Jay Weiss has coached and mentored champions on and off the mat since being named the David G. Bunning '88 Head Coach for Harvard Wrestling in 1994. During his time at Harvard, Weiss has coached 17 EIWA champions and 19 All-Americans, including a pair of national champions, Jesse Jantzen (2004) and J.P. O'Connor (2010). From 2010 to 2018, Harvard's wrestling program had the nation's highest grade-point average (GPA). The program has finished in the top 10 in the national GPA rankings 18 times.
Weiss has twice been named EIWA Coach of the Year. In 2009, Weiss was awarded the Bob Bubb Coaching Excellence Award, presented annually to a wrestling coach who epitomizes the qualities and characteristics of a role model and mentor for developing young student-athletes.
MatBoss caught up with Harvard's head wrestling coach and talked to him about his team, coaching philosophy, Ivy League, Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov and more.
Obviously, last year the Ivy League schools were unable to compete. What was the year like for your wrestlers and program?
Weiss: I think it was interesting because it was a time to kind of step away and look at things differently. Guys got their workouts in and trained differently as opposed to getting ready for Saturday's match or tournament, they were getting better. They were focused on getting better. Obviously, we're chomping at the bit. We had some guys wrestle in the spring and the summer but that's freestyle, but now I'm really anxious because I think guys made some big strides. So although it was an unfortunate year where we couldn't compete, I do feel we made the best out of a bad situation. So I'm very excited about it. We've got a young team and I'm excited about the round that we've made in the past year.
Philip Conigliaro was a national qualifier in 2020 but obviously didn't get the opportunity to compete at the NCAAs. Earlier this year he placed third at the U.S. Open, with his only loss coming to Hayden Hidlay. How much has he improved since he last competed at Harvard in 2020?
Weiss: He's made big strides. He's competed at a high level. Obviously, him being able to go out in the U.S. Open and do that, I just think he would have done well last year at the tournament. Certainly going in as a freshman, he was knocking on the door, as the 15/14 seed, so he could have done something. Last year he made strides. So him being able to compete in freestyle really helped him, so it's not like he had the whole year off. Phil just competes hard. He competes at a high level. He's got the mental makeup to do big things.
Yara Slavikouski recently competed at the U23 World Championships where he won a couple matches. He has been an EIWA finalist and was the 10th seed at the NCAAs that were canceled. What are your expectations for him this season?
Weiss: With my sample size being here so long, I've seen great ones. I've seen two guys win it and I've broken down why they're different than the other guys. These two, Phil and Yara, are in the same mold as the Jesses and JP's of the world. They do everything right and there's a strong desire to win, a competitiveness in them. I would put Yara up against anybody. He had a great experience in Serbia. I'm kind of anxious to get him back and get him going with our season. But he's right there with everybody. He's going to be just a force to be reckoned with. That's for sure.
Your recruiting class included seven wrestlers from seven different states across six different weight classes. What do you like about your group of newcomers? And do you expect any to challenge for spots in the lineup?
Weiss: This is one of my best classes talent-wise and character-wise. I think they bring a lot. And I think they know it. They've bonded together. They know this group is kind of destined to do great things in the next four years. We have two from last year that deferred. So technically it's two more. Dom Mata, who was ranked No. 2 in the country coming out of high school. He deferred last year, so he's in this class. Luke Rada is a New Jersey state champ. So it's loaded with talent and I'm anxious to see how this plays out. We have Diego Sotelo and Beau Bayless at 125. So we're strong at that weight class with either one of those guys. I think Alex Whitworth is going to surprise a lot of people. He's at 165 this year. Cael Berg from Minnesota is a phenomenal talent. Kenny Herrmann was a freshman last year. He took last semester off so he's basically a freshman this year at 141. Just an amazing talent. He can do a lot of things. So I'm really looking forward to watching him. Who's going to break the lineup? I don't know. We'll see. I love to see people compete as opposed to wrestle off. We do some sort of wrestle-offs but I need to see people compete under the bright lights. That's a tell-tale of what's going to happen, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if some of those guys break the lineup. I really wouldn't.
You have been at Harvard for 27 years. Has your coaching philosophy changed from when you first became head coach until now?
Weiss: With age comes wisdom. I think when you're young you want to win. That's just the competitive nature in us. We compete our whole lives and when we get to a coaching position we want to win. Harvard changed me to realize why I do what I do. It's really to make an impact on these guys' lives and teach them life lessons that are way more important than the sport of wrestling and at the same time, win. I know that I want to win now more than ever but I want to do it this way. I say that because Harvard has impacted me so much. The people that I've met in my life that I could never pay back. So it's kind of like, why is this happening? How is this happening? And it's just a matter of your outlook on why you why you do what you do.
