Coach Rob Koll has turned Cornell into a wrestling haven

Posted: Thursday April 12, 2007 10:53AM; Updated: Friday April 13, 2007 10:49AM

By Olivia Steinman Dwyer

One day 18 years ago, Rob Koll came home from working at a bar in Chapel Hill, N.C., and his wife told him she had accepted a job on his behalf as an assistant wrestling coach at Cornell University.

"The week prior to that we were scraping under our mud mats in our car looking for quarters and nickels, anything to buy a Subway sub. And that's a true story," he remembers. "I spoke with the head coach and I said, 'Hey, I don't mean to insult you, but is Cornell even any good?' And he said, 'No, but we are going to be good.'"

That statement would prove to be prophetic. Five years later Koll would take over as head coach. Today he has a corner office in the Friedman Wrestling Center, the only standalone wrestling facility in the United States.

But this building is not the only sign of Cornell's progress during Koll's tenure. In his 13 years as head coach Koll has produced three individual national champions, 23 All-Americas, 22 EIWA individual champions, one EIWA team title and eight Ivy League titles. The high-water mark came in 2005, when nine grapplers fought their way to a fourth-place finish for the Red at nationals, the best showing for Cornell since 1953.

"I'm not going to tell you that I came to Cornell and saw myself here for 19 years, which is what ultimately happened," Koll says. "Undoubtedly I'll be buried here if they allow me to be."

The success on the mat has been matched by a growing support network that brings together the surrounding community, alumni from near and far and the student body to cheer on a program that has finished in the Top 20 at the national meet in each of the past five years. But what sets this program apart is the creative approach that Koll has taken when it comes to finding entertaining ways to put fans in the seats and keep them coming back.

Clinics and camps for wrestlers from the elementary to high school level statewide have earned the Red a passionate fan base of season ticket holders. It has also given Cornell a leg up with in-state recruits, including sophomore Troy Nickerson. A five-time state champion at the high school level, Nickerson opened his college career with a national runner-up finish as a rookie and a third-place showing at NCAAs this season.

"When I was seven years old I came to my first Cornell wrestling camp," Nickerson says. "Koll signed a poster for me and said, 'See you up in here in 10 years.'"

With talents such as Nickerson taking the Red to new heights, Koll has focused on getting the community and the student body involved. Cornell's schedule now features opponents with national name-recognition, including Ohio State and Arizona State. These featured matches are held in the basketball arena, and the team gets sponsors to make a donation for each spectator that attends as part of the Big Red's Community Cares Challenge. In 2005 a victory over rival Lehigh drew a school-record crowd of 4,425 into Newman Arena and raised more than $10,000 for Ithaca Hospicare.

"Our team has a really great support system," Nickerson says. "Our coaches do a great job promoting the team and getting the community involved."

For the younger crowd Koll is willing to try just about anything to make wrestling matches a big draw. Students can enter their name in an annual raffle for a 60-inch plasma TV each time they attend a match, and if they join the "Unbearables" fan club they get a free T-shirt and a chance to win more giveaways. One student was lucky enough to be placed in the center of a mat littered with dollar bills and told to grab as many as he could while blindfolded. Pump-up music blares from the speakers between bouts, and junior Doug Weidner plays the role of the Red Man, a combination mascot and cheerleader who works the crowd in a red singlet.

"[The administration doesn't] like it, but they let us do it anyway," Koll says of his musical selections and mascot's behavior. "And it's certainly better to ask for forgiveness than approval. They don't think it's appropriate for an Ivy League setting. Well, guess what? Neither is wrestling. It's a very blue-collar sport. Perhaps it's not fencing, it's not crew, but we can win at the highest level here, and everyone loves winning."

This season the team adopted the motto "In the Hunt" and prepared to make a run at the national title. To let their fans know that they were serious, six wrestlers donned camouflage pants and stripped down to their bare chests for a portrait in the woods that was put on posters with the team's schedule. While Koll drew the line at a version of the picture that involved actual guns and bows, he had no problem with a final product that featured a digitally altered trophy declaring Cornell the 2007 national champions.

"We're going to scale it down next year," Koll says. "But at the end of the day it does draw attention to the program, and in my experience with marketing, almost any attention is good."

While the poster may be tamer next year, the team's hunger for success will return with a vengeance. The Red returned home from the 2007 national tournament with four All-Americas and a 12th-place finish in the team competition. A result like that may have been beyond Koll's wildest dreams in 1989, but things are different now.

"People are telling us how great we did for the season [and] I feel like General Custer after the last stand," Koll says. "That's how I feel about the national tournament; we had a great year, but I just got scalped. What good does that do me?"

Thanks to the Wrestling Mall for this link from Sports Illustrated...