Duke’s wrestling program has seen considerable success under the guidance of head coach Glen Lanham. The Blue Devils had consecutive top-25 finishes (2018-2019) and put together a streak of six consecutive years with an All-American (2015-2020).
MatBoss recently caught up with Lanham to discuss this past season, Finesilver family, Jacob Kasper, expectations for this coming season and more.
As a coach, what has been the biggest challenge for you during the COVID year? Was it training? Recruiting?
Lanham: I would say a combination of both. The recruiting obviously. You are not able to get in the gyms and scout guys and see what they are doing. Most of our recruits from last year didn’t have a state tournament, and then they come right in and then they’re thrust right into wrestling because the NCAA allowed them to wrestle without losing a year of eligibility. So it was a combination of that. Trying to deal with the whole mental side of kids, seniors, and freshmen coming in, and they were promised a lot more, and they got a lot less for sure. So just dealing with all that. So it was just across the board, just a lot of fires to put out, a lot of different things you’re dealing with.
You had five wrestlers compete at the U23 Nationals. How important are the international styles of wrestling to your program?
Lanham: I think it’s important from a development standpoint. You want to make sure that your guys are out there getting competition during the offseason and they are growing and competing. You can’t teach competition in a room, in a weight room or in a wrestling room. The only way you are going to get that — hone new skills — is to go out and wrestle. So it was pretty important to have our guys at U23s to see what their deficiencies were and to be able to work on them. And then just having them around for the summer too. We have like 10 guys in a room right now training for the summer. So that’s pretty important you have to have it, and obviously the recruiting part of it too. Your top-level recruits coming in want to do some type of freestyle. So we’re able to help provide the competition they need.
Former Duke wrestler Mitch Finesilver has been successful in freestyle competing for Israel. He won a bronze at the European Championships this year. Does he still train at Duke? And if so, what kind of impact does he have on your program?
Lanham: Mitch is in Jersey right now. He comes back. Obviously, Mitch has two brothers here. So he’s pretty connected with the program. And he’s a huge advocate for our program. I think it was good for Mitch [to leave] because he’s always been one of the Finesilver brothers. So we talked about him leaving and he thought that there would be some kind of hard feelings. I definitely get that. You want to grow. You want to separate, and it’s always been the four of them. So now it’s great to see what he’s able to do. But he comes back and trains with his brothers. He does a lot for us. And then he’s a great ambassador for what we’re doing here at Duke. So we couldn’t be happier with what Mitch is doing. He’s there with Kendall Cross. And Kendall takes really good care of him. So it’s a great situation for Mitch.
Another one of your former wrestlers, Jacob Kasper, has been climbing the ranks in professional wrestling. How much do you stay in touch with him? And what do you see for his future?
Lanham: I talk to Jacob at least once a week. He’s a super kid. I think he has a bright future. They’re moving him up the ladder really quick. He’s almost to the point where they’re going to debut him on TV and that usually takes a couple years, but he’s a hard worker. He was in this program. He had Crohn’s disease. He fought through that. He is a two-time All-American, two time NCAA semifinalist for us. Went from 174 to heavyweight … and then he had an outbreak of Crohn’s. He was never healthy at the national tournament. Before he wrestled Kyle Snyder, he was on an IV for three hours. The second to last weigh-in, he weighed 203 pounds. He could not keep food in him, but he’ll never tell you that. And to accomplish as much as he did battling that disease, hats off to him. He was a true leader for our program and someone who has always been loyal to Duke wrestling and I think he always will be.
Nathan Tomasello spent a year on your staff but recently announced that he is leaving to train full time in Norman. What has that done?
Lanham: Well, obviously it opened up a position. We’re looking right now. I can tell you we are looking to bring in somebody who’s familiar with a conference like the Big Ten or Big 12, those type of programs. I feel like that’s important. They have an understanding of competition. They see it. They are in a meatgrinder all the way up to getting ready for the national tournament. So I always wanted that mindset. I think that’s important. I’ve always stayed comfortable with going in those two conferences, and I can tell you probably we’ll do that again with the next position.
The shortened 2021 wrestling season started in January. There has always been talk of making college wrestling a one-semester sport. starting the season after the holidays. Is that something you support?
