If I asked you to name the best state in the nation for college wrestling as a whole, very quickly fans would scream Oklahoma, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio. I want to offer up a surprising addition to that list, Kentucky. How can a state without a single division one school make that list? How about having three teams in the top ten at the NAIA national tournament. Lindsey Wilson and Campbellsville have had strong programs in the NAIA for a while now, but the addition of the University of the Cumberlands could make Kentucky a state worth watching.
Nestled in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and home to approximately 6,000 students, the University of the Cumberlands is beginning to make fans take a second look. When selecting my Under the Radar schools, I am always looking to shine a light on a program who is doing things the right way, and head coach Chris Fleeger enters his fourth season deserving of more attention. The Patriots’ wrestling program began in 1996 and boasts six national champions along with 63 All-Americans. The program’s three All-Americans last season was the most since 2009-10 when they equaled that feat.
The program turned my head when they finished second at the loaded Missouri Valley Invitational last season. Having written a preview for that tournament, I knew how tough of a field it would be. They followed that up with runner-up finishes at the Mid-South Conference tournament and NAIA East Regional. The season was capped with a tenth place team finish at the national tournament.
Fans who have listened to TheOpenMat coverage of events in the past may remember Fleeger taking to the airwaves during our coverage of the 2010 and 2011 Big Ten tournaments where he mentioned then freshman David Taylor (Penn State) arriving at the arena riding a unicorn. That comment even spawned a Facebook page at the time. In addition to his brief stint as a color commentator, Fleeger spent time as the head coach of Darton College (Georgia) and then as an assistant at his alma mater, Purdue. The Patriots have improved each season since his arrival and look poised to challenge not only for Kentucky supremacy but may find themselves in the national championship talk as the season moves along.
Coach Fleeger brings some interesting ideas and training practices to the program as well. This season they have added cutting-edge heart rate monitors and a stationary bike system. If that does not seem exciting enough for you, let me put it another way. The University of the Cumberlands has added training tools that only division one powerhouse Penn State is currently using. The Patriots are looking to be the best by training like the best.
We caught up with Fleeger and asked him a few questions about his program as we try to bring the University of the Cumberlands out from Under the Radar.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your up and coming program, the University of the Cumberlands Patriots.
Last season (your third) the team showed incredible improvement. The program beat the “other” Cumberland school, took second at the very difficult Missouri Valley Invitational, second in the NAIA East Regional qualifier, had three wrestlers earn All-American status, and finished tenth at the NAIA National Tournament. What has happened in the wrestling room that allowed the program to advance so far forward?
We have invested a lot of time and energy into worrying about the process of how we do things and building a culture. We don’t talk about winning or focus on that sort of thing. I think we have done a good job of getting the right personalities in there and building the atmosphere first. The winning is starting to take care of itself. But we have an extremely focused and disciplined team. We make sure to let our guys know what our standards are and hold them accountable for that standard above all else.
You have been successful as a wrestler at the division one level, a junior college head coach, a division one assistant, and now you are laying the foundation for a successful program. What has driven you personally over your life in the sport?
The love for the sport of wrestling and the belief in the things I’ve learned. I truly believe wrestling has done more for me on a personal level than it has on an athletic level. With that belief, I truly try to worry more about those things as opposed to just worrying about winning or the end result. I am a firm believer in not just being all talk. If I say the small things matter and wrestling teaches you about life then I have to instill that in my coaching every day.
The University of the Cumberlands seems to have the perfect rival in Cumberland University in Tennessee. Your Patriots bested them every time it counted last season, are they your rivals? Do you run into confusion when you talk about your University to recruits? Should they have to change their name if you continue to win? I just really want this to be a rivalry; I mean it is absolutely set to be one!
Haha. Yeah, they are a good team and definitely a rival. Our conference is so strong and so close geographically that we really have a few rivals. We had 5 teams in the top 11 in the country this past year. 3 of them were in Kentucky and 1 was just over the border in Tennessee. And it is confusing to a lot of recruits so we spend some time making sure to distinguish ourselves from them.
Kentucky has an incredible field of teams in the NAIA for wrestling, but not a single division one program. Is that a hindrance for recruiting because of the lack of a division one school, or does it help not having to compete against an upper division power? Three teams in the top ten is a great finish in any division for a state.
