Purdue head wrestling coach Tony Ersland has a strong track record of national success and consistency. Ersland, a former Iowa wrestler, has helped the Boilermakers finish in the top 25 in the final poll in six of his seven seasons as head coach. He has qualified 45 wrestlers to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, including eight wrestlers in a season four times. Purdue has compiled a dual meet mark of 60-50 under Ersland. The Boilermaker head wrestling coach has also been successful in recruiting, landing five top-25 recruiting classes in his seven seasons.
MatBoss recently caught up with Ersland and talked to him about this past season, recruiting, NCAA’s NIL policy, schedule, season outlook and more.
You have built a successful and consistent program at Purdue. You had eight national qualifiers last season for the third straight year. Every one of your wrestlers won at least one match at the national tournament. Every year you are ranked in the top 25. It feels like you are on the brink of breaking through. What’s it going to take for the program to take that next step?
Ersland: I think we are knocking on that door pretty hard in a lot of ways. The kind of success we are looking for — crowning national champs and All-Americans — we have got to have some guys break through that barrier and I really feel like the floodgates will open. There’s an expectation right now that we have a huge majority of our team at the NCAA Championships, and there’s an expectation to be on the podium. But you need to start having that happen on a regular basis so it’s just ingrained in what you do, in your mindset. I feel like we are on the right track. We have come up a little short in some of those blood round matches. But I see the experience and the belief continuing to build. So I think once you kind of crack into that, you’re going to see a lot more of it. It’s just going to continue to kind of grow and build the way it has in other areas.
You had several wrestlers compete at in freestyle events this spring. I would imagine there was a freestyle focus leading up to those events. What do these summer months look like for your team?
Ersland: With freestyle, I think, it’s another way to get better. It’s different enough that it’s kind of a nice break from the folkstyle grind. You get to learn different skill sets and maybe create a little bit more in different ways with your technique. And there’s more freedom there, in my opinion, so it’s still a way to get better, but it’s different. It’s not the monotony. It is completely different than what the folkstyle grind is. And I think the guys appreciate that, but at the same time we’re competing, training and spending time getting better in ways that are extremely important. Those matches pay off and even that success that I’ve talked about, having guys place at the U.S. Open, at U23s, on world teams, those are all big things that help take the confidence and the focus on your group to where it’s an expectation rather than just maybe a dream.
So honestly, it’s funny when I sit here and I talk to you about it because our focus doesn’t change at all. The focus stays the same throughout the year. It’s just maybe the ways that we work on getting better kind of vary from season to season, where we’re starting to flip over now on the back half of the summer, where we’re doing a lot of mat stuff. So we’re going back more towards folkstyle. But from April until recently it’s been a heavy freestyle focus. So I think you go back and forth, depending on what your team needs, and even depending on what your guys need. We’ve had some guys that didn’t wrestle freestyle much at all, like Devin Schroder. He’s not a big freestyle guy. He’s one of the few guys that hasn’t been out there. He’s been back in the room working on attacks and finishes and some of his turn stuff that’s going to make more of a difference for him as he comes into his last year.
Recruiting opened up on June 1. Obviously, character is a big part of recruiting and maybe overlooked. Now you can learn a lot about kids through their social media pages before getting to know them. Obviously, you can see many of their matches online too. Does having all this information at your fingertips make it easier to home in on the right kids for your program?
Ersland: It does. It adds another piece that you definitely want. However, being able to do these home visits and sit down and kind of look kids and parents in the eyes and get to know them on a different level is a big deal. It’s something that I really missed. I think COVID forced us to get better in other ways. And we did, with the Zoom calls, maybe being more creative in some of your recruiting pitches in different ways. Instead of just the campus visit, you have to figure out how to show people the campus and kind of who you are through a Zoom call. But I’ll tell you what, since June 1 I’ve been on the road and doing a lot of home visits. And I really missed being able to sit down with a young man and his folks and learn about them, and kind of look him in the eye and really get a feel for what they want. So in some ways we’ve grown in recruiting in different ways. In other ways the tried-and-true way of establishing that relationship face to face still means an awful lot.
You had a top-20 recruiting class in 2021, headlined by Stoney Buell. Do you expect Stoney or anyone else in the recruiting class to compete for starting spots in the lineup? Or do you expect them all to redshirt?
