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Sammie Henson reflects on coaching, wrestling and family as he begins a new challenge at Cal Poly



Sammie "the Bull" Henson ranks as one of the best lightweight wrestlers in American history.

The 36-year-old recently was named the top assistant coach at Cal Poly University. He had been a volunteer assistant coach at Nebraska during the 2006-07 season.

Henson was a 2006 World bronze medalist in freestyle at 55 kg/121 lbs., but competed in only one match in 2007 when he lost to World champion Radoslav Velikov of Bulgaria in February's Chicago Cup in Evanston, Ill.

Henson was a World champion in 1998 and was a silver medalist in the 2000 Olympic Games.

Henson sat down for a Q and A with TheMat.com's Craig Sesker and provided an update of what's going on with his coaching and competitive careers, along with new developments with his ever-expanding family.

Why did you take the position at Cal Poly?

The Cal Poly head assistant job has just been moved to a full-time position, which is a great step in the right direction for Cal Poly and wrestling. Anytime you have a program getting more support from the athletic department is a positive. John Azevedo approached me about the job this summer when I was training his nephew, Matt. I believe our personalities will mesh well together and we can continue to move Cal Poly University in the right direction. I look forward to the challenge! This job is the beginning of the next phase of my life and I appreciate the opportunity John has given me. Because of my situation at Nebraska as a volunteer coach, this was a logical move. Mark Manning really supported me and my family after the UTC fallout and I am forever grateful. I was training for the World Championships at the time and was not going to move my family in the middle of the year. Mark and I worked out an arrangement for me to be his volunteer coach and I believe it was a great move for both parties.

Is your ultimate goal to become a head coach?

My ultimate goal as of now is to assist Cal Poly University in becoming one of the best teams in the nation. This is a huge process and I will do whatever I can to help make this happen within the NCAA rules. As an assistant coach at numerous schools, I want to establish roots and give Cal Poly my all. I have worked at places such as Northern Iowa, Penn State, and West Point, and I'm proud to say the Mark Manning and Chuck Barbee have supported me and continue to help me grow as a coach. My plan was to finish my wrestling career while coaching at Tennessee-Chattanooga and build a great program with Joe Seay and Steve Hamilton. Things happen and you move on. Mark Manning was a big supporter in my move to Cal Poly - he knows I have three kids and one on the way. With no benefits and insurance as a volunteer coach at Nebraska, plus the need to be able to recruit and really assist in running the day-to-day operations of a program, I really needed to make a move up. Mark encouraged me to take the job. I feel good about our relationship and I feel good about things at Nebraska. They will continue to move forward in the right direction.

How hard was it to leave Nebraska, where you coached NU sophomore Paul Donahoe to an NCAA title in 2007?

It is really hard to leave any program I have been at. I mean leaving Adam Smith, and Josh and Scott Moore at Penn State was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Those guys where mostly walk-ons, and they changed Penn State wrestling with their attitudes, styles and aggressiveness. You develop relationships with every wrestler as a coach. It is the whole team, coaches, and environment you miss. It has been hard on me because the school I wrestle for dropped their program, which left me without a home. Clemson University was a place where I believe I would be coaching today. I do take pride in the fact that every program I came into was better at the end of my stay. Penn State was ranked in the 30s when I got there and within two years we where sixth in the country with wrestlers at 133 and 141 as All-Americans. Troy Sunderland is a great coach - he really does a good job at complementing himself with coaches and wrestlers who brings the best into his program. I have been fortunate to be around a lot of great coaches who have led to my experiences. I believe this has given me a great foundation for my future. Jack Spates, Mark Manning, Brad Penrith, Bruce Burnett, Joe Seay and Chuck Barbee all have contributed to my coaching experiences and I look forward to utilizing these skills to assist John and Cal Poly University wrestling.

How rewarding was it to be in the corner in Auburn Hills, Mich. and coaching Donahoe, when he emerged from being the No. 6 seed to win the NCAA title at 125?

