Kyle Ruschell has helped carry on the strong wrestling tradition at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga since he was hired to lead the Mocs in 2018. Ruschell led UTC to a share of the conference dual meet championship in his first season (2018-19). He has compiled a 15-5 conference dual meet record in three seasons and has had 11 national qualifiers.
Ruschell, a Kentucky native, was a two-time All-American and four-time NCAA qualifier at Wisconsin. He was a member of the U.S. National Team (2014) and won a gold medal at the 2017 Pan American Championships.
MatBoss recently caught up with Ruschell and talked to him about UTC wrestling, Tim Johnson, Barry Davis, SoCon and more.
You are coming off a season in which you finished 8-4 in dual meets, placed third at the SoCon Championships and had four national qualifiers last season. Obviously, COVID made it a strange season. How would characterize last season for UTC wrestling?
Ruschell: Honestly, we didn’t wrestle to our potential. I think we have a solid lineup top-to-bottom and we could have won our conference. We have to start having that expectation every day in practice. I think our guys are starting to believe that but didn’t quite believe it at the time last year. And so maybe we underachieved a little, but the guys are doing better and better each year.
One of your top wrestlers over the past few seasons has been Fabian Gutierrez. He was a senior in 2021. Is he planning on returning for another season of college wrestling?
Ruschell: Yes, he is. He hasn’t reached his goals. He was like, ‘I’m going to wrestle as many years as possible.’ So that was not a hard sell for him to wrestle a sixth year at all.
Sean Russell was recently announced as the head coach of the Regional Training Center South (RTCS). What does he bring to your RTC?
Ruschell: He brings that Georgia-type mentality. He’s a local guy. He knows what it takes to go from Georgia to getting on the podium at the NCAA tournament. His wealth of knowledge and the way he wrestles, it’s something special. He can move in and out really, really well … get re-attacks and front headlock scores pretty easily. So that’s something that our staff maybe wasn’t the best in. And so he can step in and really help those guys get those re-attacks. And then also just being a small guy, a 125-pounder in college and wrestling at the Olympic Trials this past year. Just having that quality of wrestler in the wrestling room is awesome. So having him here at Chattanooga is something special.
You are obviously one of the younger head coaches in Division I wrestling. You took over for Heath Eslinger in 2018. Where do you think you have grown the most as a head coach since you took over the program at UTC?
Ruschell: I think I’ve probably grown the most in organization. You think you know what you need to do, but you don’t really know 100% until you step in the role. I had an idea of what to expect and I’m a pretty quick learner, but there’s some things that you’re just not quite ready for until you do it. And so just getting everything kind of organized now, three years into it, you kind of know what to expect. You know how everything goes, developing basically your team manual and what the expectations are and having those laid out … so when they’re getting here, the same voice is being said for five years, and the same things are being preached to them. That consistency within an organization is huge.
You come from a Big Ten program at Wisconsin where maybe the expectation is to contend for All-America honors, not just qualify for the national tournament. How important is to get an All-American to be able to take that next step and show that it can be done in your program?
Ruschell: We have had 12 in the past. It’s been it’s been a little over a decade now since we have had one but we’ve had 12 All-Americans here. And so there’s a rich history of guys coming through this system and stepping on that podium in March. Heck, I got beat by one my freshman year in college at Wisconsin. So I know it can be done here. It’s just one of those things that just because you’re from a small school doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It’s almost like, hey, let’s go prove them wrong. And let’s be that little guy out there on the wrestling mat knocking off the big Power Five conferences.
You grew up in a non-traditional hotbed wrestling state, Kentucky. I know you have wrestlers on your roster now from non-traditional power states like Kentucky, Alabama and South Carolina. How important is it for you to maybe look for under-the-radar wrestlers in some of these non-traditional states?
