I had a chance to talk to Wyoming head wrestling coach Mark Branch this past week to get his thoughts on the state of the program, the NCAA tournament coming up, and other topics that came to mind. First off, thanks a ton to coach Branch and Andy Chapman for getting this setup for me.
BR (Brad Reed): What is the biggest cultural change you’ve made at Wyoming since taking over for Steve Suder?
MB (Mark Branch): Definitely the expectation of being successful in all phases. And I’m not saying that it wasn’t here, but I know it’s been an emphasis since I’ve been here to not only be successful inside of the wrestling room but to be successful outside of the wrestling room. I think that’s the thing we get most complimented on is the way our kids focus on the academics and the way they do good in the community, not only on this campus, but out in the community, just giving their time. Those things are as important as success on the mat. Not only the level of wrestling, it’s more than that to me.
BR: All Americans were hard to come by previous to you taking over, what did you change to raise the expectation that we will have All-American wrestlers.
MB: I think you just said it right there is expectation. I don’t want it to be something where kids come here and hope that it’s possible, more than just a dream and more than just a goal. Any kid can come here with that goal but we want kids to come here and expect that level of success. Obviously it’s a lot easier said than done, it is a very difficult thing to do here year in and year out. And the fact that we’ve been able to have a streak of All-Americans has been a real building point for this program. It makes everything seem more legitimate.
BR: You’ve got four guys going to the NCAA, what do you expect out of the team going in?
MB: I’m disappointed that we only have four, but at the same time I feel really good about these four. They all honestly… three didn’t get a seed so they’re all wrestling seeded kids in the first round. When you get to that tournament there’s no given and you have to go there and really earn it. I feel good about the toughness of this group that we’re taking. The fact that they’ve battled all year and that they’ve been consistent all year.. they didn’t just have a good tournament at conference, or I don’t want to use the term “lucky”, but that’s what comes to my mind to just have a good one time performance at conference that got ’em into the tournament. They’ve been consistent all year. They’ve wrestled tough all year and they’ve wrestled some of the best wrestlers in the country throughout the season. I definitely feel like they’re seasoned and ready. They’re not in a great position and none of them, not even Tyler Cox, is projected to be an All-American. But I’m confident that this group can go into Oklahoma City and make a splash. I won’t rule out any possibilities and I think we can upset some people, our kids can battle and accomplish some great things next week.
BR: Andy McCulley didn’t get a spot in the tournament, he certainly deserved it.. what happened with Andy?
MB: It’s hard for me to put my finger on it, I don’t know the criteria that the committee uses but it seems like all of the possible criteria I could think of I don’t see how they couldn’t pick Andy. If they only look at one criteria then they only look at one criteria and it’s possibly what they did in this case. I don’t know without talking to them but it’s very disappointing to not see your kid to not get where he deserves to go. He didn’t go into the conference tournament and have a bad conference tournament. If he had really wrestled poorly then you can go “well you just didn’t wrestle good enough.” He really wrestled good at conference, he upset a kid who earned a spot for our conference in the first round. That was a big win for him. Then he goes into the finals and gets beat by the top kid in our conference who is ranked and seeded in the NCAA tournament, loses that, then has to turn around and wrestle again, when your tournament really should be over but the way the qualification purposes work you have to wrestle for a true second place. So you have to turn around and wrestle a match that he didn’t plan on wrestling and he’s gotta a wrestle a kid who was one match away from being an All-American and a kid from Air Force who could have earned a spot from our conference had he not been injured a lot of the year but nonetheless a very good kid and comes up short in that match. It’s not like he went there and got beat by people he shouldn’t have, he got beat by quality kids. I believe his body of work throughout the season was by far good enough to get him into the tournament. The committee didn’t see it that way. It reinforces that we teach that you want to take it out of that position and make sure you take care of business so it doesn’t go to a committee. It’s tough.. it’s tough on Andy, it’s tough on us and we want him there with us but we can’t do anything about it.
BR: Does that change your opinion of the true second place match?