It was a great experience. We really spent a lot of time the week and a half after the Big 12 Tournament with video, mental approach, and confidence in wrestling a complete match. Paul always had it in him, he just needed guidance in realizing what was wrong. Student-athletes of Paul's level have all the tools, but sometimes they have been wrestling so long and are so confident in their abilities they forget the little things. They get caught up in winning and losing, and not thinking about the performance. Winning and losing will take care of itself. I have coached other national champions or been a part of their careers in one way or another. This was special for me because I was in the corner this time and to see a young man realize his dreams up close and personal was great. I believe you will hear from other members of Paul's team in the future who are close to understanding the process. I enjoyed working with Manning and Nebraska wrestling this year. I pride myself in trying to assist all the wrestlers. I am not just a lightweight coach, I work with everyone. This is important that all the coaches have an understanding of how to read athletes and get the most out of them no matter what there size, style, attitude, etc.

Are you done wrestling?

I will not rule out wrestling, but I live in the present. Right now, I am doing camps, getting ready to take the NCAA test, and preparing to welcome a new baby girl to my family which includes Jackson (8), Wyatt (4), Ruby (3), and my very supportive wife, Stephanie.

How much will finishing a close second in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, factor into your decision whether or not you compete in 2008?

It is always there in your mind about what has happened in the past, especially the 2000 Olympics. It really changed my life. I am now in a great place personally - my wife and I will make the decision on where my wrestling career will end.

You wrestled very well in winning a World bronze medal in 2006 in Guangzhou, China. Why did you not come back this year?

2006 was a great year for me in returning to the podium at a World level event. I chose not to wrestle for many reasons. One, I was hurt during and after the Worlds. Two, my family spent 10 to 15 days a month apart with me in Nebraska coaching, so I didn't want to take the time to go to the Olympic Training Center, which you must do, and travel to the International tournaments, which you must do to win. My family has had a lot of stress during this time and with my wife being pregnant, she really needed me home. I also felt I needed a mental and physical rest at my age. You really learn how to listen to your body instead of just going hard to prove something. I am past all this, I know I am tough and I will push myself harder and smarter without needing to prove something.

You beat young U.S. phenom Henry Cejudo to make the 2006 World Team. Cejudo just beat Matt Azevedo, who you were coaching, in the finals of the 2007 World Team Trials. How impressed are you with the 20-year-old Cejudo, who some are calling the future of American wrestling?

I am very impressed with Henry and wish him great success at the 2007 World Championships along with the rest of Team USA in freestyle, Greco-Roman, and women's wrestling. I am for USA wrestling and this great sport. To tell you the truth, Matt Azevedo did a great job to reach the finals and it was an interesting first match with Henry. I am very proud of Matt's progress and his willingness to do whatever I ask.

You are one of the fiercest, strongest and toughest competitors I've ever seen. How much did you miss competing this year?

You always miss it. I still miss competing at the NCAA level. I love competition and that is why I must coach! It is the next best thing to competing. I look forward to coaching and the challenge of recruiting, fundraising, and all aspects of the job. John Azevedo has given me a great opportunity and his knowledge of the sport as a past Olympian and an established coach will complement me in my coaching experiences.

You won a World championship in 1998. What was that like to accomplish one of your ultimate goals?

To be the best in the World is a great thing, but to tell you the truth it only filled a burden and gave me relief in my life. I really love to help others reach that level of satisfaction and belief that their dreams can come true. Paul Donahoe's win was one of the best experiences of my wrestling life along with Michael Lightner's. I still remember being in my car on I-35 in Norman listening to the Lightner match and going crazy when he won. Honestly though, it is really cool to be the Best in the World and be called a World Champion!!! Are you kidding me?

How did you get your nickname "Bull?"

It was around 1996 from either Burnett or Manning. It came about because of my aggressive wrestling style.

How do you balance competing, coaching and raising a family?

It is extremely tough. My kids miss their dad, but it is no different than a soldier leaving for six months or a dad traveling for business. I mean there are people who have it a lot harder then me, especially American soldiers. You must have a wife who is very strong and supportive, and Stephanie is. She is a warrior - not many women can get in a rental truck packed up with kids and a dog and move wherever their husband's job leads. I owe her and I truly support her.

Who is the toughest opponent you've ever faced?

Easy. Eric Akin is the toughest man I have ever faced. He always wrestled me like I stole something from him. He is a great man, warrior, friend, and I truly respect him.

Anything else you would like to add?

I am excited about Cal Poly and look forward to trying to be the best we can be. John and I have a big task ahead and I look forward to tackling it with him, the administration, and our great student-athletes.
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