was something, you know, some guys really thrive out of that and you can be super blunt and super to the point. Some guys not so much, but I really appreciated Dresser for that because he was like, "Hey, you know, I'll just tell it to you straight, how it is, and what I think" I figured "Cool, sounds good. Like it was awesome."
We did a lot more like longer live go's, which I kind of enjoyed, especially once I got back into shape. On the first day I did it, I did not have fun. Metcalf and St. John traded in on me. They didn't need to trade, but they did. And then I went a live and extended go with each one of them after that, too. And it was just, it was terrible. All three of those days were just awful days.
Kevin Claunch: Those are two guys who have never struggled with conditioning. If college wrestling matches were 30 minutes long, they wouldn't get tired.
Willie Miklus: Yeah, no, they both can still wrestle. They can both still do it. And we're a couple of years down the road now, too. But back then, they were still every bit as able to just beat you up as much as they wanted to do.
Kevin Claunch: I don't doubt it for a second. Is there anything in particular that you took away from him, now that you're coaching, from the coaching perspective?
Willie Miklus: Yeah, like I said, I get to be straightforward with some kids. Other kids, I gotta beat around the bush a little more. Just the way you talk to somebody is super vital. Dresser was always willing to do whatever was best for me, whatever I absolutely needed. Not that Missouri wasn't that way, but that's been a theme with my college coaches. Metcalf and St. John have always had my back and always will. So I mean, I got really blessed, right? Like a lot of people, they leave their college team and don't like their coaches or whatever, but I had two different sets of coaches and I really enjoyed both.
But yeah, just doing whatever's best for the person and kind of being a little bit old school at times and a little bit new school at times. That's kind of what I picked out of them.
Kevin Claunch: You're at Michigan State now, with Wynn Michalak going down to Campbell to coach with Scotti Sentes. It was funny because right around that time we had Cam Caffey on our podcast, Bloodround, Rayvon was on that episode as well. I think it was right before you were hired, but there must have already been some conversations, he must've known what was coming because he seemed very excited. Like you could almost tell he knew you were being brought in but couldn't say it yet. So the question is, what first intrigued you about the Michigan State job?
Willie Miklus: Cam Caffey's haircut. It's flawless. He's such a unique kid. You just don't coach many kids like him ever. He's something else. Honestly, it was just the rise in the program that I've seen. Cam Caffey was the first big name, Rayvon too. I remember watching him AA. But yeah, just the way the team was trending, they had just beat Wisconsin. That was a real eye-opener and a head turner for a lot of people. Everything just seemed like it was clicking and firing in the right ways and trending in a really good direction headed into nationals. So just kind of the direction of the program was headed. I knew that it had a lot to do with Roger and Chris and Wynn, and they all did phenomenal jobs, and Roger and Chris still do.
Kevin Claunch: Are there any particular highs or lows that stand out to you, since coming to East Lansing and helping the team develop?
Willie Miklus: We beat Rutgers last year. We went on a hot streak in duals, we were ranked top 15, like 14 is where we were the highest we were ranked this past season, maybe 12th. I think it was the 14th though.
We had a few different come-from-behind dual wins. Our 184, 197, and heavyweight pulling us out of a hole at Lock Haven during their whiteout…
Kevin Claunch: That's right, I was watching that. It was very early in the season.
Willie Miklus: Yeah. I told those guys that it was going to be a hostile environment and I don't think they believed me, um, as much as they should have, but, and they figured it out real quick. Like my favorite thing that's the biggest highlight for me is how close the team is. Aside from wrestling, like they're all best friends. Nobody's safe, everybody's going to get picked on. I feel like that's a trademark of a great team. You know, you, you gotta get picked on.
Roger gets picked on sometimes. I definitely get picked on a lot. I bring it on myself quite a bit. I'll be honest. But just the comradery of the team. Obviously, we're getting a lot better at wrestling. We're starting to have a lot more success. That's cool. But the environment, the group of guys that we have in the room right now, is what's amazing. All credit to them. And then the coaches for recruiting them.
