MatBoss Q&A: Dennis Papadatos, Hofstra head wrestling coach
Posted by Andrew Hipps on Monday, October 4, 2021 1:33 PM UTC
Hofstra head wrestling coach Dennis Papadatos coaching at the NCAAs

Dennis Papadatos has had a successful career in wrestling both as a competitor and coach at Hofstra University. Papadatos, a two-time NCAA qualifier for the Pride, took over as Hofstra's head wrestling coach in 2014 after serving on coaching staffs at Hofstra, Northern Illinois, Binghamton and North Carolina.   

In seven seasons as Hofstra head coach, Papadatos has had 13 NCAA qualifiers, including seven in 2021. The program has gone 13-6 in dual meets over the past two seasons. 

MatBoss caught up with Papadatos and talked to him about this past season, his staff, Tom Ryan, Pat Popolizio, state of college wrestling, expectations and more. 

Last season you had seven NCAA qualifiers, which is the most at Hofstra since 2011. But I know you talk about All-American plaques. How do you view last season?

Papadatos: Considering the adversity and just a lot going on and people probably doubting us, we were better than having seven qualifiers. At one point I'm like, 'Dude, we can have ten guys. We had nine guys that were nationally ranked. We had all ten of our guys seeded in the top eight in the EIWA. We were legitimately capable of sending all ten if we had the perfect day. Did I really think we were going to send all ten? Probably not. 

So a little bit of a letdown to be honest, but it's hard to say it was a letdown when it was another jump forward, It's just hard for everyone to be firing on all cylinders on the same weekend, especially when you have other teams trying to do the same thing. So it was definitely progress. We're definitely happy. We're definitely not satisfied. We want to do better and now everyone's coming back and a little more normalcy this year. We got everyone back, but we may redshirt some guys. So we were happy with last year, but we're not satisfied. 

You recently announced some coaching changes. You promoted Jamie Franco to associate head coach and added Mauro Correnti as an assistant coach. What went into those changes?

Papadatos: We were down an assistant coach all last season. Our volunteer coach Mike Patrovich was our full-time coach two years ago. After the national tournament was canceled in 2020 he stepped down because he took a full-time position making more money and he stayed on as a volunteer. So he's around a lot less but he's staying on because he didn't fully want to leave. It was the money thing. So he stayed on as a volunteer and because of COVID we weren't able to replace his position. There was a hiring freeze. So we went through all of last year down an assistant coach. So I was waiting 18 months to hire a new assistant and we finally got approval. Mike is still on as a volunteer. We promoted Jamie. He does a lot. He helps me lead this thing. In a lot of situations I lean on him. I put him in charge of a lot of things and he's been doing a great job. So I felt like he deserved the financial raise. He deserved the title raise and he wanted it. It was a pretty easy fit. I'll be honest, I lean on him even harder now. He's kind of jumped on it. We interviewed a bunch of people for the other role and we felt comfortable with the guy we hired. We brought Mauro in and now we're good upper body. I wanted to bring a heavyweight in, especially for my heavyweight Zachary Knighton-Ward. We weren't strictly looking at heavyweights, but it was a big factor of mine. We had some good, qualified people. Some people that even had better career wrestling accolades in college than Mauro did. But he just really wanted to be here. He was hungry. He was the right fit. And he's been great since. Every day it's clear as day that we hired the right guy. So we're in a good spot. So we made those changes for the better and I think they're going to help us grow.

Holden Heller won a conference championship at 157 pounds. He was undefeated heading into the NCAAs but went 0-2 in St. Louis. What does he need to do get on the podium at the NCAAs?

Papadatos: He did, but he also had a horrible draw. Undefeated, won the conference. At one point earlier in the year he beat Hartman from Army when he was ranked like eighth in the country. He goes undefeated and he's the 19th seed. He draws the Michigan kid who was ranked top eight all year, just got hurt at Big Tens and forfeited down to sixth. So he got like the 14th seed, and that's who he draws the first round. They were high school teammates. They lived together in high school. They know each other. We lose in overtime. Then in the wrestlebacks he drew Hartman, who was also ranked to eight. The match got away from him and he goes 0-2. But those kids we lost to were ranked in the top eight in the country last year.

