Oregon State's plan for a new wrestling coach -- and for a return to national prominence
Oregon State officials are working behind the scenes to hire a new wrestling coach — one who can bring them back to national prominence.
Last week, OSU fired Jim Zalesky, who had been head coach for 14 years.
Zalesky's OSU teams won almost two-thirds of their dual meets (177-75-2), along with seven championships in what passes for Pac-12 wrestling these days.
The last title, though, came in 2016. The Beavers placed fourth in the six-team conference this season, behind Arizona State, Stanford and Cal State Bakersfield and ahead of Cal Poly and Arkansas Little Rock, the latter in its inaugural season of college wrestling.
Oregon State's highest finish at the NCAA meet under Zalesky's watch was eighth in 2013. OSU has placed no better than 20th since then. Zalesky coached 10 All-Americans but no national champions during his time at OSU. The best finish was third by heavyweight Amar Dhesi in 2018.
"With the right coach, there's no reason why they can't be back in the top 10, with All-Americans and national champions," said Greg Strobel, a member of the coach selection committee and one of Oregon State's greatest wrestlers.
OSU athletic director Scott Barnes has placed executive deputy AD Dan Bartholomae in charge of the committee to make the recommendation for the hire to Barnes.
"I'm a western Pennsylvania guy," said Bartholomae, a Pittsburgh graduate who worked as deputy AD there for 15 years before coming to OSU in 2017. "I worked with wrestling at Pitt and was involved with doing a (coaching) search there."
Oregon State is not using an outside search firm. No need to, Bartholomae said.
"We have plenty of experience with wrestling at Oregon State and passionate support from our fans, alums and former wrestlers," he said. "We'll work together to hire somebody who shares our championship vision."
Barnes, Bartholomae and Strobel — who retired last year after a decorated coaching and administrative career — were to meet in Minneapolis next week at the NCAA wrestling championships to "scout the field" of coaching candidates, Strobel said.
The meet was canceled due to the coronavirus. Might restrictions due to the virus delay the hiring of the new coach?
"Absolutely not," Bartholomae said. "We are being mindful of folks' concerns about travel. In early conversations, we'll be more on Zoom video conferencing, but our intention is not to slow this process.
"We're probably looking at eight (candidates) to have some early conversations, based on how travel is. We'd be looking to slim that to a more manageable number to meet with our committee. Whether that's (in person) or via video conference, the goal is to not be slowed down by (the coronavirus). We'd love to have somebody hired by mid-April."
Oregon State's wrestling community would like to see the kind of success enjoyed by Dale Thomas, a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Thomas, OSU's head coach from 1957-90, won 24 conference championships and had 14 top-10 finishes at the NCAA championships — six in the top five.
At Oregon State, Thomas coached 34 All-Americans, nine NCAA runners-up and seven wrestlers who won 10 NCAA titles. Thomas amassed a dual-meet record of 618-168-13, but tailed off his final four years, going 46-50-3. In his first 30 seasons, he won 83 percent of his duals.
During much of the Thomas era, most Pac-8/10 schools had wrestling programs, with seven or eight teams competing each year from 1965-80. Due to Title IX constraints, though, programs started dropping — California in 1980, Washington in 1981, Arizona in 1982 and Washington State in 1987.
In the ensuing years, schools such as Utah State, Fresno State, Cal State Fullerton, Cal Poly, Boise State, Cal State Bakersfield, Cal Davis, San Jose State and even Portland State (the Vikings finished last every year from 2003-09 before the program died) were added to keep the conference viable.
Oregon finally dropped its program in 2008. The league stayed at nine or 10 schools until 2009, after which PSU, Cal Davis and Cal State Fullerton dropped out. Boise State was a member from 1988-2017, winning six conference titles, the last in 2011.
Oregon State, Arizona State and Stanford are the last programs standing from the Pac-10, having continuously competed since the 1980 season.