Ruschell: It has to be our heart and soul. I think our institution is like that blue collar, under-the-radar type institution that works hard and gets what they work for. So we have to look for those types of kids first and get the local kids. That’s just what every institution needs to do, no matter if you’re in the Big Ten Conference or SoCon, you have to keep the guys in state. You have to put up a wall around your state. And we’re lucky enough that there’s nobody in Georgia and nobody in Kentucky, Alabama or Mississippi. So we have a whole bunch of states that we can look at and try and get the best kids, instead of fighting for the top 10 kids with eight other schools. So it’s huge. Our heart and soul has to be the south as a team, but then every now and again we have to go up and we have to find those blue chip guys that have the same mentality of working hard, enjoying the sport, wanting to get better, and are not going to be a problem off the mat. If they match that, they should be a Moc.
Your father-in-law is Hall of Famer Tim Johnson, obviously a longtime wrestling coach and well-known wrestling broadcaster. How much do you two talk about wrestling?
Ruschell: During the season all the time. He calls the house 3-4 times a week, and at first it’s just ‘Hey, how’s it going? And very quickly it turns into, ‘So how is Fabian Gutierrez doing? How are all these guys feeling?’ And then then we will talk about Big Ten dual meets and wrestling around the nation. He took a little bit of a different role this past year where he was doing the play-by-play, so we broke down some film together. And I was telling him what some of the guys nowadays are doing a little bit different than when he did it the last time. It was fun to break down technique with him. And he’s just an awesome, awesome man. I’m very lucky to have him as a father-in-law and I guess I have to say having my wife as my wife.
You were coached by Barry Davis at Wisconsin. What role has he played in your journey as a head wrestling coach? Is he still a resource for you?
Ruschell: Absolutely. Barry has been down here maybe just under 10 times since I’ve been down here. So about three times a year he makes his way down. We talk almost weekly about what’s going on. And he tries to help me any way we can, whether it be recruiting or whatever it is. If I have questions about something, he gives me his advice. And he’s always been a guy that I’ve looked to and I owe a great deal of my success to. And then also now being a coach, I owe a lot to that man. And he’s always just been really, really good to me. He’s going to be in my life for a long time and I respect what he has to say.
It feels like every year it’s a three-team race in the SoCon between UTC, Campbell and App State. What are your thoughts on the conference overall?
Ruschell: I believe it’s getting better and better. Gardner-Webb has done a good job. They qualified two guys to nationals last year. The Citadel got a new coach. Coming from App State, he has high expectations for his guys. More and more people are starting to notice the Southern Conference. And I think it’s just going to continue to build some depth and start attacking these other schools. Look what Campbell has done in recent years. They have been knocking off some Power Five schools and fighting in that top 20. We’re right there with them. If we get three teams from the Southern Conference in the top 20, that’s a big deal. I think that’s something that’s doable.
The Southern Scuffle is right in your backyard. Obviously, last year it was not held. Any information you can share about the 2022 event or the field?
Ruschell: Details are still being worked out. We are having it, so that’s good. We are still having it January 1 and 2. I can tell you it’s going to be a pretty strong field, stronger than recent years, getting kind of back to what it was like in maybe the early to mid-2010s, when wrestlers like David Taylor, Kyle Dake and Gabe Dean competed in the event. We’re going to get back to that. I don’t think the Southeast Duals are happening. So teams are looking to kind of come back and make it the tournament it was. It’s always tough, but we need to make it the second-best tournament in the country right behind the national tournament.
You return some national qualifiers. What are your expectations this coming season?
Ruschell: The expectation is to win … to win the conference, to win all the duals on our schedule. It’s not easy but it’s pretty simple. If we work hard and we pay attention to the details we can do that. There are four things we preach every day in the wrestling room. It’s position, pressure and motion, and getting off our knees. If we can do those things we can beat anybody. So the expectation is to win our conference, both dual meet championship and the conference tournament championship, qualify as many wrestlers as possible, and finally get somebody on that podium in March.
How has UTC used MatBoss? And how has it helped your program?
Ruschell: We benefit from it greatly. It’s just very easy and accessible for our guys to follow when we’re breaking down film and statistics. It’s a great asset. We’re trying to do more and more with these guys so they can break down the little details If we can stay in good position and pay attention to the details we can get our hands raised.