Ersland: It’s kind of tricky. The stock answer is yes, most guys still redshirt. Most true freshmen aren’t ready. But I hate to just say the plan is to redshirt. Because the reality is you’ve got to be ready to help your team and until you have no opportunity to do that, the nationals have come and gone, are you redshirted? And so I really believe in that just from a mentality standpoint and what we talk about that every young man coming in, his job is to get ready to win a national title. And if we decide that, hey, you know, there’s another guy who’s going to do a good job for us this year, and you need to redshirt, fine. But I really feel like that’s something that’s done after the season is over because everything is on the table when you’re in the season. You never know how things are going to go. You look at last year with the clock extension. We had two true freshmen in the lineup, Gerrit Nijenhuis and Jake Rundell, and they both placed top five and top six at the Big Ten tournament and scored for us. So I hate to just predetermine things because you want guys always looking forward to their big goals and staying focused on what’s important. So yes, most guys do redshirt, but I’ll tell you my personal opinion, you have to get ready to wrestle. And that’s where every young guy should be.
You recently added Matt Ramos to your roster as a transfer from Minnesota. What do you like about him?
Ersland: I love his passion for the sport. It became apparent from talking to him. He just wants to compete. He just wants to wrestle. He really has a passion for it and he does a deep dive in and just really wants to be as good as he can be. He knows he’s capable of winning world titles. He’s already done it. So he’s excited just to see how far he can go in the sport. And that’s something that I really like. Being in the Big Ten, Division I wrestling, it’s hard. It’s a tough sport. And so that passion, you really need to have to kind of weather the ups and downs of what wrestling can present. And he has that passion. It just seems like he wants to get to work and see how good he can be. So we love that.
This past season started in January due to COVID. Do you see college wrestling ever going to a one-semester season? And is it something you’d like to see?
Ersland: Yeah, me personally, I do. I think it would be a good thing for a variety of reasons. I think lower match counts is a good thing. The grind does take a toll on guys. And I think we figured out this year, a lot of coaches saw that a lower match count wasn’t a terrible thing. The guys stayed fresh and hungry and were excited, and overall it worked out pretty well. And I think if you look from a medical standpoint too, probably injuries and some of those things were down, concussions and skin issues. And I think there’s a couple of ways where the sport could benefit from going to a one-semester season. I am mindful, though, that there are a lot of guys who want to be on world teams and Olympic teams. So there has to be some consideration there with the international styles so that we make sure it can work. But I would love to try it and see how the sport benefits from it because my personal feeling is it would be a great thing for the sport.
There have been some new programs added to Division I in recent years. Stanford was brought back this year. Obviously, there are rule changes every year. In your opinion, what is the current state of NCAA Division I wrestling right now? Do you like where things stand right now?
Ersland: I’m not going to tell you I like where we are at but I’m pretty hopeful. I’m very hopeful for a big rebound with wrestling. You think about where we were two years ago. We were just getting ready to go to Minneapolis and wrestle in a football stadium. We were going to have a lot of people in that building and set attendance records. So I’m hopeful in that way where we were two years ago. I feel like people are hungry for wrestling and they’re ready to get out there again, and that there could be this huge kind of growth and explosion again of excitement for what we’re doing. I’m hopeful where we’re at but I’m also mindful enough to understand that we’ve still got lots of challenges. We’ve got to grow wrestling. There’s a lot of casual wrestlers, especially at the high school and lower levels, that weren’t in the sport last year because of COVID. And we’ve kind of got to go back out there and establish our numbers from a grassroots level. And that will help make college wrestling stronger in the future. I’m hopeful. I think Division I college wrestling can really have a big surge. Obviously, the women are doing great and we want to see that continued growth. But we’ve got to work really hard the next few years to make sure we get back to where we need to be.
The NCAA recently approved name, image and likeness for college athletes. Every NCAA athlete, including wrestlers, will have the opportunity to start making money from their names, images and likenesses. Do you have an opinion on the ruling?
Ersland: Again, and this is maybe my personality, I’m kind of a wait-and-see guy. I would hate to tell you what it is because I think anybody who knows what it is … is probably fooling themselves. I think there’s going to be good and bad, probably like anything. I do feel that it’s good for these young men and women to go out and capitalize on their name and image. I think there are some real positives there. But I think we’ve got to be careful and make sure that there’s no unforeseen circumstances that are real negatives. That these kids are still focused on their degrees, graduating, doing as well as they possibly can within their sport. So we really stay focused in the ways that will lead them to more opportunities. I think there’s real possibilities for distractions or trouble. So kids have to be mindful of that and look out for maybe what’s good for them and not just make it like a cash grab. We don’t want to make it the wild west and it’s just grab what you can as fast as you can. I think a good, thoughtful approach of how you want to self-brand yourself and how you want to kind of put yourself out there takes some time. It’s not something that should just be done on the spur of the moment. So I’m encouraging our guys to really kind of look at things from a thoughtful approach and figure out who they want to be in the public eye and how they want to brand themselves, and then move forward accordingly and not make rash decisions that might look good in the short term but long term it’s not going to take you where you want to go.
