In 2011, Mike Denney was named InterMat Coach of the Year, an honor bestowed upon the top college wrestling coach across all divisions of college wrestling, after guiding the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s wrestling program to a Division II national title.
While the Nebraska-Omaha wrestlers, coaches and fans were celebrating the national championship, Denney received a phone called from his then-athletic director. The AD’s call was not made to congratulate the legendary coach on the program’s seventh national championship in wrestling, but to inform him that the wrestling program had been dropped.
Two days later Denney received a call from Jeff Miller, vice president of Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri. Miller explained to Denney that Maryville had been thinking about adding wrestling, and wanted to gauge Denney’s interest in leading the new program. The former Nebraska-Omaha coach had never heard of Maryville. “I kept going, ‘Who is this?'” recalled Denney. “About the fourth time I said, ‘If this is a friend of mine this is cruel joke. Don’t be doing this.'”
Maryville had just moved from Division III to Division II and served its two-year moratorium, so the wrestling program was eligible to compete in the postseason immediately. Denney and his wife Bonnie prayed about the opportunity at Maryville and he accepted the head coaching position because they “felt called to do it.”
“We just pretty much started from scratch,” says Denney. “They didn’t know wrestling from field hockey or lacrosse.”
Maryville, under the guidance of Denney, went winless in dual meets in their first season as a program in 2011-12. Maryville never finished higher than seventh in a tournament that season.
Fast forward three seasons.
Maryville started the 2014-15 season ranked No. 1 in Division II and held the top ranking for most of the season. Denney led the program to a National Duals title in January and a regional title in February. In March Maryville hosted the NCAA Division II Wrestling Championships, and finished third for the second straight year.
“Here we are, we finished third at the national tournament and people are coming up to me and saying, ‘Gosh, Coach, sorry you didn’t do it.’ They’re feeling bad we didn’t win the thing, and before we couldn’t even win a dual. We were forfeiting weights. How quickly things can change.”
In February of 2013, Joe Renfro led Labette Community College in Kansas to a second straight national title at the NJCAA Wrestling Championships. A month later Renfro left Labette to become head wrestling coach at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College (NEO).
The wrestling program at NEO had not existed since 1993, but was brought back for the 2013-14 season. Renfro met with NEO’s administration and liked their vision for the wrestling program, but also relished the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the new program.
“What actually drew me here other than the administration was that it was a new program,” says Renfro. “It was a great opportunity. You start 0-0. You are the only determinant of your fate. It’s just a great situation to take your program and have a clean slate and start out how you want to start out.”
Renfro proceeded to do what many viewed as impossible in the program’s first year: He led NEO to a national championship. While it may have seemed impossible to others, it wasn’t to the coach.
“I believe it’s possible every year,” says Renfro. “I believe every team starts with the same number of people and the same recruits and the same opportunity as everybody else. At the beginning of the year it is what it is. You’ve got to say you’re either going to do it or you’re not.”
Since 2014, 29 college wrestling programs have been started across six divisions of college wrestling. One of those new programs that will debut in 2015-16 is Southeastern University, a Christian liberal arts university located in Lakeland, Florida. Southeastern is an NAIA program and will compete in the Mid-South Conference.
Southeastern is the only scholarship collegiate wrestling program in the state of Florida. In February, Florida native Javier Maldonado was hired to lead the new wrestling program.
“It’s an honor,” Maldonado says of coaching the lone scholarship collegiate wrestling program in Florida. “I feel very blessed. I smile every day knowing that I have this opportunity. I know so many people didn’t get to wrestler in their home state. They had to leave. I try to tell our athletes every day.”
Maldonado is mostly recruiting in Florida, but plans to cast his net wider as the program gets more established.
Southeastern has its own wrestling room and a competition arena is being built that is scheduled to open in January, just in time for the program’s second home dual meet of the season.
Maldonado, who wrestled collegiately at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has high expectations for the program, but understands it will take some time to build.
“I think if we’re patient, grow and develop it the right way we’re going to be able to compete on the mat and off the mat,” says Maldonado, a three-time Southern Conference champion.
Ten tips for coaches leading new wrestling programs
Surround yourself with good people
“You’ve got to have a great staff,” says Denney. “All the coaches have to be on the same page. You’ve got to have that loyalty. You all have to be working together. It’s going to take a village.”
Fit into the culture
“You can’t just go in and just start ripping and tearing and saying, ‘We’ve got to have this or we’ve got to have that,'” says Denney. “You’ve got to fit into the culture. You’ve got to recruit to that culture. You’ve got to fit into the athletic department.”
Figure out how to best stretch your money
“You’ve got to be able to recruit a team and effectively use all the money that you have, whether it is scholarship money, academic money or any kind of grant money,” says Denney. “You’ve got to work on all that.”
Sell the idea of building something to recruits
“There is no tradition in wrestling at the school,” says Denney “We let the wrestlers know they can be a part of something. That was kind of our theme from the beginning.”
Get involved in the community
“There are a lot of things that we do in the community,” says Renfro. “We have a huge community service project this weekend called Hearts & Hammers that our entire team goes to. We work from 8 in the morning until 4’o’clock in the afternoon. We go out and do whatever the community denotes needs to be done. We let the community know that we want to be a part of not only the institution, but everything here.”
Set schedule to build local rivalries
“I really wanted to start to build up some local rivalries,” says Denney. “Lindenwood is close. McKendree is right across the river. Missouri Baptist is just a mile from us here. Missouri Valley has a nice program. Those were teams I wanted to get on the schedule right away.”
Recruit local talent to help get local support
“You’re there to make this program the best in the country right away, and stay up there on top as best you possibly can,” says Renfro. “In doing, so you have to have local support. Nobody wants to support a team where you don’t know who anybody is. Winning is good, but that’s not the main reason they support you.”
Be a positive force at your school
“You’ve got to be a positive force on your campus,” says Denney. “You can’t afford to be a negative force anymore. The administrators have to feel like, ‘You know what, this wrestling program is really good for our university. It’s something we’re proud of. They’re doing good things academically. They’re graduating.’ You’ve got to do that stuff.”
Ask for guidance from other coaches
“I sought out a lot of coaches,” says Maldonado. “They have all been so helpful. It’s been really, really good. It’s refreshing to see so many coaches wanting to help you out. Even coaches at NAIA programs that are going to be competing against us are like, ‘This is what you need to do. If you need any help let me know.’ The NWCA has also led me in the right direction for help.”
“You have to get in and network with the community,” says Renfro. “You have to network with the school, with your institution, and let those people know that you’re not just a program that is going to come in here and basically sponge off the institution, but take advantage of the situation and provide not only an opportunity for young men to come wrestle for you and get an education, but also provide an opportunity for your community and your institution.”