There is a University in Buies Creek, North Carolina that can trace its roots back to 1887. The home of our newest Under the Radar feature has grown significantly from 16 students in a small church to over 6,000 enrolled on campus. This is not your large state college like its neighbor in Raleigh and is smaller than their friends in Chapel Hill as well. It can most closely be compared from a size standpoint to another private university in North Carolina named Duke.
While nearly everyone within or outside of the wrestling world has heard of North Carolina State, North Carolina, and Duke, the reigning Southern Conference wrestling champions Campbell University deserves to become a more recognized name as well. The recent rise of Campbell wrestling has to be traced back to the acquisition of current Athletic Director Bob Roller. His decision to hire one of the all-time great athletes to ever step on the mat at any level harkened a change. Cary Kolat inherited a program struggling to find an identity and to be relevant in even the Southern Conference. While programs like Tennessee Chattanooga and Appalachian State saw growth and produced All-Americans, Campbell seemed on life support.
Kolat has piloted the program, thanks to his own will and the support of the administration, into relevance. They won the 2016-17 Southern Conference championship unseating Appalachian State and outdistancing UTC in the final scoring by 23.5 points. If this was not enough to make you stand up and take notice, the Camels took a school-record five wrestlers to the NCAA tournament. Still haven’t heard of them? Campbell also crowned their first All-American in Nathan Kraisser at 125. This is program a with a motivated coach, a supportive administration, and a wrestling room filled to the brim with recruits who want to learn under Kolat.
We were able to catch up with head coach Cary Kolat while he was traveling last week and asked him a few questions about Campbell University with the intent of bringing them out from under the radar:
Last season you won the SoCon Wrestling Championship and had your first All-American in Nathan Kraisser. What did that mean for the growth of the program at Campbell?
It’s important. Now you can have fans, the administration, and recruits see the changes you have made from the time you got there. So that was important. It shows we were moving in the right direction. When I took over the program they were in a significant hole with some issues. With the rebuild and the direction having those two things happens shows the growth. It shows the team and the fans that we are doing the right things.
When you talk about it helping with recruiting and getting fans and helping with the administration, it looks like you have 60 kids on your roster right now. What’s it like to have such a large lineup and so many people in the room to build around?
It’s good. That was part of my process when I looked at Campbell, I looked at a variety of things. Whether it was fully funded and all those things. I always wanted depth in my room. Some guys will say, “how do you manage 60 kids?” You learn to manage it. Not every kid is going to get attention when you have that many kids on the roster. It’s tough. There are limitations with staff sizes. We have found a way and a niche to reach pretty much every kid that we possibly can and every guy in the room who is a starter has anywhere from eight to 12 partners at his weight, below his weight, and one weight class above. That was always the formula I wanted in terms of success in terms of building the program. We kind of have our own little army down there and it has been an awesome situation.
Now with that lineup, right now it looks like you will not have a senior starting. Who is going to take leadership of this team? Has somebody stepped up or are you still looking?
We took five guys to nationals, we lost two of the seniors. We have guys coming in, our heavyweight (Jere Heino) is back, he’s currently ranked 11th in some of the rankings. Quentin Perez has done a great job from the time he’s gotten to the program and won the Southern Conference. He’s returning. Nathan Boston transferred from Iowa State. Ben Barton who was a guy who walked onto the program was a kid from Kentucky that nobody heard of. Wound up progressing as the year went on. Took third in the conference and we expect bigger things him this year. We’ve got leadership, it may not be in terms of leadership in that term of senior level, but we have some great guys who are in terms of work out, training, attitude, that are leaders in that room.
I saw you in Iowa City a couple of weeks ago at the Night of Conflict. You seem to be all over the place meeting recruits. You are picking recruits from places Campbell hasn’t in the past. You have an Iowa kid coming in, you have a transfer coming in from Iowa State. How important is it for you to go in and get your foot in the door for Campbell at these perennial states like Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and out East?
It’s big. It comes down to relationships and connections. Some of the connections I made, some of the connections my assistant coaches made. Some of the connections are, we recruited a kid from the neighboring high school in that state and there is a relationship there. People ask me all the time, is it coaching? I tell you it starts with recruiting. Building a program starts with recruiting. The coaching part is easy if you have the right horses in the stable. Recruiting has to be the focus.
I have followed your progress since they signed you down there, this is your fourth season building this program. Are you where you thought you would be going into your season? A little ahead? Or maybe not quite where you thought you would be?
A little bit ahead. We are a little bit ahead of where I thought. I did not anticipate winning the conference last year, I thought this would be our year to make a run. But midway through the season last year, I saw our guys turn the corner. I saw our true freshmen turn the corner and at that point, I said we have a shot at winning the conference this year. I think we won it by 1 1/2 or two points, it was a tight race and our guys did well. Now our goal is to be a top 20 team. Looking at our guy’s training, every coach sits back. I see the potential in guys and can see what we have. I believe we have three All-Americans sitting in that room. That’s what I see. The question is do the three I think can do it step up or does one guy drop off and somebody who I didn’t expect steps up. I feel like we have a top 20 team if the training continues to go where it’s going. If the motivation of the guys you have on the team stays where it’s at and they can peak at the end of the year. That takes a lot. You have to get a lot of things jiving at the same time.