Mark Johnson took over for Thomas at OSU and won the Pac-10 his second year, then left for Illinois. His successor, Joe Wells (1993-2006), won only one Pac-10 crown, though he had eight top-three conference finishes and had teams in the top 10 nationally four times, including second in 1995. But Wells' teams finished no better than 18th at the NCAA meet over his final eight seasons.
Zalesky's best success came in 2012 and '13, when he won back-to-back Pac-12 titles and finished 10th and eighth, respectively, at nationals. Things have not gone as well since then. Only two wrestlers — junior Devan Turner (133) and sophomore Grant Willits (141) — qualified to represent the Beavers at the NCAA championships this season. Turner was Pac-12 champion, Willits a runner-up. Junior Hunter Willits, Grant's brother, chose to redshirt this season after qualifying for nationals in 2018 and '19.
Most people liked Zalesky. That didn't translate to an ability to recruit, at least as well as was necessary at a school like Oregon State.
"Jim is a great guy, and he's a pretty good technician and conditioner, too," said Jess Lewis, a two-time NCAA champion heavyweight who was sixth in freestyle competition at the 1968 Olympic Games. "But he seemed to have trouble recruiting.
"We should be able to recruit all the good wrestlers in Oregon, and some in California, too," said Lewis, whose collegiate record was 76-1, losing only in the NCAA championship match his sophomore year. "But we're missing them. I think he relied on his assistant coaches to carry the ball, and I don't know if they were able to do a really good job."
Kevin Roberts, who served as an assistant at Oregon State from 2007-18, swears by Zalesky's knowledge of the sport.
"I'm a firm believer that there isn't a guy who knows more about the sport of wrestling, the X's and O's, than Jim Zalesky," said Roberts, who now runs wrestling camps and clinics in Spokane, Washington. "But you need the right personnel. You just needed more high-caliber athletes to compete at that level."
Ron Iwasaki feels the coaching staff should shoulder some of the blame for lack of development.
"The program did not seem to be progressing," said Iwasaki, a two-time All-American at 115 in 1966 and '67. "I'm concerned about kids who plateau either their freshman or sophomore year. Several kids who should have been on the award stand at the national tournament didn't quite make it. Not everyone can be a national champion, but many of those kids who didn't place should have placed, and some of them should have placed higher."
Former OSU heavyweight great Larry Bielenberg saw it the same way.
"It was time to make a change," said Bielenberg, a four-time All-American who NCAA champion as a sophomore in 1975. "The kids were not developing. That's been ongoing. We've had some great kids in the program, and not all of them have developed like they felt they would."
Bartholomae feels fortunate to have Strobel on his selection committee. Thomas considered Lewis and Strobel the greatest wrestlers he ever coached. Lewis was from Aumsville; Strobel grew up in Scappoose. Strobel was 124-5-1 at OSU. He was a two-time NCAA champion at 190 and Most Outstanding Wrestler at the 1973 NCAA championships, leading the Beavers to a runner-up finish.
After retirement from wrestling, Strobel served eight years as National Teams Director for USA Wrestling, was co-coach for the U.S. Olympic freestyle team in 2000 and coached 13 years at Lehigh, guiding the Mountain Hawks to a third-place finish in the NCAAs in 2004.
No longer coaching, Strobel just finished his eighth year as commissioner for the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association. He is as tuned into the national wrestling scene as anybody, and he holds strong ties to his alma mater.
"I like Jim," Strobel said of Zalesky. "He's a good man. But he was having trouble recruiting, and that starts with the Oregon boys. They were going somewhere else. You need to keep those guys in the state.
"Oregon puts out some pretty darn good wrestlers. You need a coach who can recruit the state of Oregon, but also California, Washington and really nationwide. Oregon State can do that. It's a great university."
