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|Q and A with Illinois coach Jim Heffernan
Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
Jim Heffernan is starting his 21st season of coaching at the University of Illinois, and he’s never been more excited about the future of the Fighting Illini wrestling program.
Now in his fourth year as the Illinois head coach after previously serving as an assistant coach under Mark Johnson, Heffernan’s veteran team is ranked fifth nationally.
Illinois returns nine starters, including All-Americans Jesse Delgado (125 pounds), B.J. Futrell (141), Conrad Polz (165) and Jordan Blanton (174), from the team that placed seventh in the NCAA tournament this past March.
The Fighting Illini is looking for the highest NCAA finish in school history this season. Illinois’ best finish at the NCAA tournament was second in 1930 and 1938.
The Fighting Illini also just signed two wrestlers – Pennsylvania’s Brooks Black and California’s Isaiah Martinez – who are ranked among the top five overall recruits in the country.
During Heffernan’s tenure at Illinois, the Fighting Illini has finished in the top 10 at the NCAA championships on 10 occasions. He also has coached seven individual national champions in the last 14 seasons in Champaign.
Heffernan, a past NCAA champion for Iowa, took time out of his busy schedule to talk with USA Wrestling communications manager Craig Sesker about what lies ahead for his Illinois team this season.
How is your team progressing in the early stages of this season?
We are all pretty happy with the way we are starting. We had a really strong year last year, and our guys worked hard in the fall and summer. They have earned the right to have some of that early success they are having.
How good can this team become this season?
We’ve had a lot of really good teams at Illinois and this team has the potential to be one of the best. We had some injuries two years ago that hurt us, but we stayed healthy last year and had a good year. We have a lot of experience and a lot of practical experience at the national level. This is my fourth year as head coach, and I have really started trusting this group as far as the way they practice and compete.
Talk about the impact that Mark Perry, a past NCAA champion for Iowa, has made since joining your staff as an assistant coach?
I think Mark brings a lot of fire and excitement to our program. He is one of the most passionate people about wrestling I’ve ever been around. He doesn’t sleep because he’s up all night watching wrestling video. He’s the biggest wrestling junkie I’ve ever seen. Our guys feel his energy and feed off it. I wanted to hire the person who would make the most immediate impact on our team and that’s why we hired Mark. We knew this group could become really good really fast, and Mark has really helped with that. His will to win and his passion is really contagious. He’s done a great job.
What kind of impact do you think B.J. Futrell will make after bumping from 133 to 141 this season?
B.J. actually started his career at 125 before moving up to 133 as a sophomore and a junior. He told us after last season ended that he wanted to move up to 141. He’s as lean at 141 as he was at 125. He looks great physically and he has built his body up. He had a heart procedure done the Wednesday after the NCAA tournament. He had surgery at 8:30 in the morning and walked out of the hospital at 2:30 in the afternoon. He’s doing great. Two weeks after the surgery, they allowed him to start working out. He hasn’t had any issues since then. In the past, he would get weak and tired. Now, he’s not having those issues since he had the heart procedure done.
B.J.’s meant a lot to our program. His dad is a pastor, and he is a very devout Christian and hosts bible study for our guys. He has a sizeable group of guys who go over to his house once a week for bible study. He’s very involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. That’s a big part of his life. He’s a great young man.
How much of an impact can Jesse Delgado make this season after he made a big splash nationally as a freshman?
Jesse had a great freshman year. He made a really big impact to solidify our lineup. The way he wrestles and the way he trains, he gives you the spark you want out of your 125-pounder. If you want to create a mold for a guy with all of those qualities you want in a 125-pounder, it would be him. He brings a lot of energy and excitement to our lineup, and he still has three more years to go.
What kind of presence does Jordan Blanton bring to your lineup?
Jordan competes with a lot of fire. He has another gear when it comes to competition. Being a senior and a two-time All-American, he’s been a mainstay in our lineup and a guy we can count on. He knows he has the opportunity to do something special this season.
Conrad Polz also landed a spot on the All-American podium last year. What kind of contribution can he make this season?
Conrad lost in the first round at the national tournament and came all the way back to place. He looks as good right now as he’s ever looked. Physically, he’s the prototype of what a wrestler looks like. He trained really hard all summer. He’s really done a good job and works extremely hard. We think he can have a great season.
What other wrestlers do you see making a big impact this season?
Our 197-pounder, Mario Gonzalez, was a Big Ten champion and got to the round of 12 at the NCAAs last year. We are excited about him being back. And Tony Dollago at 184. He made the round of 12 last year as well.
You are ranked fifth nationally, but only fourth among Big Ten schools with Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa ranked 1-2-3 nationally. What are your feelings about that scenario?
It’s funny when people ask what you are ranked? It’s kind of crazy how good the Big Ten is this year. You have the top three with Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa, and then Ohio State is up there. People don’t understand how tough this conference is. I entered college in 1982, and I think the Big Ten is as deep as it’s ever been individually and team-wise. The scary part is everybody is relatively young. And then you are adding two more competitive teams in the conference with Maryland and Rutgers. It’s exciting to have so many good teams. It is interesting to think that we are ranked fifth nationally, but fourth in our conference.
Illinois will host the Big Ten Championships in March. How excited are you about hosting that important event?
It’s always a great tournament, and the best part is it is here this year. It’s a really big deal to have it here and in an arena where our kids have had some success. I can’t wait. I have to be careful because we want to emphasize the national tournament, but it’s a great opportunity for us to host Big Tens. It’s a really tough tournament. You will draw a nationally ranked guy in the first round.
You have done very well in recruiting. How much of an impact can some of these talented wrestlers make at Illinois?
I think we are taking the next step with the recruiting classes we have had in the last couple of years. It is a special group of kids. We have some kids who will make a big difference in our program. I think that will allow us to compete with the top teams in our conference, and allow us to compete with the top teams in the country.
How much fun is it to be part of this program right now?
I think everybody is excited. With the success we’ve had in the past year, the momentum keeps building. We have nine of our 10 starters back this year. As you get better, the expectations change. We were seventh in the NCAA tournament last year and we felt like we could’ve finished higher. Every year, our expectations need to go up and that’s how we’re approaching it this year.