Off the Mat with Steve Garland
Oct. 31, 2013
Virginia head wrestling coach Steve Garland is entering his eighth season at the helm of the Cavaliers’ program and has lifted the UVa wrestling program to unprecedented heights. Virginia is now a fixture in the national rankings and routinely sends a host of wrestlers to the NCAA Championships. Last season Cavaliers Jedd Moore and Nick Sulzer each earned All-America honors, while two more reached the All-America round as UVa took 21st place at NCAAs.
While the program is extremely successful on the mat, it also has been a bastion of success in the classroom. Virginia placed eight of its wrestlers on the 2012-13 NWCA All-Academic Team – twice as many as any other program in the nation. As a team, Virginia recorded the fifth-highest grade-point average of any Division I wrestling program in 2013, finishing with a cumulative team GPA of 3.239.
The Cavaliers open their 2013-14 season on Saturday (Nov. 1), playing host to a quad meet at Memorial Gymnasium. UVa faces Anderson at 10 a.m., Gardner-Webb at noon and West Virginia at 2 p.m. Admission is free.
How has your program changed over your eight years as head coach?Garland: The first thing is there is depth of talent. We’ve been really blessed to bring in guys like George DiCamillo, who was No. 1 (at his recruiting class’ weight) and Jon Fausey, who was No. 1 or No. 2 and won the Dapper Dan. Those are two Dapper Dan winners, which is the benchmark for our sport, kind of like the Heisman for high school wrestling.
Guys like Nick Sulzer, who is a No. 1, a bonafide No. 1, just as talented as he can be and is just a great kid. He does everything right. Everything he eats is a level of excellence, everything he puts into his temple is a level of excellence, the way he studies is a level of excellence, the way he approaches relationships in life, and even the way he serves. He goes in every Sunday and teaches little kids.
But it’s not just the talent in the wrestling room. Talent can have a lot of different definitions. Guys like Gus Sako, a two-time state champion, truly have the desire to be really good at everything they do. Everything. And they’ve not only bought in to what we expect of them, but they want it for themselves most importantly. It’s gotten to where we have not just one or two guys like that, but we have a plethora of guys like that, a stable of guys like that. It started there with the talent.
The second piece is the staff, and gelling with the staff and relationships with the guys. The thing I love about our staff is I truly trust in everything we do in terms of modeling behavior. When we go on the road, I know what my coaches are doing at night and what they are not doing. My coaches are both married, and they are modeling to the guys what a husband and father looks like. [Assistant Coach] Alex Clemsen is one of the best dads I’ve ever seen. I’m serious about that. He’s an amazing dad and husband and he loves his family. The guys are seeing that, so there is great value in that. I trust the technique they’re showing and I trust what they’re saying on the road with a recruit. Then, hopefully I come in and I help with that. That’s been a big piece.
The final piece is expectations when we compete. Last year, we wrestled the ninth-ranked team in the country (Central Michigan) and everyone on the team thought they were going to win. That’s huge. It’s not about wrestling ranked teams and giving it your best shot. It’s about, do you really think you’re going to win? They all did, and they won. It’s a combination of the talent in the room with recruiting, the staff gelling and working well together, and the guys having a completely different attitude toward competition. We really do want to be the best of the best, we don’t just want to break the top 25. This is our goal, and this is how we’re going to operate.
What do you look for in potential recruits?
Garland: I use Zach Watson as an example of everything I want in a recruit. He had a big résumé. He was a four- or five-time state champion, a high school All-American, the whole deal. Frankly, I see a lot of kids come across my desk like that, just like most coaches do. There are a lot of kids that can rack up accolades based on travelling and going to tournaments. [Zach] was a consummate overachiever – 4.0 grade-point average, wants to be a doctor. Typically, those guys who are truly serious about the medical route are really intense about everything they do. Every time I called him, he just got done doing an extra lift or run. The overachiever type, is what we want.
We want a guy like Nick Sulzer, who hates to lose so much that it keeps him up for a month at a time. I’m not saying that’s healthy, but I’m saying I like it. You want your guys to hurt and care, and we want to embrace that hurt.
We look for guys who, when they go out there, they can’t wait to do this. They can’t wait to be the man and get their hand raised (in victory). They’re going to compete in such a way that they are not going to have any fear and will be freed up to wrestle in any position.
What do you expect from ACC wrestling this year?