I think it’s really sad that Kentucky doesn’t have any division 1 schools in general. I don’t really worry about divisions honestly though. We recruit against all divisions and I think what we have to offer rivals any school. I love the NAIA and you are seeing a ton of growth not only with the number of programs but the support of those programs and the coaching quality of those programs. I have more support and better facilities here than I have had anywhere by far.
Three returning All-Americans is a great foundation for another strong finish this year. Where do you see the program growing in 2017-18? Who are the wrestlers that need to step up and help push this team even further? Who are the names to know besides Tres Leon, Jake Sinkovics, and Cameron Jones?
We return pretty much our entire team and have very few seniors. It’s really exciting to have such a strong team that is still so young. I think that everyone needs to be accountable for stepping it up. Your AA’s are obviously going to gain more attention but every single guy in the room needs to carry their weight and hold each other accountable. Whether you are the starter or the redshirt freshman, you are the same value to the team. We concentrate on the depth and every single guy in our program gets the same amount of attention and accountability. The goal for the 2017-18 year is the same it has been since I have taken over and that is to have every single guy on the team love the sport of wrestling to the fullest and to become the best person they can.
Social media is becoming a larger and larger tool for recruiting and also to reach out to alumni and fans. Is there an emphasis on your program to build a following on those platforms? You do an incredible job on your own Facebook page sharing photos and stories, but do you have plans for more? Duke used Live events on Facebook to broadcast duals, Arizona State shared their wrestle-offs live, how important are things like Facebook and Twitter nowadays?
I think social media is crucial but it also takes an incredible amount of planning and time to implement. We have concentrated on facebook in years before and have done a decent job. We are now rolling out twitter, instagram, and snapchat. We have consolidated our handle to be the same on all platforms to make it easy to follow, ucwrestling96. We have been reluctant to do all the platforms before because anything you do you should do with full effort and I didn’t feel I had the time while we were getting the program where I wanted it. We are now spreading our wings and you will see a lot more from our social media. It will be a great mix of information, interaction, and behind the scene items.
Let’s be honest, Grandview is a cut above the rest of the NAIA, but what would it take for your program to push Lindsey Wilson and Campbellsville for Kentucky dominance? Where do you set the goals for the Patriots not just this coming season, but in the future?
Grandview has definitely put themselves up there as the team to beat. I don’t worry myself with the things other programs do though. We know the process it takes to win and we are putting all of our efforts into getting every student that attends our program to buy into that process. We have made great strides and are on our way. The winning will take care of itself at that point.
The NAIA has been an incredible trailblazer in building women’s college wrestling programs. In fact, there is a push now for DI schools to add them. As a former DI wrestler and assistant, as well as a head coach at a University that currently has a women’s program, how do you feel about the rise in popularity of the sport?
Anything that can help the sport of wrestling grow is great. Our women’s program has been around for a long time and has great support and we work great with them. It’s awesome having two wrestling programs on campus.
What type of student-athletes are you looking to bring to your program? As you build the identity of the Patriots, are there certain characteristics in recruits that you search for? How can a wrestler who wants to continue wrestling after high school, but maybe feels more comfortable attending a NAIA program go about contacting you and your staff?
We definitely look for certain characteristics for our student-athletes. Atmosphere is the most important thing to a program. We are not a mercenary school that just takes anyone with talent. We want kids who will work hard to uphold the strict standard we set for them as people. Talent is nice but it is not one of our top priorities. It definitely gets you on the radar but then we dive deeper. I want kids who love the sport of wrestling, are willing to learn, hard working, and believe in the small things. I can teach anyone to wrestle but changing a bad attitude is the toughest job for a coach. We have a beautiful campus and are always looking for kids who fit the bill. We are able to be reached via email, firstname.lastname@example.org, phone, 606-539-4051, or via any of our social media handles, ucwrestling96.
Coach Fleeger, leave us with your final thoughts about your program, and why it could be a great fit for a high school senior right now?
I think we really have something special going on here at Cumberlands and have built a really great atmosphere. We are very structured and teach our kids how to be a successful person in anything they do in life.
We look forward to following along this season as the Patriots try to show the wrestling world why we chose them to be the next program we bring out from Under the Radar.