Dave Malecek has built a consistently strong Division III wrestling program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Last weekend, the Eagles captured their sixth straight WIAC championship and 21st WIAC title in program history. Malecek has guided the program to top-four finishes at the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships seven times. UW-La Crosse won the National Duals title this year for the first time in school history.
MatBoss caught up with Malecek and talked to him about the WIAC, winning the National Duals title, Division III wrestling, training with Dave Schultz and more.
What are your thoughts on the current state of WIAC wrestling?
Malecek: I think every team has been ranked in the top 25 at some point this year. In my 16 years, this is the best depth the WIAC has had. Every team is really good. There are some hampers at every school. There's no easy dual. It's as good as it's been in my 16 years here.
You won the National Duals title for the first in school history. How important was that accomplishment to you and your program?
Malecek: It was really big. We can keep selling this dream that you can come here and win a national championship. We've been second. We've been third. We've been fourth. We've been fifth. We've been all over the board. We just had never won it. We've won individual titles. We've had 21 NCAA champs here, but we hadn't won a title at the National Duals or the NCAA championships. So to win it kind of brings a little clarity that it can be done here. We know a lot of things have to fall into place. A lot of things have to be done correctly. I just feel like our guys did a really good job. It was really big for the state of Wisconsin. It was really big for our university. Our university has won 77 national championships in all sports. So to get a chance to be a part of that and just have that for our university, I'm just really proud of our program and our guys.
Seth Brossard (165) is one of your top newcomers. He was a multiple-time junior college All-American. What have you seen from him this season?
Malecek: He's been awesome. I've been coaching 28 years and you only get a couple guys like that come through your program. At least I have. He's just something special. He takes care of classes. He takes care of workouts. He just does everything you ask from him and then some. He has a smile on his face. He works his tail off. He's a farm kid from Minnesota. He's the real deal. He was well coached at RCTC. He was well coached in high school. He has an amazing family. If I could have ten more of those guys I would just be the luckiest coach in the world. We love what he brings to the team, the program, the work ethic, the personality. He's the total package.
Earlier this season you hosted a unique dual meet event that included teams from all three NCAA divisions. Is the plan to make that an annual event? If so, how do you see it evolving or changing in the coming years?
Malecek: Yeah, I absolutely want to do that. We try to do something different for our guys and give them what we call a championship experience. We have gone to some schools and there's 150 people there at the dual. I see it at all levels. There's may be a hundred people at some of these dual meets. So we've always tried to be creative and have ideas that would get our guys to wrestle in front of 500, 800, 1000 people. It's just better for the sport of wrestling. So we're going to continue that. We have Chris Bono and Wisconsin on board. We really want to keep that a tradition every year, have a big time dual. So I'm really excited about that.
You have coached many teams to trophies at the NCAA Championships. Is this a team that can challenge for a team trophy? And if so, what is it going to take?
Malecek: Every year it takes a little bit of luck. You never know with COVID, but I think we just have to keep trying to get where the guys are wrestling at their best and reaching their potential. If each guy just reaches their potential then good things will happen. We don't really worry about whether we can win a national title. I just think about how far we can bring these guys. We take great pride in developing guys, bringing in guys that maybe weren't the five-star athletes, but bringing in good guys that just want to work real hard and become better wrestlers and better young men. Then we have a shot. So I think it comes down to having them ready to go in championship season of conference, regionals and nationals in February and March, and then you give yourself an opportunity. But a lot of things have to go right. You just have stay the course. I think this group of guys will work and give me everything they've got. That part I just love.
How do you view the landscape of Division III wrestling this season? Obviously, a lot has made of the Augsburg-Wartburg streak. But who do you view as the frontrunners to challenge for the NCAA team title?
Malecek: You have to show respect to all the teams. I think there's a bunch of teams from the American Rivers Conference like Loras and Warburg. Obviously, you have North Central, Wabash and Augsburg. There are a ton of teams that I think all have some guys. I think it could be one of the craziest NCAA tournaments. You talk about the landscape of Division III, man, we're growing. We're thriving. There's some amazing wrestling. And it is awesome. I love it. I think it's so competitive. These guys are all doing it with no scholarships. They're just battling because they love the sport of wrestling. I'm so proud of where Division III is right now and I'm excited for the future of it. I'm so just appreciative that I'm a part of Division III. There's some great coaches and some amazing athletes.
You competed collegiately in the early 90s. When you look at wrestling now compared to when you competed, what do you see as the biggest differences?
Malecek: The biggest difference I see technically is the scrambling, not that it wasn't there in the 90s. I think athletes are ready earlier. I think the wrestlers are smarter with nutrition, sleep and recovery. I think coaches are smarter with training cycles and things like that. But I think there was really good wrestling. We were having a conversation with our guys the other day on who's better: Bruce Bumgardner or Gable Steveson. Bruce has 13 medals and then you have Gable, who just won Olympic gold. Holy smokes. Wrestling has changed for the better, I think.
I know you worked briefly with Olympic champion Dave Schultz when you came to UNI. What do you remember about your time with Dave Schultz?
Malecek: I was just one of the thousands that can say they got a chance to learn from Dave Schultz. Unbelievable. He came and worked with Northern Iowa when I was there. Our head coach Don Briggs talked him into coming to work out. I got to train with him. I've never been beat so bad in my life in a great way … and he coached and taught the techniques. I can't even explain it. It was an unbelievable experience. Like I said, I'm one of the thousands that he touched, that he helped. Thirty something years later I'm still just in awe that I got to wrestle Dave Schultz in the room. He was 163 pounds and I was 190 pounds at the time. He dismantled me so easily. It was great. But it just showed me that there's a whole lot higher level of wrestling, the thinking, the technical, the mindset. It's nothing but glorious memories and amazing gratitude towards Dave Schultz.
You have 18 wrestlers with 3.0 GPAs and one with a 4.0. How much pride do you take in the academic success of your wrestlers?
Malecek: A lot. One of the things I'm most proud of is that I've been here 16 years and every one of my guys graduated. I doubt there's a lot of programs that can state that. Every guy that has come and wrestled for me all four years graduated. I'm really proud of that. We take great pride in our academics. We've been ranked one of the top two universities in the whole Midwest. It's an amazing university academically. School is hard here, but our guys are disciplined and they get through it. We put a lot of time and energy into them because we're trying to create better young men and get them to graduate in four years, not five or six or seven. We want to get them in and out in four years and give them a great experience academically and a great experience athletically.
Ross Needham was a two-time All-American at UW-La Crosse. Now he's been your head assistant for several seasons. What makes him a successful coach? And why do you work well with him?
Malecek: I got a chance to coach him his senior year and then he went and coached in high school for a couple years. I think it's the energy he brings and the opportunity. He knows the program, knows the university. Like he talks about, he chose this place not once but twice. As an athlete, then again as a coach. I think he's grown a lot as a coach and as a person over the years and I think we work well together. He's really good at being organized and detail oriented. I'm not as much, so that's been really good. He brings a love for the program having wrestled here and been here so long. He's just continually trying to grow and become better. He's a great middleweight coach for our guys but he works with all of them. He just does a really good job helping and he's got the jump-in attitude we talk about. No matter what it is, it's always an adventure from going to get groceries to getting the vans to moving bleachers, he always just jumps in and that's the part I love about him.