Is that your next measuring stick? To break into that top 20 as a program?
Absolutely. As far as I am concerned anything out of the top 20 in terms of where this program should be we’re not doing our jobs. We should be always, our worst case scenario is top 20, and getting to the point where we can someday be a perennial top ten. That is the plan for the program.
You have been involved in a few different conferences. You have been involved in the Big Ten, the EIWA, EWL, ACC. The Southern Conference is one of those smaller conferences that just does not seem to be able to consistently compete. What needs to happen as a whole in the conference or are you just more worried about keeping Campbell healthy and strong?
For me it is keeping Campbell healthy and strong, that is my number one priority, but I think you are starting to see some changes in the Southern Conference programs so hopefully, we have more athletic directors like mine who do what they did. We are getting a one and a half million dollar facility next March. We have an administration that is invested in our program and sees what wrestling can do for a campus in terms of national exposure. Hopefully, we see that from other administrations. Time will tell, but we can go back to when I was competing in college and the ACC, you didn’t talk about the ACC. That was the conference that anybody of any real strength (blue chippers) was not going to the ACC and competing. Now it’s a viable conference to go there and win national titles. Everything comes with time and everything comes in waves. Hopefully, we will see the wave that happened to the ACC happen to the SoCon.
With you bringing the kids in and you want that depth, are you still looking for a certain type of athlete or background that they have to bring them into the program?
We are definitely looking for a kid with national exposure, has competed at national events. Has been able to get wins at national events. A state champion in his state if not a multiple time state champion. That is our guide, and I’m sure that guide is not far off from every other program around the country. But then it is the research of the kid. Is he going to be able to sustain it in college? Does he have 5,000 matches under his belt and he has peaked in high school and is on the way out? Those are the parts of the recruiting where you have to be careful. You can not just chase ranking. You have to get to know the kid, get to know the parents, talk to the coaches and really do some digging. Make sure you are getting what the results say you are going to get.
As you talk about those 5,000 matches in high school and you see more and more kids are out there chasing the national rankings, going to a lot of different national tournaments, do you think that’s starting to fall back a little on the burnout? As someone who came super highly recruited and had success at high school college and even international level, did you reach that point where you literally wrestled too many matches?
No. I literally took a lot of breaks. People always ask me, “how many times you win Fargo?” And I tell them I never went. I never went to Fargo. I had downtime. I was smart enough during my training years to shut it down. There is a small percentage of guys who have won all the time. Those guys are out there. That is a very small percentage, maybe two percent who have won from the time they were a youth all the way through college and maybe are really competitive at the international scene. But kids are better now. There is no doubt in my mind the athletes and the wrestlers are better now with the coaching and the clubs and things of that nature. You really have to do some work because there are so many kids that have matches. And then there are so many kids who are overlooked because they did not compete in that national competition. You do not want a kid like that to sneak by because you were not paying attention because all you follow is rankings. I’m looking at matches, I’m looking at a kid who I know who has won a lot but you can tell he is really into it, he is going to continue, and we are trying to find that guy that does not go to the Super 32 or Fargo because maybe mom and dad do not have the finances to take him. He has limited matches, limited exposure, but he is a solid kid and you need to snag him before somebody else does.
Is it weird now that you are coaching kids and their only actual exposure to you as a wrestler is to go back to YouTube videos?
Yeah. It is a sign of the age, right? I have bumped into kids who do not know who I am and I have bumped into people at times who say I have grown up watching you and that is how my dad trained. It is a little flattering and it’s funny. We all get older and fade away and the only thing that will stay after is if Campbell is successful and that is important. The program being successful keeps you relevant to the kids and if you are relevant to the kids you get to recruit. All those things have to work together.
Let’s say you have a kid out there who is a two-time state champion and he has maybe gone to the Cheesehead or something like that and he is getting phone calls from other coaches and he is looking around. What might he not realize about Campbell?
Campbell, we are a small school. That is what we go for. We are a fit for a lot of kids out there who do realize that a lot of kids might pick a big school and go after the giant football stadiums and see all these things, but in the end, all that stuff does not matter. What is going to matter is the education you are getting and am I tied into a team and a community where it is small enough that there are limited distractions and I can focus. So we get a very mature kid. The social life and everything else is secondary to him. He is coming here for a degree. He is coming here to be a national champion and he is coming here for limited distractions. That is the kid. If I run into a kid who just wants to talk because we reached out and after a while, we get a vibe that this guy wants the big school. He wants to be able to tell his friends that he went to the big school. Mom and dad want to be able to say he went to the big school, we move on. We do not want to waste time. That is the kid we look for.
You sound super excited, how excited really are you to get into that new building and new facility?
It is going to help a ton. We literally need the space with the size of our team. We need it for recruiting. It is great for the guys. It is another step of our administration showing the guys on our team that we are behind this program and we like the changes that we see and we are going to continue that. They are helping to drive the saw. All that has to be a part. It is not just the coaching, it is not just the guys. The administration is a big part of that. It is big in all areas in terms of recruiting and how our guys picture the program and build on the program.