Daniel Elliott is entering his 10th season as Gardner-Webb's head wrestling coach. The former GWU standout guided the program to a share of the Southern Conference title in 2016. Elliott has had a dozen NCAA qualifiers during his head coaching tenure, including three in 2016.
MatBoss caught up with Elliott and talked to him about his team, competitive career (including his victory over Gregor Gillespie), SoCon, expectations and more.
How's the training going? Any early takeaways?
Elliott: I think compared to last year we're doing really well, with all the craziness of last year's world. We have a good group of guys. They've been out doing what we've asked them to do. It's been good so far. Of course everyone is excited at this point in the year. We just have to see where we are in three weeks. I'm ready to get into that next phase. I think our kids are ready to do a little more wrestling and a lot less running.
Jha'Quan Anderson had a strong redshirt freshman season. Picked up a win at the NCAA Championships. He never won a Georgia state title. What did you like about him coming out of high school? And how's he progressing?
Elliott: You can look at Jha'Quan and tell he has that athleticism. He was a straight-A kid coming out of high school, a yes sir, no sir guy. Great character. You pair that with his body structure. He's 5"8' and has a 6'-7' wingspan. You can tell the kid has some ability that you and I might not have. I was sold on him as an athlete. I was sold on him as a person. Obviously, he has a lot to learn on the mat and he has done all [inaudible 01:58]. I still don't think he knows how good he's going to be because he hasn't been that type of kid who has been wrestling his whole life. He started in the middle school years and is just now figuring it out. He's a leader in the room. He's an RA on campus. He's just a good kid. I think that he's got a pretty high ceiling just because of the type of kid he is.
RJ Mosley seems to be progressing every year. What does he need to do to take that step on contend for a spot on the podium?
Elliott: He lost by two last year to [Zach] Hartman from Bucknell, who took fourth. He lost by two to [Cameron] Amine from Michigan, who took seventh. He's right there in the mix with all these guys. Honestly, I think those close losses helped him actually believe that he's good enough to do it. That is a big thing for him. He's fast. He's strong. He doesn't get out of position. He's hard to score on. We're working a lot on being more offensive. Just trying to get him to open up a little more. If he can sneak two more takedowns a match he's going to be hard to beat. That's been our focus with him, just being a little meaner with our hands and little more aggressive on our feet.
You released your schedule. It's very challenging. Includes early season duals against Virginia Tech and NC State. You compete against Michigan State. You compete in the Southern Scuffle. All before the SoCon season. What is your philosophy on creating a schedule?
Elliott: We have to get our guys opportunities with some higher rank guys early on because everyone is so focused in on their conference season in January and February. So we have to get them early and we have to be ready to go too. And that's the next part for us. We have to be almost March form in mid-November. But if we go out there and we can compete the way we know how we're going to have a handful of guys that are putting themselves in position to earn those ranking points at the end of the year with RPI and win percentage and wins over those ranked guys. So that's kind of early on what we're looking for. We've got them spread out a little bit. We have the Mountaineer Open at App State. It's going to have some good teams in it. Two weeks later we'll see Virginia Tech and then two weeks later we'll see NC State. So we can kind of see where we are with those top tier guys. So we'll be able to tweak some things and work to improve in certain areas. By the time we get to the conference season we've seen three top-10 teams and highly ranked kids. We shouldn't be afraid of much come second semester. It's like you get thrown into the fire early and if you come out of it standing, then you're going to be in good position to beat up on some guys once we get to the second half the year.
You had had 13 wrestlers named to the Southern Conference Academic Honor Roll. How much pride do you take in the academic awards?
Elliott: It's a big deal. The easiest way to get a scholarship increase for us is to make straight-A's. Anytime anyone make straight-A's we give them $1,000 scholarship increase. That's such an important part of what we're doing here too, is helping these kids grow up and put them in a position long term to be successful and grades are a big part of that. So we reward those guys. You come in and do what you are supposed to do in the classroom, then you're going to be rewarded. We've had guys graduate that never started a match for us and ended up on like four or five grand athletic scholarships because they kept making straight-A's. So that's a big deal. It's why we're here as much as it is to win matches. So I feel if we don't back that up with some little incentives in the classroom, then we're not doing our part either.
You recently announced the addition of Boyce Cornwell to your coaching staff. What does he bring to your program?
Elliott: Boyce was part of my first-ever recruiting class as a head coach. He was part of a team that won a share of our conference championship. He's been in the national tournament. He's been at Gardner-Webb and has had success. He's a little younger, but he can be a little blunter with some guys. He doesn't care about their feelings as much. It's a guy closer to their age compared to me that has done it here. I think that carries a little bit of respect. He's able to share his experiences of being a successful wrestler at Gardner-Webb or getting better at Gardner-Webb. And he's a bigger guy. We've got some good upperweights and so he's going to help out with those guys too. I'm glad he's back.
As competitor, you had a very successful high school and college wrestling career but fell short of both a state title and All-America honors. How much do you think falling short of your goals in your competitive career has fueled you in your coaching career?
