In 2008, Chris Bono, who was serving as head wrestling coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, received a surprising request.
After Nate Gallick, one of Bono’s assistant coaches at the time, was forced to withdraw from the Midlands Championships at Northwestern University shortly before the prestigious holiday wrestling event, Midlands founder and director Ken Kraft called the UTC head wrestling coach. Kraft was upset about Gallick not being able to compete in his event.
“I said, ‘Ken, how can we make it right?'” recalled Bono. “He said, ‘Well, you enter it.’ I said, ‘I’m in.’ I love the Midlands. Ken Kraft has always taken care of me. They’ve always been great.”
Bono, who was still competing on the senior level in freestyle at the time, not only entered the Midlands while serving as UTC’s head wrestling coach, but he went 6-0 en route to winning the title at 157 pounds, outscoring his opponents 49-18.
“I had a very, very young team,” said Bono, who now serves as the head wrestling coach at South Dakota State. “We were going up there to get some experience. It was one of those things where I wanted to show my wrestlers how to make weight twice, how to compete, how to go win a tournament. They had their eyes on me the whole time. They saw the training process, what it took to show up each match and win the tournament.”
Bono’s Midlands title in 2008 also helped the Chattanooga wrestling program gain national attention.
“It was big for recruiting,” said Bono. “It was shown on the Big Ten Network. I was wearing the Chattanooga singlet. Dan Gable was announcing it. It was a big-time thing for us to get the Chattanooga name out there at the time.”
Bono juggled coaching and competing at the same time first at his alma mater, Iowa State, and then at Chattanooga.
“For me, I didn’t feel it was really that hard,” said Bono of coaching and competing at the same time. “What became hard was my family life. Coaching and competing was easy because those were my priorities. My family life suffered. It was just very early mornings and very late nights.”
The obvious question one might ask: Did competing and coaching at the same time take away from the program he was leading?
“When I look back on it, yeah, it probably did,” said Bono. “But at the time I didn’t think it did. I didn’t work out with the team. They were completely separate. When I’d run and lift, it was before the team would have their morning workouts. I want to say it benefited the team a little bit because these guys saw how I worked out and they joined me. They weren’t mandatory workouts. They were optional, but guys were starting to show up and get work done. I was tired. I was worn out. I would say it affected me more mentally than actually physically getting the work done. I would get the work done, but mentally it was exhausting.”
Bono, a three-time U.S. World Team member, says that the administration at Chattanooga was “one-hundred percent” behind him competing at the same time he was serving as the program’s head coach. The bulk of his training and competition schedule occurred outside of the college wrestling season.
Bono was traveling the world and bringing in the best training partners in the country that his wrestlers at UTC were able to utilize. He admits there are pros and cons to coaching and competing at the same time, but believes many people focus on the cons.
“Really, I think the fans, message boards and the media blow it up to make it a con, make it like a really, really negative thing. When you have a great athletic director and a great support system, it can be done. I think only a select few can do it. I felt like I was one of those guys.”
Another one of those guys is Coleman Scott.
Scott, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist in freestyle, was hired as North Carolina’s head wrestling coach in June of 2015. He was still competing at the time with his sights set on getting back on the Olympic team in 2016 and winning a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Scott admitted that balancing coaching and competing took some work on the time-management side, but understood his position as head wrestling coach at UNC took priority over his own competitive wrestling career.
“If you want a paycheck, then your job has to come first, and that’s the coaching aspect of it,” said Scott. “But your training never really falls back. You’re still doing the maximum effort. You’re still doing great practices. It’s just going to be a little bit longer of a day. You’re going to be in the office between practices. There’s just not as much recovery time. It’s a lot busier.”
Scott worked out on his own time. He did not compete during the college wrestling season, with the exception of the U.S. Open in Las Vegas when his wrestlers were on Christmas break.
He would go on to reach the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic Trials this past April before losing on criteria to Tony Ramos, ending Scott’s bid for a second straight Olympic medal. His direct boss at UNC was in Iowa City to watch Scott compete at the Trials.
“I wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t want me to,” Scott said of the administration at UNC. “They brought me in to coach. They didn’t bring me in to compete. If I would have had to retire, then I would have had to retire. My family comes first. If they’re taken care of, then I’m fine. They’re going to get taken care of through coaching. It’s how our system is here in the U.S.”
It’s unconventional for a head wrestling coach to still be competing, and because of that Bono and Scott have had their critics.
“People would talk,” said Bono. “It didn’t bother me. In my heart of hearts I knew my training was second to my team. I knew who was paying my salary. I knew who was supporting me. I knew what the most important thing was. If there was ever a conflict, I always made sure the team was taken care of.”
Scott had critics on both sides of the fence.
“I had some saying I took away from the school,” said Scott. “I had others saying I took away from myself. I worry about the things I can control. It is what it is. I’m going to have critics in everyday life for the rest of my career, whether it’s UNC coaching, the people I hire, the guys I coach internationally or the guys I recruited. You’re always going to have critics. I let that stuff go in one ear and out the other.”
Like Bono, Scott believes serving as a head wrestling coach in the midst of a competitive wrestling career isn’t for everyone. According to Scott, it takes certain characteristics, maturity and a strong support system.
