Illinois head coach Mike Poeta (left) and Isaiah Martinez (right) (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
On Friday, June 10th, the University of Illinois turned the wrestling world on its head as the school announced it had brought back one of its most notable wrestling alums for a slot on the coaching staff. Isaiah Martinez, one of only two multi-time NCAA champions and the only four-time Big Ten champion in school history will return to fortify second-year head coach Mike Poeta's coaching staff. Martinez will assume the volunteer assistant position, alongside longtime stalwart Jeremy Hunter and second-year coach Ed Ruth.
Since Martinez's announcement, much has been made about the accolades of the new Illini staff. We'll get into the actual accomplishments of each of Illinois' four staff members later, but suffice to say, they stack up incredibly well against anyone else in the country.
Now is the time to mention that wrestling is one of the few sports where the most accomplished coaches tend to be legendary wrestlers. There are certainly exceptions to the rule, but look at the NCAA title-winning teams since 2000. Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, and Penn State.
Three-time NCAA champions Jim Zalesky and Tom Brands have both led Iowa to national titles. Brands is also an Olympic gold medalist, while Zalesky finished second at the Trials in 1988. Minnesota's J Robinson was a 1972 Olympian and twice finished in the top five at the World Championships. The one of the bunch with the smallest competitive resume is Ohio State's Tom Ryan, who was "only" a one-time NCAA runner-up. Both Oklahoma State's John Smith and Penn State's Cael Sanderson are among the best to ever do it. Smith's six-straight World/Olympic titles are not matched domestically, while Sanderson is the only DI wrestler to finish undefeated with four national titles.
Wrestling can be different than other sports in that aspiring athletes can actually go head-to-head with a coach, somewhere in the midst of, or shortly after their prime. Another big factor in the success of elite athletes in the coaching ranks, is their name-brand recognition. In recruiting, any little advantage is used. Having a name and reputation like Brands, Smith, or Sanderson speaks for and recruits itself.
So, while wrestling is a sport where the accomplishments of a coaching staff can be important, it's not the be-all, end-all. Even with Illinois' excellent staff, they'll still have to recruit in a powerful midwestern state that other rivals have cherry-picked for decades, develop high-caliber student-athletes, and compete in a meat grinder of a conference. In 2022, at the NCAA Championships, five of the top-six teams in Detroit were from the Big Ten. Those hurdles aside, they are in an excellent position with some excellent wrestling minds/competitors on staff.
Head Coach: Mike Poeta - 3x NCAA All-American (2nd, 2nd, 3rd); 2x Big Ten Champion
Assistant Coach: Ed Ruth - 4x NCAA All-American (1st, 1st, 1st, 3rd); 4x Big Ten Champion
Assistant Coach: Jeremy Hunter - 3x NCAA All-American (5th, 2nd, 1st); 1999 Big Ten Champion
Volunteer Assistant: Isaiah Martinez - 4x NCAA All-American (2nd, 2nd, 1st, 1st); 4x Big Ten Champion
Total: 14 All-American honors, 11 NCAA Finals Appearances, 6 NCAA Championships, 11 Big Ten Titles
While these four got it done in March, they were also among the most consistently successful wrestlers to ever take the mat at their respective programs. Martinez and Poeta rank first and third, respectively, in all-time winning percentage for Illinois wrestling. (.975 to .882). Ruth is Penn State's all-time leader in winning percentage. He narrowly edged teammate David Taylor, .9784 to 9781.
In addition to their collegiate accolades, all four members of this staff were incredibly highly-regarded recruits. Poeta was generally considered the top wrestler in the Class of 2004, though there wasn't much in terms of recruiting rankings at the time. The same can be said about Hunter, a four-time Pennsylvania state champion and Dave Schultz HS Excellent Award winner. Martinez and Ruth were both top-five recruits in their respective classes.
The Illini staff also hails from three of the most talent-rich states in the country, Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania. Hunter and Ruth are from PA, Hunter from the western part of the state and Ruth from the center. Poeta is the homegrown guy from Illinois, while Martinez maintained a long tradition of successful Illini from California. If this group can bring in wrestlers from each of their home states, plus a couple others, here and there, they should be set up for success.
It'll be fun to see where Illinois fits in, in regards to the upper echelon of the Big Ten in the future. This staff already has verbal commitments from a pair of top-50 recruits from the Class of 2023. Both (#20 Kannon Webster and #44 Will Baysingar) happen to be in-state kids, which is a positive sign of things to come.