When Kevin Dresser decided to leave Virginia Tech for Iowa State, it was a rare case of the head coach at a top-10 team leaving their place of employment. Though this season has yet to conclude, Virginia Tech was fourth last season and appears to be on track for another top-10 finish in 2017. Given the uncertainty whenever a coach leaves a program, which is even more pronounced when the program is not a traditional power, I wondered what history might tell us about these sorts of moves. I went back through NCAA wrestling history until I found what I believe to be the last five times a top-10 team lost their coach, for any reason, to see what those situations and the years since might tell us about the likelihood of the Hokies continuing their recent success.
Mark Cody moves from American to Oklahoma in 2011 after a fifth place finish
When Cody took over at American in the summer of 2002, the program had never had an All-American and had never qualified more than three wrestlers for the national tournament either. By 2005, Cody had four wrestlers at the NCAA tournament and the program’s first All-American, Daniel Waters. American would have an All-American every year after that under Cody, including three each in 2010 and 2011. After two holdovers were All-Americans in 2012 after Cody had left for Norman, American didn’t get another AA until last season when David Terao finished fourth, the only All-American so far under Teague Moore. The Bald Eagles have not had an EIWA champion since 2012 either. It hasn’t been all doom and gloom, but the program has not yet returned to the level of success they achieved under Cody. With only one wrestler ranked in the top-20, #11 Josh Terao (125), it doesn’t look like they will take a step forward in the 2017 post-season either. Cody was out at Oklahoma just before this season began.
Cael Sanderson goes to Penn State after Iowa State finishes third in 2009
Just when it seemed that Iowa State had put itself squarely back among the best teams in the nation, Sanderson shocked the wrestling world by leaving for Happy Valley. Similar to American, the Cyclones had one more good season and then fell out of the top-10 for good, though they were between 11th and 14th the past four years. After almost never being outside the top-10 since Harold Nichols took over in the 1950s, that was the new normal for the Cyclones. Jackson is now stepping down with Kevin Dresser being brought in to restore the program to its past glory. If he does so, the Jackson era will be seen as an aberration. However, the program is in a much different position now than when Sanderson left. Cael, of course, is doing incredible things at Penn State which is now the dominant power in college wrestling.
Mark Johnson retires at Illinois after an eighth place finish in 2009
Johnson had the Fighting Illini in the top-10 in 10 of his 17 seasons in charge before he retired following the 2009 season, allowing longtime assistant Jim Heffernan to take over. The results under Heffernan have been largely similar to those of the Johnson era, especially the tail end of it. There have been three top-10 team finishes in seven seasons with solid teams coming out of Champaign, never title threats, but never too far away from the top contenders. The transition from Johnson to Heffernan saw little change in the production of the program which isn’t overly surprising given the impact a longtime assistant like Heffernan was probably having long before he took the reins.
Jim Zalesky fired at Iowa after a fourth place finish in 2006
It’s never easy to follow a legend, but that was the task for Jim Zalesky after he took over for Dan Gable before the 1997-98 season. The three titles Zalesky won in his first three years as coach would prove to be the only ones he would bring to Iowa City and after finishing fourth or worse four times in five seasons from 2002 to 2006, Zalesky was replaced by Tom Brands. It didn’t take long for Brands to put the Hawkeyes back on top as he won three consecutive titles of his own from 2008 to 2010. However, Iowa hasn’t won since and while Brands’ only finish outside the top five was in his first year in charge, the team’s performance at nationals has been much closer to the teams of Zalesky than Gable. Zalesky immediately took the Oregon State job where he continues to be the head man.
Lee Roy Smith steps down at Arizona State after a ninth-place finish in 2001
After Bobby Douglas put Arizona State on the map in the late 1970s and 1980s, Lee Roy Smith took over and while he remains the second most successful coach in Sun Devil history, he couldn’t quite replicate the same level of success that Douglas had achieved. Still, he probably could have continued coaching in the desert for some time after getting Arizona State back on top in the conference and back in the top-10 in 2001. Instead, Smith opted to pursue other opportunities in business and within the sport that did not involve coaching a college wrestling team. With a couple of notable exceptions, the team slipped under Thom Ortiz and then Shawn Charles before Zeke Jones was hired. The program seems to be moving in the right direction again, more than 15 years later, but they still haven’t won the conference tournament since 2006. UPDATE: Arizona State won their first conference title since 2006 on Sunday.
How it applies to Virginia Tech
The Cody and Sanderson situations most closely resemble Virginia Tech’s current predicament with an excellent coach leaving a thriving program for potentially greener pastures. The big question there is whether the Hokies are closer to American or Iowa State. Both programs took a step backward with neither having recovered yet. Iowa State is set to try someone new while Moore remains the man in D.C. Illinois didn’t suffer much of a setback when they handed their program to Heffernan which suggests Tony Robie, who is in his 11th season with the Virginia Tech program, might be a wise choice as the next head coach. However, Johnson knew he was going to retire at some point so he was probably grooming Heffernan more than Dresser would have been with Robie. Still, continuity and someone who knows what has been working so well could make for a solid choice.
The Iowa situation bears little resemblance to Virginia Tech given the history of the program and a coach who got fired after winning a team trophy, something the Hokies did for the first time in 2016. Still, the Hawkeyes did see an initial boost, aided by the recruits Brands brought with him from Virginia Tech, coincidentally, before returning to similar levels of success that Zalesky was having. Arizona State was already taking a small step back before Smith left and then took bigger steps backward that they are still trying to reverse. Losing a coach, especially when your program is doing well, is never easy. This small sample suggests Virginia Tech is likely to take a step back to some extent. However, it doesn’t have to be a big one if they make the right choice to replace Dresser. Robie looks like a good choice, but there could be others as well. One thing is for certain, head coaches are important in Division I wrestling. It isn’t easy to get a program into the top 10. Head coaches who can do it aren’t easy to replace.