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NCAA Wrestling Press Conference. (Photo courtesy of NCAA Wrestling's Facebook Page.)

NCAA D1 Wrestling Coaches Press Conference at Madison Square Garden

NCAA D1 Wrestling Coaches Press Conference at Madison Square Garden

Today at the world’s most historic arena, Madison Square Garden, the NCAA D1 wrestling held several press conferences with the coaches of the top universities competing in this weekends championships. Among those in attendance were Cael Sanderson of Penn State, Tom Ryan of Ohio State, Long Island native, Pat Popolizio of N.C. State, also a New Yorker, John Smith of Oklahoma State, and Tom Brands of Iowa.

Courtesy of the entire press conference has been written out. At the very bottom, there is a link to the video of the press conference with the coaches.

Press Conference:

THE MODERATOR: First, I’ll ask each of the coaches about the experience of being here and having the NCAA championships in Madison Square Garden, of course this historic arena. Cael, we’ll start with you.

CAEL SANDERSON: Thanks. This is exciting. Obviously it’s close for us, so it makes it a little extra special. We have a lot of alumni in the area. And it’s a four-hour drive from State College. But being in the city, it’s a little different but exciting. Once you get in the arena, they’re all the same. We’re excited to be here and we’re thankful for this opportunity.

THE MODERATOR: Pat Popolizio, with North Carolina State, also a New Yorker.

PAT POPOLIZIO: Excited to be here. My home state couple of guys on the roster from the state of New York. We’re pretty familiar with our surroundings. It’s just a great opportunity to be in a historical venue and just excited to get out there and compete and put on a good show for everybody that’s here for this weekend to watch.

THE MODERATOR: John Smith, Oklahoma State.

JOHN SMITH: It’s exciting. We’ve had a couple of days here. And of course some of the student-athletes, first experience in New York City. So for that reason it’s been good. And gym looks great. The facility looks great. So let’s hope we have a great tournament.

THE MODERATOR: Tom Ryan, Ohio State.

TOM RYAN: Looking forward to competing in Madison Square Garden. Obviously I grew up 35 minutes from here. So it was quite often my brother and I would train in and work out at the New York Athletic Club on Tuesday nights. It’s a special place. As a young person also got to see the Globetrotters compete here as a kid. And I got to see Neil Diamond sing here. So actually had some of my Iowa boys with me back in college, we caught that concert. It was spectacular. Won’t be as good as the wrestling this weekend. Looking forward. Kyle, obviously from the East Coast, and Kenny Court’s not too far away. It’s a special place to be and we’re looking forward to it.

THE MODERATOR: Tom Brands, Iowa.

TOM BRANDS: Same as everybody. We know it’s historic. We know it’s a challenge and it’s good to be in the Big Apple, no doubt. We’re excited.


Q. Tom Ryan and John Smith, I’m glad you’re sitting together. Obviously your sons’ very first college match against each other’s sons. Would you talk about what that moment will be like when you first saw the drawing? And also will be in the corner of each of your son’s matches.
JOHN SMITH: I wish it could have been a different draw, you know. But it is what it is. And I probably won’t be in his corner, I don’t know. It’s kind of like how I feel in the morning or how he feels. Tough match and Joseph knows it’s a tough match, so we’ll take it from there.

TOM RYAN: The brackets came out and Logan Stieber said to me, wow, your son and Smith’s son are going to wrestle. You realize there are six world titles and two Olympic gold medals between the family? (Laughter) So Logan is only good for sly remarks. Obviously their name is synonymous with wrestling. We know the Smiths, their passion for the sport. So we’re excited that Jake has the opportunity to compete with Joe. Looking forward to it.

Q. Will you be in the corner?
TOM RYAN: Depends on when the match comes up, and we’ve got some great assistants that like to be in this corner as well.

Q. Tom Ryan, this is obviously — you’re the only coach up here that’s actually on the NCAA selection committee or, sorry, Wrestling Championship Committee. And it’s your first time. How much different did it feel like actually being on that committee as opposed to being like all of us waiting for the brackets to come out?
TOM RYAN: I can tell you the people that are on the committee are great people. They take what they do incredibly seriously. It was — I think it ended up being 28 hours in meetings really over a two-day period. I think the process is a good one. I think the people on the committee care about making it better. So overall it was a great experience for me to be involved at this level. You want to make a difference. You want to make a difference in the sport. And by being on committees you have a chance to.