His seed to me was nonsense. I thought he got an unfair seed and then because of some other circumstances he ended up with a crazy draw. It is what it is. The truth is he may redshirt next year. We don't even know. He may go 157. He may redshirt. He may come back at 165. We don't know what's going to fully happen yet. He was laser-focused last year. So as long as he keeps that laser focus he's going to be just fine. He's hard to wrestle. He's really wiry and scrappy and very good in weird positions and usually forces wrestlers into his style. But he may redshirt this year. We don't know. We're going to decide a lot of that later. But he may redshirt. If he redshirts obviously being an All-American this year won't be in the cards. But the good news is we got a good team this year even with him redshirting. He could come back with two years left of eligibility. So we'll see. But as long as he keeps his laser focus I think he'll be just fine. We feel very comfortable having him face anyone in the country.

Sage Heller did not compete last season. How is he progressing? 

Papadatos: He's nationally ranked and put in a great summer. He missed last year because of injury and he reinjured that injury. We're nervous for this year. I don't know what's going to happen. We hope to get him healthy. The good news is he's really good. He looked great all summer. He made a lot of progress. He looked great last year before he got hurt and missed the whole season for injury. So it kind of stinks that it happened probably week and a half ago. So we don't know what's going to happen with it yet. Kind of taking it day-by-day. But we also feel very comfortable. Ross McFarland was nationally ranked as well, so we have multiple guys that can wrestle at that weight. We also have Reece Heller, who is definitely going to redshirt. He is very good as well. If Sage is healthy, he and Ross will battle. We feel both of them are very good. So we feel like we have two national level guys at that weight, so if they're both healthy we're going to let them bang it out. Sage is nationally ranked, so he gets the early nod and he's a leader and he made jumps but we'll see what transpires there.

Obviously, the EIWA was a little bit different last season without the Ivy League teams. Those teams come back this year. There was a coaching change at Cornell. What are your thoughts on the EIWA as a whole?

Papadatos: I've always said the EIWA is the toughest conference to get to the national tournament in. People can argue with me all they want. I am not saying we're the best conference. The Big Ten is the best. I'm not going to pretend it's not. We're the toughest conference to get to the national tournament. The reason being is everybody's good. We have huge numbers and everybody's good. You've got to have a good weekend. I don't feel like we get our fair share in the rankings. We'll have five spots in a weight, but we'll have eight guys good enough to go. So then it's a battle. It's a battle every day. I feel like we don't get all the respect we probably deserve as a conference. I honestly believe the EIWA is the hardest conference to get to the national tournament because of the way it's structured. The Big Ten is the best conference, but the EIWA is deep and we don't get the bids we deserve. 

You were a four-year starter for Tom Ryan at Hofstra. What are some of the biggest things that you took from him into your own coaching career?

Papadatos: Enthusiasm, positive outlook. I was always a workhorse. Tom was a workhorse. That's one of the reasons why me and Tom got along so well. I worked like an animal and Tom liked that. I like guys that work. I work as a head coach. I don't know if I got that from him, but I definitely got belief, confidence, expectations, grit, toughness, just being sincere and genuinely caring about people. Tom genuinely cared about me outside of just wrestling. I genuinely care about my guys. I don't know if I just got it from him, but I definitely experienced it. So it'd be hard to say that I didn't get some of it.

Early in your career you were instrumental in helping turn Binghamton into a top-25 team, serving as an assistant under Pat Popolizio. I know it was a long time ago now. I have heard you call them the most formative years of your adult life. What was so impactful about those years?

Papadatos: I got there when I was 26, 27 years old. Pat was 27. It was just us two. We had no volunteer coach. We had no second assistant. We were one of the worst teams in the country. We didn't know what we were doing. We were both willing to work. We both were enthusiastic. We both really cared. We both really liked it. And we became men together. That place kind of put us on the map. Then we kind of fell in love with the process and the growth of the team. It became a big part of who we were. So me and Pat are still interconnected because of it. It was almost like family, like brothers. He leaned on me and I leaned on him. We did it together. So there's always a special place in my heart for it. I would talk to Tom Ryan. He would talk to John Smith. Then we would do what we thought. We talked to Mark Cody. Every day was a melting pot to figure out what we were going to do to try to get better. We tried to go to the people that we trusted. I'd gather information. He'd gather information. Then we would sit down and talk about it. We were just so open-minded and willing to work. Most of the things I use as a coach are from those years, from my own experience. I probably coach more from those years than my experience as an athlete. So I just changed a lot and grew a lot. My mindset has changed a bunch. As the head coach, the last couple years have really changed me but it's just a really important time. I feel like we were kids and when it was over we were men. I don't know if other people think we're men, but even though I was 27 and married and he was 27 and we were kids. By the time it was over we were men. That's what I think about those years.