MB: Well, you have to do it. It’s stinks the way you have to do it to qualify. Our conference doesn’t get enough recognition for the quality of kids that we have. What stinks is we have kids who are right on the edge of qualifying spots for us but sometimes it’s not getting the respect, or sometimes it’s not getting the right matches on the schedule. I know there’s some schools who have trouble getting quality teams. We haven’t had any problem with that but there’s something that keeps us from getting four to five other spots that we should get. Those true seconds are very important and we have to do it. In our conference I don’t think there’s one kid who got beat in the finals who won their true second. It’s such an emotional roller coaster in the finals of your conference tournament then if you lose you have to turn around and wrestle a guy that’s got everything to gain.
BR: It’s hard to get yourself up for two straight matches like that.
MB: Yeah, it’s an emotional toll on you. As soon as Andy came off that mat of a very slow match and there was a couple of wishy-washy calls at the end that they had to go back and review that they upheld. Talk about an emotionally draining match. He’s off the mat and he’s heartbroken and in tears and I’m saying you gotta shake it off because you gotta wrestle again. You don’t want to hear that. He didn’t even know that. We’re tellin’ him, “Hey, your tournament’s not over. You gotta wrestle again, you’re the first match up.” It’s tough. It’s brutal. It is what it is but I hope someday our conference can get a little bit stronger and a little bit deeper so that we have a little bit more room for error. Right now you either win it or you’re out. At 157 we qualified two, but at a lot of those weights you don’t have room to stub your toe. A lot of those weights it’s win or your season is over. It’s a tough situation to be in. We have to fix that as a conference, we have to get deeper.
BR: That’s tough for a small conference like the WWC and didn’t help with Northern Iowa bolted for the MAC either.
MB: Nope, and we’re looking for ways to solve it. We’re looking for ways to expand. Some coaches are resistant to the idea a little bit. I’m a big proponent of trying to expand or trying to merge with another conference just because of what we’re talking about. It gives us a stronger picture in the end. Gives us a better chance in the end to qualify guys for the NCAA tournament.
BR: And you saw the benefits of that yourself when you were a wrestler in the Big 12.
MB: Yeah, absolutely. When I was wrestling we took the top three at every weight and had a handful of wildcards. We only had five teams, so three out of five guys were for sure going. That’s the old system and that’s the way it used to be. I like this system, as much as it frustrates me that Andy didn’t get in I really like the system. I just don’t know if it’s as good as it can be right now and I just don’t know if the conference is where it needs to be. We need to strengthen our schedule, some of our other conference teams. We need to get to those bigger tournaments. We have to wrestle our kids. This year we had several coaches hold kids out, whether they were out with injuries or they were protecting them or what, but they didn’t really get enough matches to get into the coaches rankings or the RPI. It’s tough but you have to wrestle your kids all year. They’re going to get dinged up. We did it this year, and we do it with our kids every year, we wrestle our best team. We seldom ever rotate guys out, we keep our best kids in the lineup as much as possible. Other coaches have difference philosophies sometimes, but if the kid gets hurt then you have to sit him out. The heavyweight from Utah Valley who was ranked in the top 15 all year didn’t qualify a spot for us because he was out for a month with a concussion. It’s tough to have any kind of an injury and stay in the relevant picture to qualify.
BR: Tyler Cox is looking to repeat as an All-American, what’s going to be most important for him to repeat?
MB: He’s been there before. He’s been in this tournament. He’s scrappy, he knows what to expect. He needs to be confident and say, “This isn’t anything new for me.” I kinda like the fact that he drew a 9th seed because I want him going in there with a chip on his shoulder with an attitude of really you’re not going to give me any more respect than that. I truly believe that if he wrestles the way he did in the conference finals and really opens it up he can beat anybody. He’s got a tough place in the bracket. I think Tyler’s capable of beating any body at that weight but he’s gotta be on and he’s gotta be on fire. He’s gotta go out there and just let it go. He has a tendency to tighten up. I hope he goes there and just lays it out on the mat. I think he can do some great things. I don’t want to put predictions out there or anything, but I just think he can beat anybody when he’s wrestling his best.
