Roger Chandler has taken the Michigan State wrestling program from out of the cellar and turned it into a perennial top-30 wrestling program that is competitive in the Big Ten, the nation's toughest wrestling conference. In the season prior Chandler taking over as MSU's head wrestling coach, the Spartans finished 2-14 in dual meets and scored negative points at the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. Since Chandler was elevated to head coach in 2016, he has guided 21 wrestlers to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. Last season, Michigan State qualified eight of their 10 starters to the NCAAs.
Michigan State returns seven NCAA qualifiers for the 2021-22 season and recently put a wrestler on the senior world team in Greco-Roman.
MatBoss recently caught up with Chandler and talked to him about the Spartans, Franklin Gomez, Greco-Roman, international wrestling styles and more.
Obviously, last season started much later because of COVID. You sent eight of your 10 starters to the NCAAs, which was the most since 2000. You fell short of getting an All-American. How would you characterize last season?
Chandler: Non-traditional. Obviously, we had a lot of landmines to kind of navigate through last year. You don't realize that when you're in the heat of battle, but we only had five dates of competitions before the Big Ten championships, which is just absolutely insane to me when we traditionally have 15 dates of competition. But how I characterize last year, obviously, we took another step forward as a program. We qualified eight guys for the national championships, but seven of them straight up wrestled their way to the national tournament, by qualifying in their spots at the Big Ten championships, which I always say to our guys, don't rely on somebody else to get you to the show, you take care of business. That's progress within our program. Obviously, at the end of the day, you want to have national champs and All-Americans, and that's something that we talk about on a daily basis here. But you look at where this program started five years ago when I took over, we are definitely trending in the right direction. I know our guys feel that they're very proud of the identity that they've built here. And they definitely have an image that they feel that they're making the Spartan alumni and the Spartan faithful proud again.
You recently released your schedule. You will see a variety of conferences in the first half of the season and start the new year at the Southern Scuffle before getting into the conference season. What goes into creating your schedule? What do you try to do? And does it change based on the team you have returning?
Chandler: I've taken kind of the same approach if you look at my scheduling since I've taken over here. We're going to see the Big Ten regardless. We're part of the Big Ten Conference. So I try to kind of get a feel of the rest of the country as much as we can. So that's why you see us going to the Navy Classic. That's why you see us going to the Southern Scuffle. We're just trying to see some of the opponents outside the conference so that we get a complete look at the country and obviously set ourselves up to qualify for the national tournament at the end of the year.
Two of your eight NCAA qualifiers last season were seniors, Drew Hughes and Jake Tucker. From what I understand Hughes will not be returning but Tucker will. What were those conversations like about whether they would return?
Chandler: I take the approach of the opportunity is there for you. I always want our guys to take the initiative that they want to do it. Because if they want to do it you're going to have success in the long term. Drew Hughes was just ready to go on and begin his life. He's engaged now and he's working full time. He just wanted to get on with life and start his career. There's no fault in that because that's why you go to college, to get your degree so that you can be successful in life. Jake Tucker felt like he still had something to give and things he wanted to accomplish.
Rayvon Foley has had a lot of success but has battled injuries. How is his health? And do you expect him to stay at 125 pounds? Or could he be moving up to 133 pounds?
Chandler: Right now he's pointing at 133 but 125 is not out of the picture. So that's still kind of up in the air a little bit. But testament to who Rayvon is as a person. He wrestled all of last season with a completely torn out shoulder, which most people couldn't even notice, so he had some limitations there. He's completely healthy now. He looks absolutely incredible. I think you're going to see the Rayvon Fowley of old that you remember from two years ago when he was an All-American. So we're very proud of him and we're excited to obviously see him on the mat and in full health.
Cam Caffey moved up a weight to 197 pounds last season. Seeded 10th. Fell in the round of 12 to Iowa's Jacob Warner. Has he grown into a full 197? And what does he need to do to take that next step?
Chandler: I think you hit the nail on the head there. He was a little bit undersized last year. But he is one of those guys that's committed to the weight class. Didn't want to cut much weight. But he is a full-fledged 197-pounder now. He committed to the weight room in the offseason. He committed to his training. What we see right now we're pretty excited about it. Obviously, we still have to do some more preparation before going into the season, but I think people are going to be excited to see Cam Caffey again. I know he has aspirations to be a national champion.
Peyton Omania competed at the World Championships in Greco-Roman. What does it mean for your program to have one of your athletes representing the United States at the World Championships?