We're playing a game that's extremely important, but for most of these guys, they hang up their boots at 22 or 23. And then what do you have? Once I realized that we can really make an impact. Then when I saw what my guys were doing 5, 10, 15, 25 years out, it's mind blowing. I have to keep the guys doing the right things and understand that this is a hard sport. Why do we do it is because it's difficult, especially here. There's the academic pressure that's unlike anything else and the social pressure.
Looking at the Ivy League, Cornell has been a national power for several years and Princeton has been a top program in recent years. Other programs in the Ivy League on the rise. What are your thoughts on the overall strength of the Ivy League right now?
Weiss: I think it's phenomenal because I think kids are starting to realize that they can go get the best education and still do everything they want to do on the mat. And again, it's harder at these schools because there is a different pool academically. You don't just go to school to wrestle. And I think that's a positive. So that that's a great thing. Because then you understand that the more I can do and put up with in my college years, the more I'm going to get back. So I think it's great. I think it's fun to engage with high-level recruits and try to get them to understand that you can do everything you want to here. I think it's harder here. But it doesn't matter. If we get the right kid that says, 'Yeah, I want to be great in the classroom. I want to be great on the mat. I want to be a great young man.' That's what we're looking for. And that's life. It's not for everybody. If someone wants to just wrestle, this isn't the place. If someone wants to do all that, then I think it's phenomenal to go to an Ivy school and get all that.
You have a very challenging schedule over the first three months. You next compete in the Keystone Classic and then two of the nation's toughest events in December, Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational and Midlands. What's your philosophy on creating a schedule?
Weiss: The Keystone Classic has always been good to us. I'm good friends with Roger [Reina], so it's nice to go down there. We kind of do a semi-peak for Vegas. That's a big one for us because that's where we see the top guys. Then right after that we pull down because we get into final exams and then we try to build back up. And then Midlands is kind of a big push for us. It kind of catapults us right into the second semester. I like to have tournaments in the beginning. If you think about it, the EIWAs and the NCAAs are tournaments. So it's like the more we can practice that, the better it is, and then then we grind out our duals and then can get back into the tournaments. I want our guys to see the best. It's a way for us to see guys that are ranked and knock guys off that are ranked to kind of show that we're good, quite honestly.
How important is the New England Regional Training Center for your program?
Weiss: Todd Beckerman and I are kind of together with that. It's nice that we're trying to build that right now and help the region. Our freestyle tournaments are critical to our success. I think we've had nearly 20 All-Americans since I've been here and I don't think there's one that has not wrestled freestyle in the offseason. It's kind of interesting to point that out. So it's very clear. You have to be competing and freestyle really helps you as a college wrestler. So I think it's big. It's important and I'm looking forward to this coming offseason where we're going to do joint training camps, whether it's at our place or down at Brown. That's going to be a lot of fun. I think it's going to help everybody.
One of your assistants, Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov earned Uzbekistan's highest coaching honor after coaching his brother to a bronze medal at the Olympics. What does Muzaffar bring to your program?
Weiss: He's been here the longest and has made a huge impact. He recently showed a finish that I've never seen. I've been around wrestling a long time to know a lot of people. I was kind of like, "What the hell have you been holding out for?" He kind of started laughing. It's amazing. His wrestling mind. He's so good. He's very good in positions and there's a reason why he got the highest award in Uzbekistan. It's been awesome having him. He is a treasure when it comes to training, when it comes to everything. I was influenced heavily by Granit Taropin who coached the former Soviet Union and coached the Beloglazov twins. When Muz came, he started talking to me about his philosophy. It was exactly what Granit Taropin taught me, so right away I was like, 'Wow, this is going to be great. So we were basically on the same page from day one. It was real nice. And don't get me wrong, we've adapted big time as far as the years go on. We've changed a lot as far as our training, but he's been right by my side for so long. It's been great.
You obviously have some experienced wrestlers returning but also some newcomers. What are expectations for this year's team?
Weiss: I'm excited. I think people are overlooking some of our wrestlers. We have Josh Kim. He placed at the Midlands two years ago, placed at the U.S. Open last year and he's nowhere to be seen at 174 pounds. He's a phenomenal talent. He's going to be good. We have Leo Tarantino at 184 pounds. Josh and Leo are both sophomores. Those guys mixed with a freshman class that is pushing these guys. In the room you have people like Phil and Yara leading the way. Guys that want to win it all. When you have that going, that pulls people along. I don't know if I've had a better culture on my team. They've got high hopes. They're really not worried about what other people are thinking. We're not going to be the best this weekend. We're not supposed to be. We're supposed to be the best for three days in March. That's the biggest thing that we focus on, just constantly getting better. This group does it. This group works hard. They want to adjust, adapt and do big things.