BR: Speaking of Tyler, how important was it to have a dual in Gillette this year?
MB: We want to continue to expose our program to other places. We want to grow our fan base. It wasn’t a great situation for us this year. We didn’t perform well. I take responsibility in that because that’s my decision to take a home dual and wrestle it somewhere else, not only that I made some other decisions that put our team’s back against the wall and I regret that a little bit. I definitely over-trained the team leading up to that dual. I did it on purpose, it wasn’t by accident, but really thought we could push through and we’d be okay in that dual. I took ’em up there, I had a lot of distraction for them, again on purpose, because I wanted to test them. It didn’t work out. I was also disappointed in the crowd, to be honest. With Gillette’s wrestling history I really thought we’d have a packed gym. It wasn’t a very big gym so I didn’t think it’d be any issue packing that gym, especially being on a Sunday and not conflicting with any high school wrestling, so I was a little disappointed in the crowd that we had. We’ll continue to look to reach out for opportunities around the state. I think we’re going to try to see if we can get something going in Rock Springs next year. As a coach there’s some risks in that taking your built-in advantage and throwing it out the door. I need to do a better job of getting my team prepared for those kinds of challenges. I think I expected too much out of this team because of the youth issue we were dealing with and I kind of discounted the youth issue. I needed to take into account that they needed to grow up and they needed some maturing before they were ready for some things that I threw at them.
BR: One young guy that stepped up for you this year was Ben Stroh. That guy was huge for you this year.
MB: Yeah, he’s been consistent all year. He’s just a tough, hard-nosed, comin’ at ya non-stop for seven minutes and that’ll get you a long ways in this sport. I tell people all the time if you wrestle hard you can accomplish things and if you train hard.. he does it all. Especially at the upper weights where you see it less and less, guys that can go as hard as he goes. He draws the number one seed, but I wouldn’t want to draw him, I wouldn’t want to wrestle Ben Stroh in the first round. That kid’s gonna come and he’s not gonna stop until that last whistle blows. He’s been great for us, he’s gotta get technically better. He’s a good student, he listens. He makes quick changes and picks stuff up very quick. He’s gotta get a bit more refined and he’s going to be a heck of a guy to tangle with. He’s going to have a very successful career, I believe.
BR: You just recently secured the funds for a wrestling facility, how important is that going to be?
MB: I think it’s the biggest impact we can make for this program. This is something that’s going to help us. It’s going to give our kids a better training opportunity. It’s going to give our kids a nicer place to call home. We’re kind of like hobos or gypsies sometimes. When we want something we have to go out. Like when we want to do circuit training we have to go out and use the UniWyo gym. Sometimes we eat our team meals in the volleyball locker room because we don’t have a setup. We’re eating off on the floor. We’re going to have the things that we need. The impact it’s going to have on our recruiting is going to help us as well, especially here. We need some advantages. I don’t think Wyoming has a ton of advantages for recruiting. You’re looking for some pretty specific kids who I think feel comfortable in a place like Laramie. Those are the things when a kid comes in and sees nice facilities, sees how they’ll be able to train and the commitment that this university and our fans are making and that’s going to help boost our recruiting numbers.
BR: You’re also a regional Olympic training center, and I assume that’s a huge gain for the program as well?
MB: Absolutely, it allows us to have guys like Clayton Foster come here and train. We’re going to expand that. We’re hopefully going to add to our club coaching or our club sponsored athletes. It also allows us to train year-round, it allows us to host training camps here, and it puts us out there as one of the elite programs. I know we get it from a recruiting standpoint, parents are really interested in a regional training center. There are a lot of built-in advantages to it. The NCAA has really embraced what the regional training centers are doing and they give us a lot of leeway that a lot of sports don’t have. It would be rules violations for a lot of things that we can do, the regional training centers gives us the luxury to do those things.
BR: Tyler Cox and Chris Pendleton have tried out for the national team in the past, do you have any other wrestlers on the roster who have the same interest they do?
