Alex Clemsen (left) and Assistant Coach Devin Mellon (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
I've been a big fan of the Alex Clemsen hire as the Head Wrestling coach of the Maryland Terrapins since day one. I watched for years as the Missouri Tigers, where he was on the coaching staff, constantly produced All-Americans, national finalists, and tortured the rest of the Mid-American Conference. His passion from matside was evident and you saw how much his wrestlers trusted him. So when this hiring decision was first announced in April of 2019, I was immediately onboard. Throughout the years, and through several interviews and Coach Clemsen's generosity with his time and my requests for interviews or comments, I've been able to see exactly why he has been so successful.
He is genuine, and as he referenced in our interview, sometimes honest to a fault. That level of honesty and abundance of integrity is certainly one of the things that allow him to develop such trust from his athletes and athletic department. Pair that with his competitive spirit, and you see why he's been able to establish the foundation for something that can grow into a special program. "I told Damon Evans (Maryland Director of Athletics) in our interview, four years to be competitive, six years to be good." Damon referenced how other candidates had said they could do it in a shorter amount of time, to which Alex replied "Well, they lied to you." This is the sort of person Alex Clemsen is. He'll be honest, sometimes to a fault, but for those ready to hear it they'll be better off because of it.
The first question I had for Coach Clemsen was on if he had felt any feelings of validation, that he was on the right track, or any specific levels of validation since receiving the extension. That would have been how I felt after signing a five-year extension, but for Coach Clemsen it was different. "The first thing that comes to mind is my family. This gives us stability, we're rooted. I have a daughter who is going to be in eighth grade and this keeps us in College Park through her High School. My son is going to be a sixth grader, so at that point, he'll be a sophomore, so the path is fully in motion to be in College Park long-term. That's ultimately where my mind goes first. Secondly, you think about the kids you're recruiting, and the team you've built, and the kids who aren't here yet but who have committed. We're fulfilling the promise that we've made them, that we are going to be their guys, and they are going to be our guys. That feels very good."
The next thing I wanted to cover with Coach Clemsen was just how this extension could impact their recruiting moving forward. To think that this is more likely to have a positive effect than a negative is fairly obvious, but consider that they had the eighth-ranked recruiting class in 2021 before having some of the recent successes that led to this extension. "One thing that sets us apart in the recruiting process is our genuineness. We are honest to a fault maybe sometimes, but how we present ourselves is really who we are, and what we say is what we mean, and when I tell families that I fully intend to be here, that it's the case."
Alex Clemsen (left) with coaches Nick Brascetta (center) and Devin Mellon (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
Now that's backed by the extension, or at least formally. As it turns out, that was a negotiation that was currently taking place, and an offer had already been extended. "I had a family ask me this spring while the negotiation was going on, the dad asked about our contract having 15 months left on it at that time. I laughed and said 'How did you know that', but if it were my son being recruited I would think about that also. Thankfully, all of our performance reviews had been good, and they had actually offered an extension last August. I felt our team was going to be better and I emphasized that our team was going to be better, and from a negotiation standpoint wanted to have some better results to reference."
A couple things that stood out to me at the moment. First of all, I love that Alex Clemsen bet on himself, his coaches, and his team to perform before accepting any extension. Not to suggest that it wasn't fair or in good faith, but I think it's tough for anyone to have the confidence to turn down a livelihood for your family, and coaching staff's families, without any securities that say it's going to work out in the end. Sure you could say that, but the fact that Coach Clemsen did it is another thing entirely. "I needed to make sure that numbers worked, and the bonus structure and what that was going to look like, and what the assistant coaches are going to be compensated". I think it's safe to say that it worked in everyone's favor here.
As I admitted at the forefront of this article, this piece is coming from a place of admiration and joy for Coach Clemsen and his family for getting this extension. It was a no-brainer to me, but sadly I do not speak for the masses. There are always some haters, and as they say, haters are going to hate. Thankfully, Coach Clemsen handles this sort of feedback in a greatly constructive manner. "I enjoy social media from a news perspective and from a storytelling perspective, and then also… I like to keep receipts. Most people have been very respectful and encouraging, but there have been a couple haters out there, but I actually like it. I've been like that since I've been young, and not in a sense that I'm going to clap back or say something back, but it feeds me. I think I've had a chip on my shoulder since I've been a little kid. It's a little self-imposed, but it's how I'm wired. I like when people say I can't, or I won't, or I shouldn't. So yeah, I screenshot them and I look at them from time to time and I keep some on my desk, or maybe I keep one in my locker. It just reminds you a little bit."