Lanham: I would definitely support that. The season is long. Keeping freshmen occupied and engaged is a very, very difficult thing, especially when they are not seeing in action and just having that long of a season. I don’t think there is one coach that doesn’t agree that we should shorten our season. It’s a mental health thing too. I feel like you get freshmen in here who have never really been away from their family and they’re competing. And then the whole academic environment. I know for us, it’s just very tough. Then you’re trying to bring these guys on the road and you’re trying to get them competition. So it’s tough and you can see what it does to us academically when you when you look at the numbers. Look at the wrestling calendar. Thanksgiving, you take that away from them. Christmas, you take that away from them. New Year’s, you take that away from them. Our guys come back at fall break, so we take that away from them. And then spring break, we take that away from them. So it’s just a lot of strain.
I think for coaches and their families too. You’re up in the wrestling room during Thanksgiving. You’re up in the wrestling room during Christmas because you’re going to Southern Scuffle. You’re spending New Year’s at the Scuffle getting ready for wrestling the next day. So there’s a lot that can change in our sport. I think we’re kind of like golf, we have that old-school mentality where we don’t want to really change and we have to. It’s a different type of kid now. It’s not the old-school wrestling kid anymore. And we have to make accommodations if we’re going to continue to grow as a sport. I’m concerned about the growth of wrestling, but I’m more concerned about the growth of Division I wrestling because that’s where I’m at. And I think if Division I wrestling is healthy, then wrestling is healthy. If Division I wrestling is not healthy, then wrestling is not healthy. And that’s what I think the focus, really, really has to be. It’s a trickle down. If Division I is healthy, it’s going to trickle down to Division II, III, NAIA on down the line. But if it’s not a healthy head, then the body is not going to be healthy either. We have to do some things. We have to be creative. I thought the one rule the NCAA had where you can allow your freshmen to compete was great. And I think from a mental health standpoint, that’s what I think wrestling needs to really look at. I thought it was great, the connection that our freshmen felt when they were able to get on the bus, when they were able to travel and wrestle dual meets with their teammates, even though they were redshirting. I thought it was great. And from a GPA standpoint, I think our freshmen had probably some of the better GPAs we’ve had in a long time because of that.
Matt Finesilver missed last season due to injury. How is his recovering going and do you expect him to be at full strength this season?
Lanham: He looks great. I think he’s going to have a huge impact. He was ranked fifth in the country. We wrestled those showcases, which you have to wrestle. He tore his ACL. I really think he tore it the week before. He had an injury wrestling with Kaden Russell, shot in on his leg and got him from the side. He was laid up for a little bit, recovered, went into that. I think it was hanging on by a thread and then he just stepped wrong. And you could tell right away something was wrong with him. But he cooled down, I didn’t think it was as bad as it was. And he battled all the way through. He wanted to continue. We were finally like, ‘No, it’s only a short season. Let’s get to surgery and get healthy.’ He’s running and gunning. He’s going to be a major player. Lord willing he stays healthy, he’s going to be a major player moving forward.
A Finesilver brother has qualified for the NCAAs at Duke every year since 2015. What have they meant to your program?
Lanham: We had an assistant coach here, Ben Wissel, and he found these two brothers and he shot me video on them. And we were like, ‘Oh great! It was Mitch and Zach. It was just, ‘Yes sir.’ ‘No sir.’ Then we got to know the dad. It’s amazing. His coaching background is like 40 years. We did a camp in Cherry Creek. I want to say there were 20 NFL players that came to that camp. First we look in the parking lot. We see Mercedes, BMWs, all these cars, and we’re like what in the world? We go inside and there’s these NFL players. And they’re calling Coach Finesilver, ‘Coach.’ He’s introducing us to them. I’m like holy mackerel this is so and so, this is so and so. All of these guys were his players in high school. And so now they have gone on to do big things. He’s what an ideal parent should be.