MB: Yeah, we have some young guys on the roster who do. One of our redshirt guys, Zach Beard was a very successful freestyle wrestler throughout high school so I think you’ll have some aspirations there. I think when Tyler graduates I think he’ll give it a shot and wrestle full-time. Like I said, we brought in Clayton Foster who’s on the US national team and he’s been here for two years. He’s actually wrestling in the World Cup this weekend and he’s one of the best guys in the world. I think in the next three-year cycle you’ll see some younger kids comin’ out and graduating and choosing to stay here and train and try to make an Olympic or World team. We haven’t had that much the last couple of years because they’re not kids that I have recruited. A lot of those kids probably didn’t have a very big freestyle background. We look more towards kids who wrestle all year-round. Not to say that’s all we recruit but in a large part we look there first. We want those kids who know what it’s like to train year-round because that’s the effort it takes. If you have kids who have only wrestled in high school and hasn’t participated in freestyle or Greco those kids sometimes have a hard time with the time commitment and the length of the season, our season goes a lot longer than the high school season. Sometimes it’s tough for them, so it’s easier if you have a kid that’s already done it so a lot of our recruitment is those kids. Over the next several years I think you’ll see Wyoming graduates stick around and try to make Olympic teams and world teams.
BR: I think one of the benefits too to recruiting those types of kids is you can put them in the big tournaments and they don’t freeze up because they’re used to wrestling on the bigger stages throughout the majority of their lives.
MB: Yeah, absolutely some of these tournaments are absolutely massive. Junior nationals is probably the biggest tournament in the sport probably in the world. There’s 26 or 28 mats in the FargoDome. You’re on a pretty big stage in a pretty huge tournament. And there’s hundreds of kids in each weight. So yeah, it’s not a surprise to them when they get to college and compete in these tournaments at a high level as they’ve wrestled in some pretty big events leading up to that.
BR: Do you think you’ll ever see another Joe LeBlanc come through your program, a four-time All-American?
MB: Yeah, I hope so. I hope that’s one of those guys right now, I really do. Joe was really special. Joe helped get us started with his success and being a freshman All-American in my first year. And the turnaround he had as well. His redshirt season he had kind of a so-so season, so nothing about Joe really stood out until Joe stood out. I didn’t even know who he was. We got in the room and we start training and we start lookin’ at kids and he wasn’t too bad. He was a winner and a gamer. His impact really helped our program gain legitimacy right off the bat and that’s probably the best way I can put it. I definitely think there’s guys out there, and I think there’s guys in our room right now, and we have one guy, a freshman, who’s going to Oklahoma City and I hope he is the next Joe LeBlanc and hope he places next week. We’ll see if he’s capable of it. Those kids are rare. Four time All-Americans don’t come around a lot so I hope to be a part of several of them.
BR: That would be terrific. I have one last question for you. Who’s your crankiest wrestler when they’re cutting weight?
MB: [laughs] Crankiest this year is probably Cole Mendenhall.. and Andy, it’d be a tie between him and Andy (McCulley). Andy’s probably crankier, he’s grumpier and I think Cole Mendenhall’s probably poutier. He gets more sad than anything. Andy just seems like he’s always got a scowl on his face and that’s probably because he hasn’t eaten much in a week. That’s a good question. We’ve had worse. I tell you what, my all-time crankiest guy that I ever coached here was McCade Ford and I don’t know if that was weight cutting or he was just cranky. But we used to tease him about it. We used to call him the grumpy old man. We get a laugh about it. He comes in the room smiling all the time now. We tease him now that he’s smiling and not going through those tough practices and not cutting all that weight. He was a cranky guy though.
BR: I remember my senior year of high school I came in at 185 and three weeks later in Powell I was at 160. It was the worst three weeks of my life. It was so miserable.
MB: Yeah, it’s not fun. It’s one of the negatives of the sport but it’s not as bad as it used to be. So I guess that’s one good thing.
BR: My parents would have to sneak food into the house and away from me to keep me from exploding on them.
And with that, my interview with Mark Branch was over. Thanks again to coach and Andy Chapman for setting this up. Coach was a terrific interview, very candid and honest with some good insight to his program.