Elliott: When I walked off the mat after my senior year and fell short of my goal of being an All-American, that stung. The first thing my coach said was, 'You're going to remember this the rest of your life. This feeling right now, you'll think about every day.' That wasn't great advice at the time because you're out there in the hallway of the NCAAs crying but it's true because that's a crappy feeling. I did all of this and wasn't good enough on the right day. You beat guys that are on the podium or at the top of the podium. And you're like, 'What the heck happened?' I don't want my guys to feel that. I don't want my guys to pour everything into something and walk away and be like, 'Damn, I wasn't good enough.' I don't want them to feel the way I did. We're going to help them try to get over this hump so when they walk off at the end of the year or their career, hopefully they're getting their hand raised at some point and don't look back and say, 'Maybe I should have done this or I should have done that differently.' We don't want them to have those doubts. It took some time for me to look back at my career and say I did well. Honestly, it'll still burn today. So that's something that I share with them. Listen, I don't want you to feel the way I did. So let's try to work through it and do some things a little better and different and something you can be proud of the day you're done, not three years later.
One of your most notable wins as a competitor came against Gregor Gillespie. What did it take to beat someone as accomplished as Gillespie?
Elliott: I always tell our guys, 'You got to be too dumb to know better.' We were at a time when that instant access to videos, results wasn't available. I look at that as a blessing for my time because we didn't know any better. I didn't know much about this phenom from New York. All I knew was good on top. Don't let him get on top. Then he chose top and I'm like, 'Oh crap!' But for me it was just to go out and try to wrestle where I'm good and try to stay away from where he was good. That day it worked out. It's been fun to watch his career. But as I said, we didn't know who guys were and we didn't know who beat who. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to be in the mix with these better guys. I lost to Brent Metcalf by three and I was down one with 20 seconds left on top. So it was just about going out and competing and see where you're at and worry about yourself and not worry about what he does. My high school coach told me when I was a freshman in high school, 'If somebody's going to beat you, they have to go to hell and back to do it.' That's kind of how I wrestled in college. It was like, I don't want you to ever want to wrestle me again if you win because it was a street fight.
That win came at the 2005 Southern Scuffle, where you placed third in probably the toughest Southern Scuffle bracket ever. It included Gillespie, Dustin Schlatter, J Jaggers, Brent Metcalf and others. Did you realize at the time how difficult the weight class was?
Elliott: No, those guys were young at that time and just coming on the scene. You kind of look back and you're like, 'Holy crap. Four national champs and multiple-time All-Americans came out of that bracket. I think I went 8-1 over a two-day span. It was a good a lineup of dudes there.
You competed collegiately from 2001 to 2006. When you look at college wrestling then to now, what do you see as the biggest differences?
Elliott: I think young guys now are more equipped to compete out the gate than they ever were. You had your freshmen that needed to get adjusted to the room back in 2001. Most of these guys, at least the top-tier kids, are coming out ready to be in the mix to win national titles. I think there's more guys ready as freshmen than there has ever been. So I think that's a big part of it. In terms of the style of wrestling, things come and go. Probably from the end of my time through like 2010, 2011, so much of stuff was turning to scrambling, ankle rolling and things like that. I don't think we see quite as much as we did then. Some other things are coming back. I think we know a little more about training, on how to peak guys and how to be smart about some things. The quality has just grown. It's been awesome to see the sport grow and develop. You have so much available to learn from right now. RTCs have obviously changed things for those bigger programs. The whole quality of wrestling seems to have gone up.
The SoCon has kind of been ruled by Campbell, UTC and Appalachian State in recent years, but there are other programs like yours on the rise. What are your thoughts on the SoCon right now?
Elliott: I think as a group we've all gotten a lot better. I look at when I was in college, I think my team now would beat up on my team in college … and I thought we had some pretty good guys. You look at Campbell -- what [Cary] Kolat started and Coach Sentes is carrying on -- it's been nice to see someone start low and do it. They've come on quick. App State and Chattanooga have always been pretty tough. There are resources coming into the conference. PC adding. Davidson is doing a lot a lot more now than they were five, six years ago. So the quality is increasing. If we don't keep up, we're going to get left behind. I think we've done a good job. I think we're going to have guys in the mix this year. Last year we had eight guys lose in the semis of the conference tournament. Two were in overtime, two were by one and two were by two points. So we were in the mix to put six guys in the finals. I don't think we're far off.
Lastly, when you look at the wrestlers returning and who's coming in, what are your expectations for this year's team?
Elliott: I think we have the pieces in place to kind of make it a breakout year. We've got five fifth-year seniors in the lineup that have been multiple-year starters. So we have a little bit of an older group and that's going to help. We were so close in so many matches to get to the national tournament last year that we can't just hang our hat and say, 'Oh, we're going to be there again.' But there's no reason why we can't be. I think we're going to perform well against some of those top teams early. I think we're going to beat some teams we've lost to over the past few years. I think we can do a good job of sort of putting our name back out there as a place you can come and be successful.