The life of a college coach can be a turbulent ride with stops every couple of years at a new school, in a new state. Through blood, sweat, and tears they learn to love each new stop, but often times at the end of the day, it can be just another job. That is not the case for Hofstra’s Head Wrestling Coach Dennis Papadatos. The fifth-year head coach loves his wrestling program, his school, and his hometown. He has pledged that he will have success at the school, “or die trying.”
Not only is Papadatos a Hofstra alum, but he also grew up just a few miles away from the campus. His kids go to the same elementary school that he attended. As we travel the “long” way from his house to the campus, a ten-minute commute through the Long Island town of Levittown, Dennis points out the park which he played t-ball as a boy and the area where the Piano Man, Billy Joel, grew up. As a competitor, Dennis spent a year at Lock Haven, before returning home to Hofstra where he would go on to earn a conference title and qualify twice for the NCAA Championships, despite never having made it to the New York State Championships. Once his collegiate career was finished Papadatos stayed on staff with then-Head Coach Tom Ryan as a strength and conditioning coach. Though over the years he would move on as an assistant coach at Northern Illinois, Binghamton, and North Carolina, his love for Hofstra never waned. Once at the 2006 Journeyman Northeast Duals, while coaching at Binghamton, the Bearcats Head Coach Pat Popolizio had to nudge Dennis to make sure he was focused on their upcoming dual, instead of Hofstra who was in the process of upsetting the top-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers. A tee-shirt from the event autographed by the members of that 2006-07 team still hangs proudly in the Hofstra wrestling office.
Walking through the Hofstra campus with Papadatos could be likened to a stroll with the mayor of the school if such a title existed. Dennis is gregarious and outgoing, never one that quietly blends into his surroundings. When we check out at the dining hall, Papadatos talks to the cashier who has worked at the school since he was a student. Later, he stops mid-conversation to say hello to a new hire from the HR department. As my tour was winding down, we run into a host of the school’s award-winning radio broadcast team. Dennis is eager to arrange an appearance and promote the team on the school’s WRHU station; one that is so polished that they produce and distribute the NHL’s New York Islanders games on live radio.
Even though the Hofstra position was Dennis’ dream job, it has presented its share of problems to work through. He inherited a team that was dangerously close to facing APR penalties and roster that was capped at 20 wrestlers. Through constant hard work and lobbying, he has been able to up that roster number to 21 for the upcoming season. Under his direction, the wrestling program has captured the athletic department’s Pride Cup, which incorporates academic achievement, team performance, community service, attendance at life skill programs, and support of fellow athletic teams, in each of the last three years. In 2017-18 Hofstra’s most notable wrestler, Michael Hughes was also one of their most well-rounded. As a senior, Hughes was the athletic departments SAAC (Student-Athlete Advisory Committee) President and involved in various charitable endeavors, in addition to becoming Papadatos’ first All-American. The day before I arrive on Long Island, it was announced that Hughes would be staying with the program as a volunteer assistant for 2018-19.
The performance on the mat has slowly built up under Papadatos, as the Pride won five duals in each of his first two seasons, followed by six and then ten in 2017-18. The 2018 season was capped off by Hughes’ sixth-place finish at the 285 lb weight class. He became the 30th All-American in school history. After talking to Dennis and veteran members of the team, they all are unified in the belief that the 2018-19 season has the makings of something special. The current crop of freshmen and transfers are the best that the program has signed in the last decade. The freshmen are pushing the upperclassmen, who in turn, have turned up the intensity as they are not ready to concede starting positions. The returners say that, even in preseason workouts, the level of competition and work ethic dwarfs that of years past.
Papadatos is torn on how to feel about this year’s team. Part of him is so excited about this group that he wants the entire world to know. The other part of him wouldn’t mind sneaking up on the wrestling community. Either way, he will use the same work ethic that propelled him to almost 100 collegiate wins, despite initially starting his career as an anonymous walk-on. His work ethic and propensity to build himself and his teams from the bottom up is not a fact that is lost on his peers. After he was hired by Hofstra, the first call he received was from a rival coach in the old CAA conference that congratulated him and said, “Dennis you deserve this,” despite never appearing very close to him in the past. After spending the better part of two days around Dennis and the Hofstra program, you get the impression that he is 100% sincere when he says that they will have success “or die trying.”
Here is a series of interviews with members of the Hofstra staff and wrestling team during TOM’s recent visit to the campus.
Head Coach Dennis Papadatos
The Mack Sports Complex with Dennis Papadatos
Volunteer Assistant Michael Hughes