Three things stood out to me about this. One, I've never related more to Coach Clemsen than when he mentioned that. I've always been motivated by the doubters and haters as well, and I hope that never stops. Two, of course he keeps receipts. Whether as an athlete, assistant coach, or head coach, it's clear that he has paid close attention to what's going on and uses it to fuel the fire and passion that he ultimately pours onto his athletes. Three, I asked him if any of his athletes are motivated in a similar way? "I think our kids keep receipts too. Ethen Miller and Jaxon Smith in particular are both wired like that. I wouldn't be surprised if more guys did. I know Ethen was left out of a preseason ranking, he printed out every ranking and put it on his locker, and said 'This is what they think of me'. I said, 'They must have forgotten you, probably need to show them, remind them a bit.' " Usually when guys wrestle for a U20 medal, they start seasons ranked pretty high, and for some reason, they didn't do that with Jaxon Smith. He noticed, and he reminded us a bit.
Ultimately though for Coach Clemsen, relationships and trust is what it's all about. "I really love what I do and I like helping kids and having an impact. I like building relationships with people and I think about Tim Flynn and Lou Rosselli. You can go back further with Nick Purler. Those were the guys who were in my wedding, Troy Steiner was my best man, my high school assistant coach was the best man at my wedding. These are the guys that are my mentors. Guys I love and appreciate and I want to have that same impact on people." You see this with the best coaches across most sports, but 100% with wrestling. This sport is too difficult a sport to not implicitly trust the mentors, staff, and ultimately coaches helping you to prepare for what's coming next. Coach Clemsen certainly instills that level of trust in his athletes.
Alex Clemsen (right) and Jaxon Smith after at the 2023 Big Ten Championships (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
When we talk about the contract extension though, being competitive is the main factor here. The team just needed time. When they got to College Park, there weren't many good high school seniors left to recruit, so they started recruiting high school Juniors. Fast forward to now, three of those Juniors they were recruiting were redshirt freshman wrestling in the NCAA tournament, along with one true freshman, and a graduate senior. They also return a guy next season who was in the tournament the year before, along with recently announced transfer Seth Nevills from Penn State. Now here I am complimenting what they've done in the short term, and the potential they show for the future, but Coach Clemsen isn't done yet. "Nobody thinks we're doing a great job less than I do. Do you think I'm happy with the success we have had or haven't had at this point? I'm not by any means happy or satisfied. I think we've had some good moments, and we've enjoyed those times, but I am not going to sit here and say that we've been successful to this point. That's not how I'm wired."
The short answer to the question "Is Clemsen happy with what's going on with Maryland right now?" is yes, but the long answer is no. The "job" isn't done yet. "We're lightyears away from what I think we're capable of, and what I think our staff is capable of. That's why we are having the success that we are having, relative to what we inherited 4 years ago." For those that are unaware, this staff inherited zero returning points from the B1G tournament. That's the lowest point total you can have without getting negative points for some misconduct or something. It's not good. This year, they ended up 35th at NCAAs and were, at points during the season, ranked as high as 18th. It's important to have perspective relative to where they started, and what progress has been made to get this far.
At this point, I start rambling in our interview about how honesty can also be viewed as accountability, and how people want to know what good looks like and what's expected of them, blah blah blah. What I didn't remember when bringing this up, is that it actually matches up with one of the four pillars that the program is based on. The first pillar is faith, the second pillar is sacrifice, the third of those pillars is the aforementioned accountability, and the fourth being perseverance. "You can have faith and you can sacrifice and make tough choices, but can you do it over and over and over, and can you do it when it gets hard? Can you do it when it's not convenient?" How fortuitous that I stumbled into this!
"The thing that I always harp on with our guys is that the pillars can't just be talking points, they can't be selling points, and they can't just be words on a wall. They have to be who we are, what we embody, and ultimately who we become after we leave Maryland Wrestling. How we go out and live our lives, the husbands and fathers and community leaders that we become. If we are just focused on four or five years while we are at the University of Maryland, then I am drastically underachieving, then I am drastically failing you guys. This has to be about setting you up to be successful people, and using wrestling to teach that. I want to win as many damn wrestling matches as possible, but at the same time I want you to be as successful as possible, and ultimately I think those things go hand in hand."
I hope that this piece has impacted your viewing habits for next season. Make sure you invest time and energy into watching Maryland compete as often as you can. There isn't much room left on the bandwagon, but there are a couple seats. We're four years in, and they've proven to be competitive, but two more years and they'll be good. After those six years, Coach Clemsen will have 3 remaining years on this newly signed extension. I expect this trajectory to continue, and for Coach Clemsen, along with his athletes and staff, to get more recognition. That being said, this is a message to the haters. Don't stop hating. It'll only make them stronger.