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Making wrestling more appealing to the public

This is an excerpt from Wrestling Tough-2nd Edition by Mike Chapman.

Attempts at making wrestling more appealing to the public and appearing to be more fun for the athletes reflect a trend with many ups and downs over time. And while for decades, most coaches, wrestlers, and fans have accepted the notion that wrestling is more a tough and demanding discipline than a fun activity, there have been some who saw it differently.

“The irony is we took the approach a couple years before Penn State,” said Rob Koll, head coach at Cornell University since 1993 and the most successful coach in Ivy League conference history. “We started doing things like Redman videos, and we showed the personalities our wrestlers and coaches through Flo and various other video concepts.”

Redman videos were designed to be entertaining. They depict an actor who is covered in a bright-red, form-fitting body mask and a Cornell singlet doing crazy things around the campus, including dancing to some very up-tempo music. The videos are short and provide a very interesting “come on” for fringe fans to get excited about Cornell wrestling. It's a very innovative approach and makes wrestling look like a fun activity. “That was when Facebook was king,” Koll said. “We also sent it out to our list-serve. We probably did 50 videos, and people can see them on our Cornell Wrestling Facebook video section.

“At the time we took a little grief for trying to make wrestling fun. Our focus was to be the alternate to Iowa. Since then, PSU has taken over because they have been winning the championship. To our defense, we haven't had a bad run.” Cornell finished second in the NCAA in both 2010 and 2011.

Bottom line, said Koll, is that “I do think it is important to enjoy your wrestling experience.”

John Smith took the same approach at the start of the 2017 season. He and Oklahoma State women's softball coach Kenny Gajewski engaged in a promotional event called “Mat versus Bat.” Gajewski, wearing head gear and surrounded by members of his women's softball team, brought a bat to the mat with him for a little extra support and suspense, while Smith arrived with a group of bouncing, excited mat aides, all shouting encouragement to him. Loud, peppy music blared as the two contestants squared off. The “match” itself was funny and well-choreographed, with Smith scoring the pin, of course.

Greg Strobel, a two-time NCAA champion at Oregon State who had long stints as a freestyle coach at USA Wrestling and then as head coach at Lehigh University, has always been a proponent of the sport being fun, dating all the way back to his preteen years in Oregon. “I had three older brothers who wrestled. Bob started it all; I was 10 years younger than Bob. We all wrestled at home—it was flat-out fun! And all through high school and college, I just had fun when I wrestled. I loved it right from the start. In fact, I was shocked to find out that other people didn't enjoy it—good grief!”

But he also added a qualifier: “There are things you've got to learn to love. I hated to speak in public when I first was asked to do it, after winning the NCAA (at 190 pounds in 1973, and being voted O.W., as well).But the more I did it and the better I got at it, I began to like it. And even to love it.”

Strobel developed his theory that wrestling should be fun during his first coaching job at Roseburg High School in Oregon. “I really didn't know anything about coaching at that point, but I just felt kids would come back if they had fun,” he said. “That was my goal—to make it fun. I tried to make every practice different, make it interesting . . . not just drilling all the time.

“We had full gyms for most of our meets. I had volunteers call up former wrestlers and ask them why they didn't come to the meets and support the team. Many of them said they didn't like wrestling when they did it . . . cutting weight, running, push-ups, continuous drilling. They all said they liked the wrestling part but not the other parts.

“So I told my teams, ‘Hey, this is not the weight-cutting team or the push-ups team or the calisthenics team. It's the wrestling team.' I believe wrestling is inherently fun and hard work is fun, too. It's fun to work hard towards a goal that you believe in.

“Left to their own devices, I believe kids love to wrestle. Coaches and parents screw it up.”

But losing is never fun!

One of the best examples of the philosophy Strobel tried to implement at Lehigh came in the 2002 NCAA tournament when Rob Rohn battled his way into the finals of the 184-pound class. “Rohn did an unbelievable job just getting to the finals,” said Strobel. “He was seeded eighth and only had two pins all season long. Rohn said he had three goals: to relax, have fun, and be the national champion.”

In the finals, he was trailing Oklahoma's Josh Lambrecht by a 14-2 score when Rohn hit a move called the cement mixer and scored a stunning pin. He had achieved all three of his goals, one of which was to have fun!

More Excerpts From Wrestling Tough 2nd Edition