This season, Oklahoma State had two starters from Oregon — heavyweight Austin Harris from Roseburg and Travis Wittlake from Coos Bay, the latter a redshirt freshman who was 27-2 and a No. 4 seed at the NCAA tournament at 165 pounds. Prineville native Tyler Berger, now an assistant coach at Nebraska, was 116-32 for the Cornhuskers, a three-time All-American and runner-up at 157 at the 2019 NCAA championships. Dillon Ulrey of Central Point competed this season at 157 for Arizona State.
"We've lost every one of our blue-chip kids the last four or five years, and that can't happen," said Bielenberg, who was 165-15-1 in his OSU career, ranking him second on the all-time wins list and first with 94 pins. "If we had all those kids, we would be among the top 10 in the country easy.
"We should control the state and the four-to-five state region. Either recruiting is not good or the kids are making the decision that the program is not for them. That's a disaster."
What ticks off those close to the Beaver wrestling program about that is the Northwest has no other Division I programs. Closest of the other 78 schools with wrestling is Stanford.
But it's not unanimous that Oregon is a high school wrestling hotbed.
"The new coach needs to establish a better relationship with our (state's) high school coaches to keep the best kids at Oregon State," Iwasaki said. "But you can't rely on them anymore. There are too few really good high school wrestlers in the state of Oregon. High school wrestling is down in our state. The competition level has zoomed past Oregon being prominent."
Roberts is in agreement.
"Wrestling's not as strong in Oregon as it used to be — not even close," he said. "Don't get me wrong — there are good kids. There are a couple of kids wrestling for other schools who could have helped at Oregon State, but not a plethora of them. You're not going to have as many talented wrestlers as in Illinois, Pennslvania, Ohio or New Jersey.
"From the late '80s to late '90s, I could name 15 All-America-caliber wrestlers from the state of Oregon who were at Oregon State, Oregon and Portland State. The depth isn't there right now. You have to recruit out of state more, and that costs more money."
Does the hybrid Pac-12 — or Pac-6, if you will, and with only three true Pac-12 members — hurt the image of Oregon State wrestling?
"Absolutely," said Bob Tomasovic, an All-American who wrestled under Thomas. "The league needs to be strengthened, and Oregon State's success can lead to that strengthening."
"People are not looking at it as a legit conference," Roberts said. "It makes it more difficult to recruit."
Many of those interviewed said Zalesky coached a deliberate, defensive style of wrestling that is neither popular nor the most effective means available.
"It's important to bring back into Oregon State wrestling the aggressive style that allowed many of us to be successful against stronger competition," said Tomasovic, chair of the OSU wrestling endowment fund that has been in effect for more than three decades.
Was Zalesky not teaching that style?
"My personal opinion, I wished I'd seen more aggressive wrestling," Tomasovic said.
As a wrestler and a coach, Strobel always espoused an attacking style.
"Oregon State needs a coach who teaches a brand of wrestling that is fun to watch, that's exciting," he said. "It's about going out to mix it up and finding ways to win. It's called the 'wrestling team,' not the 'stalling team.'"
Strobel pointed out that great programs in the Midwest and East are drawing big crowds. No. 2-ranked Penn State had nearly 16,000 spectators for a recent match with No. 5 Ohio State. Top-ranked Iowa averaged 12,568 for its seven home duals this season.
"It's like going to a rock concert," Strobel said. "Those kids go out and wrestle. Whether they win or lose, they're fighting hard from the get-go. I'd like to see (Oregon State hire) a coach who teaches a brand of wrestling that's fun to watch."
Said Bielenberg, also a member of the OSU wrestling endowment fund: "You talk to any of Oregon State's older alums, we want to see somebody who teaches a style where the kids are on the attack and going for falls. That was one of the problems (under Zalesky). When you're too defensive, you might be good, but you don't improve as rapidly from an offensive standpoint. The Penn States, the Ohio States and Iowas, they're aggressive, going for falls. They attract the very best wrestlers in the country, and the guys aren't standing around."