Q. Question for Coach Smith. You guys have had a lot of changes in your lineup. You’ve had injuries you’ve dealt with and things like that. What’s been the messages, as you’ve seen some pretty talented guys that go down to the team, as you guys are still very much in the title hunt right now. How have you been kind of handling those breaks?
JOHN SMITH: You just handle them each week. It’s been a challenging year. We’ve had things I’ve never experienced as experienced as a coach. After 25 years you think you’ve seen it all and all of a sudden you get rattled. Seemed like for about three or four straight weeks we were rattled as a team. So we wrestled 23 different guys this year. Started in the lineup. And that’s pretty unusual. You just feel fortunate that you’re in a position. We had several kids from Stillwater High School that really made a difference in our depth. So it’s good to be here and still being considered a team that can win. At one time during the year I didn’t know about it. So just real pleased that a lot of individuals stepped up at a time when it was real important for them to step up. So you don’t do, you don’t come here and all of a sudden you’re part of part of the team that can win unless you have some individuals really stepping up for you and that’s what happened for us.

Q. Cael, last year you made the decision to redshirt freshmen like Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal when they probably could have competed at this tournament. Likewise, with Nico Megaludis and Zain Retherford, why was that the right decision for the program and has that decision helped set up Penn State for the run you’ve had over the last five or six years?
CAEL SANDERSON: I don’t know if it’s the right decision until it’s 10 years down the road and we’ll look back. But I think we’re confident with it and felt like we did the right thing with the circumstances that we had. The big one was Zain Retherford, to kind of take him out of the old guard there and put him in front of the new guard, this new group of kids coming through. Leadership has been incredible. Attitude, philosophy, the way you use competition, the way you use training lifestyle all that stuff. I think that was a huge bonus for us to get him he’s still a sophomore but he’s able to lead our program and that’s the big picture. When you make those decisions you’re obviously thinking big picture. But as a coach you want to run right now. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future. You have to weigh all those options. And in 10 years we’ll answer that same question. Who knows.

THE MODERATOR: Coach Popolizio, we had Nick Gwiazdowski in here earlier. What’s it been like to coach a heavyweight of that caliber, because he has a chance obviously to be in pretty rare company if he wins this weekend. You might address what he’s been like for you.

PAT POPOLIZIO: It’s been a special relationship. Obviously I’ve known him for a very long time, had the same high school coach. I’ve been able to build that relationship for a very long time with him. But he’s done some special things for the sport of wrestling. And it’s just another weekend for him. But he’s fun to watch. When you watch heavyweights wrestle, a lot of times the match is a little slower. But he goes out and he tries to attack as much as he can and put as much points out there on the board. And it makes it fun to watch. And that’s been good for college wrestling in general. And he’s doing a lot of things right to put himself in this position to compete here in the state of New York. So that will be fun.

Q. Pat, coming into the year, I think a lot of us thought you had the chance to have a really good team. Has this year sort of progressed the way you thought it would progress, and how do you evaluate your guys, their confidence level coming into this tournament and the potential to achieve a team trophy beyond that?
PAT POPOLIZIO: I think when you look at where we were when we started the season, each week we tried to gain confidence as a team. And, more importantly, the individuals that were starting to have success, that kind of got contagious with us. And where we’re at as a program to be able to compete with some of the teams we’re able to compete with this year, really, ultimately, set the tone for the ending of the season going into the ACCs, built a ton of confidence for us. It’s a different ballgame out here, but it’s still wrestling.

Our guys are very confident at this point. They did it themselves throughout the season. So just gotta go out and do what they’ve been doing all year, and the competition stays the same. We wrestle a very tough schedule this year. So we’re familiar with a lot of guys that we’re going to see throughout the tournament, just like everybody else.

But it’s been — for us it’s been a very exciting year. Kind of things kind of explode a little quickly as far as the success with this team. And just we’re thankful to be in the situation we are with the team that we can compete with.

THE MODERATOR: I’ve been asked to pitch this to one of the coaches about special events that have occurred in wrestling the past few years, Beat the Streets, Grapple in the Garden. Last November Coach Tom Brands hosted Grapple on the Gridiron, drew a record crowd of more than 42,000. Tom Brands, you might address the importance of wrestling having special events like that.

TOM BRANDS: I think it’s important to look at the history of the sport, why it was so grand. You look at ancient Rome, and Mike Novogratz’s brainchild to have something outside. And it wasn’t original from our point of view. It’s just something that you keep trying to push the envelope a little bit. We got the fans to do it. We proved that. And we don’t take credit for being original, but we do take credit for being able to pull it off in grand fashion. And I think wrestling needs it. I think it needs it on a yearly or semi-yearly or whatever, as-many-times-as-you-can-get-it-packed-in-there basis. And you have a good product. And you make it good with fanfare and excitement. And the more people you put into building to watch the sport, the more exciting it gets. There’s no doubt, especially knowledgeable wrestling fans that feel things coming or see things coming ahead of time and they’re informed and they’re educated as to what’s coming, when the fall’s coming, near fall, team points, those types of things. So a lot going on there. That’s real positive.