“It’s going to take somebody mature,” said Scott. “It’s going to take someone who has been in the game for a couple years and realizes what it takes to win. I couldn’t have done it when I was young because I didn’t know what it took to be an Olympian. I thought I did, but I truly didn’t. It’s going to take somebody dedicated.
“The biggest thing is your support system. My wife, two kids and our families were one-hundred percent behind me. We were all one. They trusted me and believed in me. It was huge that my administration allowed me to do both and was fine with it. It’s the way it needs to be or I wasn’t going to do it.”
ACC head wrestling coaches Steve Garland (Virginia) and Pat Popolizio (NC State) admit they would never do it.
“I personally couldn’t just because I’m crazy,” said Garland, who has served as Virginia’s head wrestling coach since 2006. “I know how much almost borderline obsession goes into my job, sleepless nights, constantly thinking about how to get better, fundraising and road trips, and then I’m also heavily involved in ministry where and when I can using the platform of wrestling to share the gospel. I’m constantly doing something. I literally just don’t know how that would work for me. I think it’s amazing. I respect the heck out of it. I think it’s fantastic.”
Added Popolizio: “I personally would never do it because I know the demands of being a head coach. You’re always working or always doing something. One of them gives. Your training would give or your coaching would give. I think that part would be very challenging. Obviously, guys have proven you can do it. It goes back to who you’re surrounded by and who can pick up the extra slack that you can’t do.”
What about assistant coaches?
Garland never believed in the idea of having coaches on his staff who are still competing … that was until Keith Gavin joined his staff at Virginia in 2014.
“When I first started in coaching I didn’t think it was possible,” said Garland. “I just felt like there was too much office stuff. There was too much travel. It wasn’t going to be a good scenario. Now I’m the exact opposite because I lived it for the last two and a half years with Keith. Now I actually encourage it. Now I think it’s great.”
Garland said Gavin’s maturity, along with his structured training regimen, made him a perfect fit on the Virginia coaching staff.
“He has his game pretty tight,” Garland said of Gavin, who will be the head coach of Virginia’s regional training center. “When he came here he had all his training incorporated in a way that wasn’t going to interfere with anything we were doing. As a matter of fact, it typically enhanced what we were doing because he was training with guys on the team and that would help everybody. He did it in a way that his training camps were molded around down times in our program’s seasons. He was able to do it and not affect himself or us in a negative way.”
Popolizio has two active wrestlers on his coaching staff at NC State, Adam Hall and Obe Blanc.
“We use it to our advantage,” said Popolizio. “I feel like we do a really good job overall of working with each other to make sure these guys get the freedom that they need to still train, compete and go to any tournament they want. It has helped us a lot in a lot of different aspects of our program.”
Popolizio says it works well at NC State because of the program’s resources. There are several people on staff or in the program to help in any aspect needed.
“When I was at Binghamton it never would have worked because we were understaffed and didn’t have the resources,” said Popolizio. “Now being at NC State and having guys like Nick Gwiazdowski, Tommy Gantt, Quinton Godley and Timmy McCall there, they can carry a lot of the weight. Obviously, they can’t recruit, but there are things they can free up for me, Frank [Beasley] or Adam [Hall] … so they can hit the road. We’ll pick up the load as a staff. We have a director of ops who is very organized. If you’re understaffed, the guys on the team and the program are going to feel the hit.
Bono believes having postgraduates in the wrestling room training or coaching is vital to a program’s success.
“If you look at the model being used when Iowa was winning all those titles, they had all these postgrads training,” said Bono. “If you look at the model used by Cael Sanderson at Penn State when he’s winning these NCAA championships, they’ve got a great RTC with postgrads. Ohio State won a title and has a great RTC with postgrads. That’s the model for winning NCAA championships and doing it the legal way.”
Bono says his program at South Dakota State does not have the resources to pay eight to ten wrestlers in the RTC, so it’s important for the program to have assistant coaches who work out and train, like SDSU assistant coaches Jon Reader and A.J. Schopp. Reader has been actively competing in freestyle on the senior level, while Schopp is just 16 months removed from his college wrestling career at Edinboro.
“If Jon Reader never wrestled another competitive match again I’m fine with that because that guy is in there training every single day with our guys,” said Bono. “They get that world-class feel. A.J. Schopp is in there training and wrestling with our guys. Not that it’s a requirement for my assistant coaches, but they want to train. They want to wrestle. These guys need to feel that.
“When you get to the NCAA tournament, nobody is going to feel like Jon Reader. They’re getting their hardest match every single day in the wrestling room. If the assistant coaches just sat on the wall and instructed we wouldn’t be benefiting these kids at all.”
When Reader has competed in events or been away from the SDSU wrestling program, Bono has taken over his coaching responsibilities. He believes some head wrestling coaches simply don’t want that added responsibility.
“It’s a little extra work for me, but that’s what we do,” said Bono. “I feel some coaches don’t want to take over those responsibilities or it’s going to hurt their program. Maybe it comes from their administration. They might be saying we’re paying this guy’s bills. He’s got to do this. He shouldn’t be off running around the country or the world. I think it’s a no-brainer. If he makes a World team or Olympic team, that does nothing but help your program.”
Scott said he came from a system where almost every volunteer assistant coach he had was still competing. Scott recently added two-time World Team member Tony Ramos to his staff at UNC as a volunteer assistant coach.
“I think a volunteer coach should still be competing,” said Scott. “To me, that’s a big part of their role, to train and win world titles.”
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