Chandler: I think it's validation. Validation that we're doing things right within our program. We have somebody right here within our program that has gotten to the senior level team. I think he is the youngest guy on the senior level team right now. He's one of only four current college student-athletes that are on the senior world team. It's something that we talk about as a program. We talk big within our program, within our circle, and he's definitely a leader in a lot of different ways. He's a vocal leader. He's a leader by example in how he lives his life. He's a leader in how he competes.
You have several wrestlers on your team with Greco-Roman backgrounds. It seems like your very supportive of Greco-Roman wrestling. Not all coaches are that way. Why is Greco-Roman important to you and your program?
Chandler: I would say all wrestling is important to our program. I'll rewind five years to when I took over as head coach. I sat down with my associate head coach Chris Williams. We came up with a game plan. Obviously, our kids had to develop more. They had to compete more because the biggest evaluation tool is competition. So we took the approach in the offseason of our very first year that we were going to really push our guys and encourage them to compete in freestyle and Greco-Roman. A lot of our guys had no Greco experience. But we told them we're going to train Greco. We're going to train freestyle. We're going to train folkstyle. I think it was just a natural progression. We're not out there specifically recruiting Greco wrestlers. We have guys who have developed into very good wrestlers. Obviously, Peyton is kind of the guy who was the standout in Greco coming out of high school, but he had relationships with guys on the team. We had a connection with him. When he was looking at our program, he asked us if we would support his Greco aspirations. I told him 100% I'll support you. My job is to be a college coach, but along the way I will support you in every facet that I can.
Chase Saldate had a strong season as a true freshman in your lineup. How is he progressing? And what kind of season do you expect him to have?
Chandler: There's a reason Chase Saldate was the No. 1 guy in the country coming out of high school. I think you saw flashes of that last year. In a traditional year we probably would have redshirted him. But last year was a limited year. With a conference-only schedule we were just going to hold him back from developing as a wrestler if we didn't wrestle him. I think there's a lot of good that came out of last year. He's learned how to compete at the highest level with the best guys. We did a lot of offseason evaluation of him. He did a lot of evaluations of himself. I think Chase Saldate is a guy who's going to compete to be an All-American and compete for a title before he graduates.
I know he does some MMA training. How do you feel about that? And do you think it complements his wrestling training?
Chandler: He may have some MMA aspirations eventually. It's not a priority. He just has really good role models around him that happen to be great MMA fighters, like Daniel Cormier, Khabib and many others. But he's not going out of his way to train MMA. Most of the time when he's training with those guys he's actually just wrestling with them. Yeah, every now and again he'll do some striking stuff, but in general he's wrestling focused. That's where he's putting all of his efforts right now.
Franklin Gomez was recently inducted into the Michigan State Hall of Fame. Obviously, he had an outstanding career at MSU and has gone on to have success at the international level. What has he meant to the Michigan State wrestling program?
Chandler: I probably can't even put into words what he means to our program and what he's done for our program over the years. He's the most humble guy I've ever met. He's a man of faith. God gave him a gift and that's what he talks about all the time. When he got inducted into the Hall of Fame and spoke to our team, he said, 'It doesn't matter where you go to school. If you utilize the resources around you, your coaches, your advisors and everybody around you, you can be successful. You can win a national title. You can accomplish many things if you just utilize your resources. I think it's good for them to hear that because obviously we have momentum here. But you don't always have to go to the traditional powers to be a national champ. You can do it right here. It's all about your mindset and your commitment to be successful.
You added Justin Oliver to your staff as a volunteer assistant. What does he bring to your program?
Chandler: I recruited Justin out of high school. Obviously, he was a premier guy here in the state of Michigan. He's a young guy but I think Justin is a better coach than he was ever a wrestler. He's a very patient guy. He breaks it down. He sees things that these guys may not be feeling and breaks it down for them. I think his two years of coaching experience before he came here really, really helped our program. We couldn't be more excited. It doesn't matter what weight class, I know the guys within our team they really look up to him and utilize him on a daily basis.
Looking ahead to this season, you return seven NCAA qualifiers. What are the expectations for the program this season?
Chandler: You always put goals out there. We talk very openly amongst our team and with our staff about goals. As a coach, I believe you have to set high goals to have great results. I think it's very feasible that we could have 10 national qualifiers. I believe we could have multiple guys on the podium. I believe we can have national champs. But as far as the program, I think we have to take the next step forward. We've been teetering on that top 25 programs, top 20 programs. I would love to see our team be in the top 15 at the national tournament. I think that's very, very possible. I think it's just about guys focusing on themselves, taking care of business and scoring team points.