Q. Coach Brands, follow-up to that. How does this weekend help grow the sport of wrestling? Specifically, not just with the NCAA Championships, but competing at Madison Square Garden?
TOM BRANDS: I think it’s historic. I don’t know how much impact there’s going to be. I think there’s a lot of things that compete with wrestling here, the Rangers, the Islanders, the Knicks. New Jersey has some professional teams going on right now. But that doesn’t mean that with great wrestling and great stories, people putting them out there, that this can’t be a great stage for wrestling. We are in the Garden, on the main floor of the Garden, not in the corner of the Garden or anywhere else. Go out there and let it fly. That’s what you have to do is have the team ready to go and have guys that are ready to put it on their shoulders and compete at a level that’s not only going to give them the best chance to win but is going to capture the fancy of fans and that’s how you do it. And it takes a lot of courage to wrestle that way. And the guys that I watched wrestle when I was younger, they were the ones that were scoring points. And one of those guys is right here sitting at this table and his name is John Smith. I mean, he scored a lot of points when he wrestled. He revolutionized the sport of wrestling. That’s how they’ve got to look at it sometimes, take that responsibility. I believe in that. We talked about it. It’s part of the philosophy of our program.

Q. This goes right to what you were talking about, Tom. You five are great ambassadors for the sport. John and Cael, you all have lots of team national titles; and, John, you just coached Cael back on the World team. So how do you guys approach that, Cael? Do you think you’re going to catch John with your team championships and how does that get you guys going?
JOHN SMITH: Most of the championships I didn’t win. I’ve got a small number compared to — he’s got a way to catch us. To catch me, I think he just needs one more.

CAEL SANDERSON: I don’t think anyone’s really worried about that. I think as coaches we’re just trying to put the best product we can out there on the floor and try to help kids reach their goals. If you do that, you have the ability to win a team championship, that’s a great bonus. Obviously we all want to win and everyone up here has a chance to win. But I don’t think it’s anything personal or I’m trying to catch this guy or that guy. If you’re doing that, you’re probably really not going to make it real far in the sport.

Q. Coach Sanderson, last year after the championship you told us that we always have to believe that we can win; but we also have to have the guys who can score the points. I was wondering if you can tell us if there’s a difference between feeling like you have to believe you can win and actually believing you can win, and whether or not you feel like you have the guys who can score the points this year?
CAEL SANDERSON: I’m trying to figure out what you asked me there. I’m a little slow. (Laughter). But I think if you act as if you know, right, you believe you’re going to win, you’re going to do things right. You’re going to fight a little harder, a little bit longer, regardless of the score, regardless of the circumstances. So there is always great power in believing because you’re going to do things correctly and you’re going to put more effort into it versus if I think there’s a chance I might win, well, then you’re going to be a little easily — you’ll be discouraged a little bit a little easier, I think. But, yeah, you have to have kids that have the ability to win matches and score points. And a kid comes into our program, we’re not going to change his core beliefs or turn him into something that the foundation wasn’t already there. That comes from home. It comes from his parents. Very rarely do people change or do kids change. So recruiting’s obviously very important. And getting kids that fit your program, kids that the bigger the match, the better they wrestle. Kids that like to score points. Like all the coaches are talking about. But there’s great value in believing. If you don’t believe you’ll be a little bit more willing to take what falls in your lap. And if you’re willing to do that, you’re probably not going to win. So hopefully that —

Q. Pat, you mentioned the program sort of exploded. How satisfying has it been for you this year just to watch the climb and you sitting up there now and being a legitimate contender, has the process gone a little faster than you may have thought?
PAT POPOLIZIO: Yeah, I think it’s definitely a little quicker than we expected as far as the NC State fan base and our administration. But I think the work that the guys have been doing, they’re getting rewarded with their success. So that part of it’s really nice to see. You’ve got a group of guys that are really committed to everything we’re about. And it’s been shown what their results have been putting in. But ultimately this weekend really matters the most to both them and the teams aspect of things. You’ve got individuals that have goals and you want to be a part of that and want to be able to see them accomplish that. So it has, it’s been a special season. But this weekend definitely could define a lot of that.



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Kyle Carroll
Kyle Carroll is a Long Island, N.Y. native and avid MMA and amateur wrestling fan. He has been a part of the wrestling community for nearly 20 years. Carroll has six years of experience coaching high school wrestling. His father coached high school wrestling over 35 years, passing on his strong knowledge. Carroll has been reporting MMA news since January 2011. The former wrestler’s coverage includes the 2012 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team Trials, 2013 & 2016 NCAA D1 Wrestling Championship, and numerous MMA events (Bellator MMA, King of the Cage, North American Fighting Championship, and Glory).