Michigan looking to reach new heights

T.R. Foley

11/4/2011
T.R. Foley, InterMat Senior Writer
foley@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @trfoley

College wrestling changed forever in November of 2002 when Cornell head wrestling coach Rob Koll unveiled his program's brand-new Friedman Wrestling Center, the nation's first stand-alone wrestling facility. The media gathered and Cornell, already enjoying a string of successful seasons, became an instant premier program. The brick and mortar of the building attracted attention and more donors, which in-turn set off a nine-year cycle of big name recruits and improved success at the NCAA tournament.

Cornell's construction and subsequent ascendancy had unexpected consequences on the rest of college wrestling. Almost immediately an arms war developed among those wanting to be mentioned among the top echelon of college wrestling programs. Schools that had once happily relied on the governance of one or two premier coaches and 1500 square feet of Resilite now needed plasma televisions, 4500 square feet of mat space, and stacked coaching staffs.

From Penn State to Nebraska to Iowa, wrestling programs began to find donors willing to help create mega-programs where the new-normal for success would be available to student-athletes seeking status as All-Americans and NCAA champions. For six years the 80-some-odd programs have been trying to keep up with the Jones' Koll's of the college wrestling world, and while schools have made incredible (almost illogical) gains, none have matched the recent 18-month spending spree and product development of the Michigan Wolverines.

Bahna Wrestling Center
Like Friedman before it, the Bahna Wrestling Center was the catalyst for change in Ann Arbor. The state-of-the art complex that became only the second stand-alone wrestling facility when it was dedicated in October of 2009, and though Bahna brings about Twit Pic-inducing amenities a bright-eyed 18-year-old recruit might want (Playstation, plasma televisions, Gatorade machine), it also has everything they need to succeed (training room, weight room, 7500 square feet of mat space). What is different about Michigan is the sudden influx of human capital -- a concentration of coaching and athletic talent very rarely, if ever, assembled in one program.

Michigan head wrestling coach Joe McFarland and the Michigan athletic program did what no other program in the country has been able to match, instantly recruiting the best coaches, senior-level wrestlers and top prospects all at once. The confluence of technical expertise, international success, and expectation for future results has taken a Wolverine program from Big Ten after thought last season to talk of future title contender.

The Michigan coaching staff was the first significant change inside the Wolverine programs. McFarland recruited arguably the two most sought after head coaching prospects in the country, Sean Bormet and Donny Pritzlaff, and asked them to come to Ann Arbor as assistant coaches. Both, ever-accomplished as competitors, had made their respective marks in junior, senior, and collegiate coaching.

Donny Pritzlaff
"On the interview it was clear to me that the administrator wanted to be the best and were willing to do what it took to get there," said Pritzlaff, a two-time NCAA champion and former assistant head coach at the University of Wisconsin. "Michigan wanted the best coaches, assistant coaches, wrestlers, student-athletes and recruits. I'm a competitive guy and I could tell they were all-in. They expect to win."

According to Pritzlaff the jump from Wisconsin to Michigan started with an initial interest in the head coaching job at American University. Once change had crept into his thought process, the 400-mile move from Madison to Ann Arbor became manageable.

"I spent 11 years in Madison as a wrestler and a coach, and I think it was time to get new experiences and new challenges."

Helping to make the decision was the recent hiring of Sean Bormet, who not only wrestled and coached at Michigan, though he'd spent the last 11 years running the epically-successful Overtime School of Wrestling in Naperville, Ill. Bormet's Fargo team swept the event in 2010, winning freestyle and Greco in both Juniors and Cadets. He saw Michigan as an opportunity to create a new professional challenge.

Sean Bormet
"Opening and running Overtime taught me a tremendous amount in terms of business management and the foundation of development in the types athletes I will now be recruiting," said Bormet. "There is an enormous amount of work that goes into running a Division I program and I was not going to underestimate that fact. For me it was not about the staff title I would hold, but about the coaches I am working with, the support and commitment of the administration, and the athletes I have to train and coach."

When it come to respecting ability Bormet and Pritzlaff shared the praise.

Said Bormet of his former athlete, "Pritzlaff is special. He was exceptional as a competitor and he is as a coach. It was an honor to coach Donny and contribute to his success at the NCAAs and the World Championships."