There was little enthusiasm with this year's Oregon State wrestling team. The Beavers' first eight duals were on the road, the home opener not coming until Jan. 10. OSU had only five home duals, with an average attendance of 701.
"That's been a real negative of the program — not scheduling many home matches," Bielenberg said. "It's hard to be a good fan."
One thing that will help attract a quality coach is the OSU Wrestling Endowment Fund, which totals $5.1 million, making it the most active and highest-funded endowment at Oregon State for any sport. Without its existence, OSU might not have a wrestling program.
"There are not many universities that have wrestling endowment funds established, and Oregon State has a very aggressive one," said Tomasovic, who has been the endowment fund board's chair for four years. "Our goal is to permanently endow the 9.9 scholarships at about $10 million."
If the fund were to get that high, the return from the investments would pay for the scholarships. For now, it's helping out a lot. The fund grows annually.
"Over the last six years, we've averaged over $250,000 that's gone to support the current wrestling operations to include some travel, supplies and recruiting," said Tomasovic, who was fourth at 150 in the NCAAs as a junior in 1970.
There is a general fund and several individual gift agreements, the first by arranged by Thomas in May 1989. The others are made in the names of Jess Lewis, Robin Reed, Bill Brickey, John Miller, John Platt and the Joe and Jane McHenry family.
If Oregon State were to discontinue wrestling, the funds would remain in perpetuity for 20 years, Tomasovic said. After that 20-year period, the endowment board would make a decision to which other wrestling activities the funds would be directed.
Bartholomae has created a seven-person coach selection committee, chaired by senior associate AD Jacque Bruns.
"We have a lot of folks on the committee with a wrestling background," Bartholomae said. "We want any coaching candidates to be able to talk wrestling with the group."
Bartholomae has an idea of some of the traits he is looking for in a coach.
"We believe we are the landmark wrestling program in this part of the country," he said. "We want someone who can walk in and be connected, who can effectively communicate goals for the program and galvanize the wrestling community.
"We want someone who can make everybody — kids, parents and high school coaches — feel this is where you want to go if you want to be an All-American or national champion. We want somebody with a history of success, somebody who has done it at the highest level and been on that national stage."
Does the hire have to come with head coaching experience?
"Not imperative," Bartholomae said. "We would love to speak to head coaches who present the qualities we're looking for, but there are some tremendous assistant and associate head coaches. And really, those are the guys most involved in day-to-day recruiting."
Strobel said quality candidates from the head coaching and assistant coaching ranks "are both out there."
"Oregon State is a cherry job, one that somebody should aspire to," he said. "We're going to draw some good candidates. Oregon State has proved in the past it can dominate the West. I see no reason why that can't happen again. There are some dedicated alumni who want to give back, who want to make sure the program stays strong."
Many wrestling alumni have felt for years they had little support from the athletic department administration.
"A lot of us were afraid to press the issue (for a coaching change)," Bielenberg said. "In football or basketball, dollars talk. If you put too much pressure on a new AD, you're afraid you're going to lose the program."
Tomasovic said those fears, at least now, are unfounded.
"Under Scott Barnes' leadership, we've made significant improvements to wrestling facilities as well as a hire to increase the support staff of wrestling," said Tomasovic, who will be a member of the coach selection committee. "Beyond a shadow of a doubt, they're committed to bringing Oregon State wrestling back into a competitive program annually and the upper tiers of the NCAA tournament."
Among the names expected to be contacted by Oregon State about its head coaching position are Terry Brands, associate head coach at Iowa; Zack Esposito, associate head coach, Oklahoma State; Kevin Ward, head coach, Army, and Cary Kolat, head coach, Campbell (in Buies Creek, North Carolina).
"There is phenomenal interest in the job," Tomasovic said. "It will be difficult to choose the best possible coach to lead us from a number of qualified applicants that are well-known names within the wrestling coaching community.
"There's absolutely no reason why we can't be as competitive as we used to be."
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