Garland: It’s tough. Maryland is still with us this year; they haven’t gone anywhere yet. They’re obviously really tough. Pittsburgh is coming in and they’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class in the country. Virginia Tech is going to be as good as they’ve ever been. Then you’ve got us, and we will be as good as we’ve ever been. North Carolina made drastic improvements and will be a much better team. Duke’s made massive improvements, and NC State is coming on. Everyone’s got their work cut out for them, so it’s not just us.
There’s been a big shift in ACC wrestling since you arrived. How much have things changed?
Garland: If you took that tournament from my first year [2006-07 season] and wrestled it against the tournament from last year, my goodness. The step-up in intensity and expectations has been the same in the conference as it has on our team.
You have a big rivalry match coming on Nov. 24 against Virginia Tech at John Paul Jones Arena. Give us a preview.
Garland: Virginia Tech is really good. They’re really well coached, they fight hard, and their kids are tough. Other than that, it should be a walk in the park (laughs). It’s not going to be easy. You have to embrace the fight, and embrace the fact that the JPJ crowd will be going nuts. You have to expect all of this going into the match.
You’ve seen a big increase in fan support since you arrived here. Talk about the crowds here.
Garland: I’ve heard of people who have no connection to wrestling and have never seen a match walk into it and go, `Wow, I can’t believe I’ve been missing this.’ I think the people now realize what sort of product wrestling is, and they’re excited about it. That makes us happy.
What is the next step for this program?
Garland: [Assistant Coach] Jordan Leen calls it Phase 2, and Phase 2 is having a national champion. It keeps us up at night with how much we think about that. I’ve coached guys who have that winner’s attitude, but it’ll take 10 guys that compete in that way. That’s what will give you the best chance to walk away with multiple national champions.
Who steps in to fill the shoes of the graduating class?
Garland: Blaise Butler has been grooming to be the guy that steps in for Jedd Moore at 157 and while he has to wrestleoff a lot of tough kids to get there, he has been impressive. What we’ve seen in the room, what we’ve seen in competition, what we’ve seen in his history, he’s looking to be that guy. I think he’s going to wow a lot of people. Last year he wrestled Jesse Dong (nationally ranked wrestler from Virginia Tech) and was beating him going into the third period. Everyone was thinking, especially Dong, `who is this guy?’ We knew who he was, so now we hope for the world to know who he is.
You also get Gus Sako back at 149 after his redshirt season.
Garland: I can’t believe people have forgotten about Gus. I don’t know what they’re thinking. That kid is an animal. I mean that guy is an octopus with a human heartbeat. He’s going to crush people. I think he’s as good as anybody. He’s as tough as anybody, and I think if anyone thinks they can walk on the mat with this guy and walk all over him, they’re nuts. Our greatest secret weapon is Gus. A lot of people weren’t giving him a lot of credit and that’s going to fuel him. He’s going to turn some heads this year.
Talk about the impact of your two seniors, Jon Fausey and Stephen Doty.
Garland: The two guys embody two different things. Jon was an all-world recruit coming out, and he came here and didn’t disappoint. He was three time national qualifier, ACC champ, round of 12, he’s had amazing wins, he’s been a staple of this program for years, he’s a leader, he’s a captain. So he fit that mold and ended up being great like we thought he would.
Doty was a guy who didn’t get recruited by anybody and was a very late commit. He wasn’t a highly sought after recruit or a dream team guy, but there was something in him I saw when I met him on a visit that I loved, and I just felt like we needed to have him. Luckily, we were able to get him. He didn’t have the easiest path and had to fight and claw and scratch, and do everything he could to earn it, to get in that line up. When he did, he won three matches in the national tournament. It’s amazing. He’s the pillar of sacrifice and service. Whenever we needed that kid to step up, he did it with a smile on his face. That’s why we made him a captain this year.
Nick Sulzer was an All-American last year. What should we expect for an encore this season?
Garland: Obviously the goal is national champion, but more than anything what we’re trying to get him fixated on is just to compete in such way. We’re trying to get him to instead of wrestling in a match to win, wrestle in a match to dominate, wrestle in a match to score a tech fall every time – no matter who you wrestle. You’re going out and you’re going nuts. You’re going to focus on the process and you’re going to focus on losing yourself in the moment. Then when that referee says it’s over, when that final whistle blows at the seven minute mark, you can then look up and say `did I win or not?’ We’re trying to get him lost in the moment, not worrying about the result, but worrying about being the Nick Sulzer we know he can be.