I know you're still close with Pat. Did you guys have a relationship before Binghamton? 

Papadatos: We knew of each other. I'm Papadatos. He's Popolizio. We graduated from high school at the same time in New York, so we knew who each other were. We would see each other. It was a hi-bye situation. I knew Frank Popolizio better from coaching and starting all these events. Frank was the one to set us up. Frank really liked me and he's like, 'Hey, my brother got a head coaching job at Binghamton. You're going to be his assistant.' I'm like, 'I don't know. Give me Pat's number so I can call him. I want to congratulate him.' I didn't even have Pat's number. We just knew of each other and hi-bye type of situation. And then the rest is history.

What are your thoughts on the current state of college wrestling?

Papadatos: Women's wrestling is helping. It's growing. I think with people like Gable [Steveson] getting the biggest NIL contract, it's huge. The sport is growing. Administrations are seeing money in it and they see the value. I think more places are seeing value and they're adding it on the Division I level and on the Division I Power Five Conference level. So I think it's growing. We need to still do a better job to make sure we continually show that we have worth and add value to the university and to the department. And we're a sport that needs to get more resources because we can do a lot for our university. So I actually think is in a good place. You always get nervous with COVID and budget cuts. Do your job, man. Do your job and stay off the chopping block by getting good grades, don't get in trouble, get your fundraising in and try to win. If you do those things it will be hard to hard to be cut. Obviously, Stanford was winning and I'm sure the kids had good grades. I know they were fundraising. So it's not always the exact recipe, but the program was saved. So there's value. I think we're in a good place, but we have work to do. I think women's wrestling can really be something that anchors this in within the athletic department.

You obviously return a strong team. Six of your wrestlers are ranked by InterMat. Seven returning NCAA qualifiers. What are the expectations for this year's team?

Papadatos: First off, I don't understand how Greg [Gaxiola] is not ranked. The kid has qualified twice for the national tournament. He qualified the first year out of the Big 12. So he made it through the Big 12, took fourth at the Big 12 tournament. He comes here and qualifies for nationals, goes 2-2 and he's not ranked. Someone explain that to me. I've been wondering how he's not ranked. He just went 2-2 last year. It's the second time he qualified. You can say, 'Well, he qualified out of the EIWA and there were too many spots. He qualified the year before out of the Big 12. Now what's your excuse? 

We don't know if he's going to go 149 he may go 157. And if he goes 157 we are definitely redshirting Holden. Greg is a senior, so we don't know what we're going to do. How good is our true freshman at 133? He looks good, but we'll see how good he is. We probably won't have Dylan Ryder this year. You have to be vaccinated and he's not. I don't think that he's going to be coming back. We have two freshmen, so we got to see how good those freshmen are. They both were nationally ranked good recruits. At 141 we really like Justin Hoyle. We think he's under the radar. Is Greg going to 149 and Holden is going to redshirt at 57? Are we going to redshirt Holden and put Greg at 57 and then we have a new guy 49? That's the stuff. Is Sage going to be healthy? Trey [Rogers] looks great. Zach [Knighton-Ward] looks great. Ross [McFarland] had some quality wins. He's back. We really feel comfortable with Sage and Ross. We have Ricky Stamm if he stays healthy. So it's hard to say what the expectations are. But we think we're good. We think we have depth even besides those guys I mentioned. Joe McGinty could compete. I don't know what my expectations are for the team. I kind of want to see how the season progresses and transpires, but we feel like we're good. We feel like we're good enough to do well at the EIWAs. We feel like we're good enough to have multiple guys at the NCAA tournament again. We feel like we have some guys that can be wrestling on Day 3, as long as they keep progressing. We have goals and expectations that we will be wrestling on the last day of the wrestling season.