Kevin Claunch: It seemed like a really close team and a lot of great personalities on the team. We talked about Caffey earlier. I was at the CMU versus MSU dual this last year where Layne Malczewski was on his back for a hot minute. Of course, the match ended with him flipping it around and pinning Cushman. Those points were necessary to win the dual, too. So obviously, you have a pretty awesome team that's not going to quit fighting for each other.
So as a coach, where do you feel you've had the best impact on the program since getting to East Lansing?
Willie Miklus: I feel like I bring up a pretty different dynamic. I'm constantly joking around. I'm constantly having fun. Even when we're getting better, or we're working on something like I'm constantly cracking jokes or like, suggesting "Hey, why don't you try this? Why don't you fit this in and see how you like that?". Just like constantly coming up with different ideas in the room, but like all of our coaches do that, we've all done it. I think one of the best parts of our staff is just that none of us have an ego. A couple of guys need to work on hand fighting. And I was like, "Look, I'm not that guy." I sent him over to Roger. Roger's a better hand fighter than I'll ever be. That goes all the way around. I've sent guys to Chris to work on things. I've picked on guys about things. Justin Oliver, I have sent guys to him to work on things. I think that me jumping in as a coach was kind of like, you know, a puzzle piece fitting in, and I just feel like I'm at home now. I think my biggest contribution is just being me. It's hard to explain. I'm constantly just having fun and I love to be in the room.
Kevin Claunch: Do you have a dry sense of humor? I'm kind of picking up a dryness in the jokes.
Willie Miklus: Yeah, a real dry sense of humor.
Kevin Claunch: It sounds like, from this conversation, that you've been pretty aware of where some coaches have been able to help you and to improve. Is there anything in particular that you want to continue to get better at as a coach, and to have a greater impact on the team?
Willie Miklus: I'm trying to become a better recruiter. It's a tricky skill. I'm still working on it. I'm trying to work on recruiting, film breakdowns are pretty good, but I think I can always improve there. Sometimes, you know, and you push a kid when you need to pull back on them, or you pull back on when you need to push them. So just like dialing that in. I know that Roger's level of patience is unparalleled. He's a super patient person and I am not always so patient. So that's a skill I'm definitely working on.
I try to improve myself every day in some sort of way. I think all around I can always become a better coach, um, whether it's technique, just having a good relationship with the guys or, you know, whatever they might need. I'm constantly trying to get better. I don't think there's any such thing as a perfect coach, like, but I'm trying to do the best that I can. I have all different kinds of things that I can get better at.
I asked my guys all the time, "what do you guys think I need to do?" I guess some interesting answers for sure, but I'm working in a lot of different areas to become a better, but I think recruiting is the number one area I can improve on.
Kevin Claunch: That's a great answer because recruiting is obviously a big aspect of it, but I guess I forget to think about how important that is. How valuable a skill that is as a coach in college, so that's an excellent point.
Are there any particular Spartans jumping into the lineup next year or is there anything in particular that we should just be paying attention to or watching from Michigan State, as we head through this summer and into next season?
Willie Miklus: I think the whole team is honestly pretty hungry right now. They want to do better next year than they did this year. I'm excited to see what Cam Caffey and Layne Malczewski can do next year. You know, losing at nationals was not a good taste in their mouth. I'm excited to see Rayvon Foley back on the mat, I'm excited to see Tristan Lujan back on the mat.
The whole team up and down the lineup, I'm really excited for it. I think that we've got a lot of good things trending in a positive direction right now. We've got guys getting better and that are starting to get committed to the process of being great wrestlers. I think as far as our team for next year, the whole team is going to come back better than they were this year, which is exciting for us.
Kevin Claunch: For sure. Like you said, the team had a really good year. I was really impressed with Saldate last season and how good he's gotten on top. I mean, he was good on top before, but he was, he was really, really tough last year. The improvements were noticeable. A really good foundation that you guys have built out there and, I'm really pumped to see what the Spartans do next season and truly appreciate your time.
Willie Miklus: Anytime, you know that. I'm super pumped for it. It's going to be a really fun season.