Mike Rogers guided the Franklin & Marshall wrestling program to one of its best dual meet seasons in program history. F&M finished 8-2 in dual meets, which was the highest winning percentage (.800) since the 1979-80 season. It also marked the most wins since the 2005-06 season. Eight of F&M's 10 starters at the EIWA Wrestling Championships finished the season with winning records. F&M senior Wil Gil qualified for the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at 141 pounds and finished his college career with 108 victories.
MatBoss caught up with Rogers and talked to him about F&M's success on and off the mat, being a wrestling father and what it was like going through the college recruiting process with his son Caden, changes he would like to see in college wrestling and more.
You're coming off a strong dual meet season. 8-2 record, which was the most wins since the 2005-06 season. Eight of your starters finished with winning records. You qualified a wrestler for the NCAAs. How would you assess this past season?
Rogers: I think it's one of our better seasons dual meet-wise. And getting a guy back in the NCAA tournament was important after not being able to wrestle last year. I wasn't quite sure how things were going to go with having a whole season off. I think we were still a little bit rusty. Going through a whole season we dealt with a lot of injuries and things that were not typical, but I think our guys did a good job of just fighting through some adversity and being young and a little inexperienced.
Wil Gil finished his college wrestling career with over 100 wins. Qualified for the national tournament. What has he meant to your program?
Rogers: It's been great. He's kind of been the keystone of our program. He set the tone for the younger guys. He's been around and he was a great leader on and off the mat. I think he helped mentor the younger guys and helped kind of reel back in the upperclassmen and everyone kind of just rallied around him. Then he was able to back up what he was saying and doing in the room out on the mat. It was nice to have that leadership in the program.
Five of your 10 starters at the EIWA Championships were freshmen or sophomores. All of those wrestlers had winning records this season. How optimistic does that make you feel about the future with such a young team?
Rogers: It definitely gives you a lot of hope. I think the guys we have coming back are going to be more seasoned and have a better understanding of the process. We also have a really good recruiting class coming in. So I think the next couple of years will be pretty exciting for us because I think we have more of a balance of upperclassmen mentoring the younger guys that are coming in, and a lot of momentum. I think that synergy really kind of helps galvanize the team and bring everybody into the fold. They want to be a part of something bigger.
You had a program-record seven scholar-athletes earn an EIWA Academic Achievement Award. How much pride do you take in that achievement?
Rogers: That's more important than wrestling trophies and awards because ultimately that's what you're here for. It's good to see those guys getting the recognition. It's not easy here. So that gives us a lot of pride. It also just kind of reinforces that we're doing the right things, training the right way and giving them enough time to focus on their academics and balance the books with the athletic schedule we have.
Your son Caden is a nationally ranked high school wrestler who signed with Lehigh. What was his recruiting process like for you as his father?
Rogers: It was kind of interesting being on the other side of the table. I think he used F&M as kind of a measuring stick. Initially, he just wanted to come here and wrestle for us. He knows me and my staff obviously, but the conversation with him was like, it has to be your journey. So if it's the right fit, that's great. But there are other programs out there that could meet your needs if that's what you're looking for. So when he started opening up his recruiting I saw his wheels kind of turning a little bit and seeing where he might fit best. So he went through the process. He got recruited by some really good coaches. It was an interesting process because the coaches wanted to know if he would just come to F&M or if they should even bother giving him a call. I was like, 'This is his journey. If it's the right fit it's the right fit.' Obviously, selfishly, I'm like that is here at F&M. I think at the end of the day, my wife and I wanted to make sure that degree was going to sustain him and his family for when he was done with his career. So that was our only stipulation. I think as he started looking at different schools and different programs, he started narrowing it down to being closer to home, a program that emphasizes wrestling and a staff that was going to take care of him. I think Lehigh kind of checks all those boxes. I love all those guys. I know they're going to take care of him. Pat Santoro is an awesome guy. I have known Brad Dillon for years from doing Fargo camps. I've seen those guys compete. You really don't have a Lehigh wrestler that you don't like you like. They're very respectful. They win. They do their job. They do it the right way. I couldn't think of a negative thing to say about them, plus it's an hour and fifteen minutes from home, so he still has that support staff and still has that connection to us. We'll always be there for him.
Obviously, parents play a big part in their son or daughter's athletic careers. I'm sure you have seen all types of parents in the sport. What advice would you give to parents of young wrestlers?