So we had Mitch and Zach came to Duke. We redshirted Zach. We redshirted Mitch.. We made the decision to pull Mitch after the Scuffle. Then we took him out to the Pitt Duals and he went 0-4. So I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness. His dad is going to call. Here goes my phone. It’s going to blow up.’ Never got a call. So I’m thinking he’s probably ticked off at me. So I call him and say, ‘Hey coach, how are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m doing well, coach. How are you doing?’ He said, ‘Hey, Mitch had a tough one, huh?’ I said, ‘Yeah he did.’ I ask, ‘What are your thoughts?’ He goes, ‘What do you mean what are my thoughts? You’re the coach.’ He goes, ‘What are your thoughts? What do you think?’ I said, ‘I think he can get in the finals of the ACC Championships. We just have to tweak some things.’ He goes, ‘Coach, I’m right there with you. I think you’re right. I don’t know much about the college scene but whatever you say goes.’ He has always been like that. And with his kids he doesn’t give advice. He’s just like, ‘Whatever you think, coach.’ Josh and Matt were only eighth-graders at the time so we didn’t know about them. At the end of their freshman year he’s like, ‘Coach, if Mitch and Zach have a good time, just wait until you get the other twins. I was like, ‘What are you talking about? He goes, ‘Oh I don’t ever think I’ve mentioned but I have two freshmen. They are twins also. We weren’t going to miss out on those guys, so we stayed on them. I mean, just wanting to make sure that obviously Zach and Mitch had a great experience. And then sure enough their brothers come in. It’s gangbusters. It’s been a great find.
The ACC has been on the rise. This year there were a dozen All-Americans from the ACC, four national finalists and a national champion. What is it like competing in such a competitive conference?
Lanham: It’s difficult. We are the only school in our conference that is not fully funded. We are need-based, so we’re like the Ivy League when it comes to that. You look down the street and you have NC State and UNC. They are fully-funded programs with three times our budget. I would say we have had two bad years. Five freshmen in the lineup. We have averaged 3.2 qualifiers a year during my nine years here. We just lost the streak of having an All-American every year for six years.
I feel like we don’t get the respect that we deserve as a conference. I think we had two teams in the top 10 and then the rest were in the top 25. It’s a great conference. Academics are great as well. They’re great selling tools. And then I know with Pat [Popolizio] and Coleman [Scott], after the season, it’s always an open room. We train in those areas, and we have guys go down there. It’s been good because we have familiarity with those guys. All Oklahoma State guys. Kenny Monday runs their training center down there. I have a long relationship with him. So our guys go down there. We have morning practices here and then on Tuesdays and Thursdays we go over there at 2 o’clock and we train with those guys. So that’s why the conference is tough because I feel like it’s more guys focused on developing wrestling than developing their programs. It’s not good to close borders and not help develop talent when you have guys sticking around for the summer. So we bring four or five, six guys over there and train. It’s good for them. It’s good for us. So why not? It makes the triangle tougher because there’s that relationship with everybody here. Kasper would go over there and train. NC State would come over here. So it’s just been really a great opportunity to develop not only your team but the conference, and the triangle has benefited from that.
What excites you most about the upcoming season?
Lanham: Getting 16 dates. Being able to have our guys go out there and improve. There was no learning curve last year. You got five duals. If you got hurt and you missed a dual, there was a lot on the line. So there was a lot of pressure to pick up and to learn on the fly, where I think this year you have more opportunities to spend time with your guys to develop them and develop the freshmen. So I think that that’s something that I’m looking forward to, and duals with a crowd, ACCs with a crowd, NCAAs with a crowd. It’s pretty exciting to be able to have that again. And I think a lot of student-athletes took it for granted. We had three guys that were one match away from going to NCAAs. And all three of those guys are in the room this summer training because they don’t want that to happen to them again. So I’m excited about our team. We had four starters out for the season last year, so that killed us. We had five freshmen two years in a row in our lineup. Unless they are blue chip studs you’re going to have a problem being able to compete. We definitely struggled. But now we’ve got guys that are seasoned and we’ve got guys coming back off injury. So we got our leaders back in the room. So it’s a pretty exciting time right now. We are looking forward to the season.
How has your program used MatBoss in the past? And what do you think of the product overall?
Lanham: We use it all the time. We have a stats program that goes along with it. Obviously, with the video, it’s great for us to go there and see the matches and then to be able to also comment on those matches while we’re watching them or while our athletes are watching them. You can go right to a takedown and see what the athlete is doing. We use that stats program with that as well. So how successful are we at the edge of the mat? If we’re behind, how many times are we able to come back and win? Who takes the first shots? What are the stats showing? If we’re not taking the first shot, how often do we win a match? So we use that in conjunction with that program and we wouldn’t be successful without it. We love MatBoss. It’s great for scouting. Like I said, you can go right to a takedown. You can go right to a turn. You can go right to whatever and see in that instance without having to go through the whole video.