Pritzlaff, who won the bronze medal at the 2006 World Championships, credits Bormet with being one of the motivating factors in his decision, "I've always wanted to work with Bormet; he recruited me to Wisconsin and coached me at the senior level. He's one of the best in the country at what he does and I wanted to learn from him."

Michigan Men (left to right): Jimmy Kennedy, Andrew Howe, Tyrel Todd, Josh Churella, Mike Poeta, and Jake Herbert (Photo/Leah Howard, Michigan Sports Information)
Somewhat controversially, what followed was a nationwide shuffle of talent. Coaches aren't to blame when their athletes follow them to schools, and most try their best to prevent gutting a program, but as with any martial art relationship bonds of leadership formed in times of great emotional need can't always be easily severed. When Bormet and Pritzlaff reported to Ann Arbor, they attracted one of the most exceptional and accomplished groups of senior-level athletes assembled to date. World silver medalist Jake Herbert, Mike Poeta, Jimmy Kennedy, Tyrel Todd, Josh Churella and Andrew Howe (who is not enrolled at Wisconsin or Michigan) are all full-time members of the senior-level program called the Cliff Keen Wrestling Club, and live and train alongside the Michigan Wolverine wrestling team.

"I love Bormet," said Herbert, a two-time NCAA champion at Northwestern. "I wanted to train with him because he's going to get me prepared to win an Olympic title. I also get to be around six or seven other guys who have the same goals and are working hard to achieve them every day. It's like being back on a team."

"They also have a chocolate milk machine," Herbert said only half-jokingly.

The recent influx of talent and their relationship to the Michigan program was prompted, nay -- encouraged, by the changed relationship between the NCAA and senior-level wrestlers. Previously the senior-level wrestlers could only participate in club practices, but with schools who've now gained designation as Regional Training Centers (RTC) from USA Wrestling, senior-level athletes can now wrestle with the college athletes during scheduled NCAA practice periods. By earning an RTC designation and recruiting Bormet and Prtizlaff, Michigan gathered up seven more world-class competitors to join in select practices and drill sessions.

Cliff Keen Wrestling Club members with Sean Bormet (Photo/Leah Howard, Michigan Sports Information)
"It's been pretty awesome to have the senior-level guys in the room," said 2011 NCAA champion Kellen Russell. "I'm drilling with Jimmy Kennedy and getting technique advice from guys like Howe. The whole team benefits from having these guys around. They all know how to win."

"Pollination of technique and competitive mindset between wrestlers at the NCAA level and the World level is optimal for everyone involved," said Bormet of the RTC designation and how its influenced programs like Michigan and Ohio State. "There are several significant college programs making this commitment around the country and it is healthy for American wrestling as a whole."

Pritzlaff sees his time coaching under McFarland and with Bormet as a catalyst for his on career, but also an important visualization tool for the Michigan wrestlers, "I always wanted to be involved in this type of program -- around guys who want to be Olympic champions. They are here every day working their strength and condition and it's been great for our wrestlers to see these guys working out -- to see the intensity."

Michigan's current wrestlers are obviously benefiting from the exposure to the talent, and that should help push the Wolverines, who have seven guys ranked in the top 20, into a possible podium position at the Big Ten Championships. Their improvement and the expected influx of talent, including InterMat's top recruit Taylor Massa, means that the coffer of talent won't soon be diminished, or suffer from a lack of development.

Cliff Keen Wrestling Club teammates Andrew Howe and Jake Herbert wrestle while Sean Bormet gives instruction (Photo/Leah Howard, Michigan Sports Information)
Though they are pampered by their surroundings, the competitive edge of the Michigan team and senior-level athletes like Herbert doesn't wane with the ease of a facility that has everything in one location. Russell thinks his 2011-2012 teammates are hungrier than ever, readying themselves for the five-month season, "We're ready to start winning," he said. Even Herbert, who lost his 2010 World team position to Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson in 2011, has a renewed outlook on the coming season and how he'll accomplish his goals.

"Kenny Monday had Dave Schultz, Henry Cejudo had Stephen Abas, it's only fair that I have Cael Sanderson."

He will also have a weight room, 7500 square feet of mat space, and a training room. But more importantly he and the current Wolverine wrestlers will have multiple training partners and coaches -- each of them with newly-minted designations as Michigan Men.

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