Rogers: I think college wrestling coaches or those who wrestled in college understand the bigger picture. No one's getting hung up on youth wrestling events and whether they are winning and being successful there. The longevity of it is more important than the instant success. So I would say a couple of things. I'd say just keep the bigger picture in mind. We all want to be competitive. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want him to win when he was younger, but I also understood that this is such a long process that it doesn't really matter. As long as he's learning and enjoying it, and he was driving the boat. He wanted to do the extra. He wanted to go to clubs. He wanted to do tournaments. I just helped facilitate that. Sometimes I had to kind of dial it back a little bit and let him know that I think he's doing a little bit too much. It's easy to say, 'Yeah, we'll do all this stuff.' So keeping the longer, bigger picture in mind. I think having what I I call my advisory board is important. I have friends and colleagues that I talk to. I talk to my assistant coach Steve Borja all the time. I'm like, 'Do you think this is a good idea?' I talk to Josh Feldman, Nick Feldman's dad, constantly. I'm like, 'Do you think this is a good idea? What do you think about this?' My other assistant Tyson Dippery is another person I talk to a lot. Just having people give you honest, true feedback is important.
Obviously, the transfer portal has become a hot-button topic in college wrestling. What are your thoughts on the transfer portal?
Rogers: I think it's good and bad. The good part is it gives them flexibility if they're in a situation that's just not good for them. The bad part is it's an easy out for wrestlers wondering if the grass is greener somewhere else. I don't know what the balance is. Like anything else, I think it's getting abused. You start throwing in NILs. Kids are transferring now just to get a better deal somewhere else. Are they truly transferring because it's the right thing for them? Or is it just the best quick fix? The grass isn't always greener. So I think it's kind of a Pandora's Box. I like the fact that kids have more freedom. They only have four or five years. So if they see that their situation is not what they want it to be or should be, then may they can find a better fit. But are they jumping ship too soon and are going to have the same situation somewhere else? I think you're seeing kids bounce around too quickly. I think it's making things a little bit more muddy. So I can see both sides of it. But I think I would like to see more vetting of why kids are transferring and getting released than just because they want to go somewhere else. It's tough.
You have served several years as the head coach of the Pennsylvania Junior Freestyle Team. I know there was some discussion around whether college coaches should be allowed to coach in Fargo. What are your thoughts on it?
Rogers: I think it's another thing that it could be very helpful, but it also can be abused. I've seen coaches be a part of a staff just because they want to recruit one or two kids. They don't really coach the whole team, which I think is wrong. They're just there specifically to focus on one or two guys that they're really after. But I think it's a great way to give kids access to college-level coaching that they may not otherwise have access to. There might be skills and techniques they pick up that they might have not had exposure to. I just think it's a slippery slope. If you're going to coach a state or a team you need to be coaching everybody equally. That doesn't always happen. I've been a part of it. I'm a big advocate of coaching everybody. I will not let a kid walk on the mat without a coach if I'm available. I'm going to coach a kid to the best my ability. But I think some coaches have a very specific reason why they're there. I think that's wrong. But if everyone is coaching everybody equally, I think it's a great resource and a great opportunity for kids that make those teams to be mentored by college coaches that they may not have access to given their circumstances. Maybe that's the first time they've seen college-level coaching. So that's a great opportunity too.
You have been coaching at the college level for several years, how do you feel about where we are as a sport at the Division I level? Any changes you would like to see?
Rogers: I would love to see us grow the programs at the Division level. I think the thing that we're running into is the rich are getting richer. So there's a more separation between the teams that have resources and money, and they're just growing. It's becoming an arms race of RTCs, NILs and those type of things. That separation, that void, that gap becomes bigger. So I would like to see more parity. I think the one way to do that is to add more programs. But that's also added expenses to colleges. So how do we get more parity amongst those programs that may not be as funded as those top-tier programs? I don't have the solution, but that's definitely an issue I think would be exciting to address.
I also think we have to look at the length of the season. We've been talking about this for years and making it a one-semester sport. There are so many benefits to that, to the academics, to the health of the student, to even pushing it back more into the spring, so we're getting away from March Madness basketball and making it its own marquee event. I think there's more draw, more revenue, more opportunity if we get that.
Lastly, I think we should look at somehow implementing some of the freestyle aspects into the folkstyle concepts. That could be a variety of things. What's the most exciting thing when you watch a freestyle or Greco match? Throws. Can we get a point value for a throw? You hit a lat drop and the wrestler rolls through … there's four points. That makes matches a lot more interesting than if you're down by four and you have a big throw and get two points. That's what makes freestyle really exciting. That there's so many opportunities to score points in large chunks, where folkstyle has so many rules.