Your non-conference schedule has been released for the 2021-22 season. You see teams from a lot of different conferences. How important is to see other conferences before the Big Ten season starts?
Ersland: We always like to get a good mix of teams from different conferences and different coasts. I think that’s important. When you get to the national tournament we know we’re going to be prepared. Obviously, the Big Ten is very tough and so you go through the battles there and you’re prepared and you’re ready, but you want to know what different individuals from different regions are going to bring when you see them. We try to get out in a variety of ways and get a mix. Cliff Keen and the Midlands are going to be very tough tests with good individuals that are deep. So that’ll give us a good barometer of where we’re at there. And then again, dual-wise, we see a good mix of teams from other conferences. So it’s just trying to spread it around and make sure that you’re prepared at the end of the year for what you’re going to see.
You face Iowa State in your hometown of Humboldt, Iowa. ISU coach Kevin Dresser is also a Humboldt native. What do you expect that environment to be like?
Ersland: I have super high expectations that it’s going to be kind of a packed house, kind of crazy, tremendous environment to wrestle in. My only thing at this point is I’d love to go find about 10,000 more tickets for the people of Humboldt and everybody who may want to get in the building. I know the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And so I’m just hoping that we can get all the deserving people in the building to witness this even, which is probably long overdue.
How far back do you go with Kevin Dresser? Do you have a long-standing relationship with him?
Ersland: We’ve known each other. There is enough of an age gap there that Kevin was gone — in college and in coaching out on the East Coast in Virginia — before I really came up. So it’s not like we grew up together. Obviously, we’ve had a relationship over the last 20-some years of coaching and just being in wrestling circles. I have a lot of respect for Kevin and what he’s done. And so I know it’s going to be a good test. But there’s certainly a lot of respect there that you have two guys from Humboldt, Iowa, that are coaching at the Division I level. That’s a fun and special thing.
You had three senior national qualifiers last year. Two of them, Devin Schroder and Max Lyon, made the decision to return for another season. What does that mean to you to have them back?
Ersland: Just excited for their leadership. Those guys are great leaders. They have been around and been in those tough battles. They are great examples for our guys. They live the life. They walk the walk. And it’s not just telling guys what they need to be doing to be better, they’ll show them and they’re doing it themselves. So I really appreciate that we had two guys that wanted to take the time to stick around and invest another year in their career. Devon is an engineering grad here at Purdue and Max Lyon, a business grad, MBA. And so those guys could be out making a lot of money, working on the next stage of life. So I’m just very appreciative that they wanted to come back and stay with their teammates for one final year.
Kendall Coleman suffered a knee injury at the NCAAs and was forced to default out of the tournament. How is he doing? Do you expect him to be back fully healthy for the season?
Ersland: Yeah, we expect him to be fully healthy. We’re taking it slow with him. Obviously, you don’t want to rush back and have another setback, but we fully expect that he’s going to be ready to go for the season and he’ll be a force as well. Obviously, really tough to end your season that way. You go through all these ups and downs of a COVID season and being tested daily. Kendall was in quarantine and isolation a couple times. He really had that stop, start, stop, start, during the year, and it was tough to get the motor running like we wanted him to, so when it ended in injury, it’s very frustrating. We look forward to better days and a big year from him.
What excites you about this upcoming season?
Ersland: Well, we have seven national qualifiers returning. They have national championship experience and have all won matches at that tournament. I think we have some really strong All-Americans and guys who can contend for a national championship. So just excited about the depth of the team and having wrestlers who have experience at the championships. If you look at last year or two years ago when we had COVID, yeah, I had a lot of national qualifiers and we had a very good team, but we didn’t get to go to nationals. So I kind of forgot that last year when we went it was still the first time for a lot of those guys. They hadn’t been there. So I feel strongly that the experience last year, being at the tournament and kind of knowing what it’s going to take, they’ll really grow from that. And as I said, we have several guys who can be on that podium and contend with the best guys.