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Part 2 – Looking back and forward with Stanford wrestling, which hosts No. 6 Oklahoma State on Saturday

by Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling

Stanford head coach Rob Koll at the 2021 Menlo Open. Photo by Tony Rotundo, Wrestlers Are Warriors

The big dual meet between No. 6 Oklahoma State and No. 24 Stanford at the Maples Pavillion on the campus of Stanford University on Saturday at 2 p.m. PT highlights a Div. I program at a crossroads.

The wrestling community remembers the dramatic moment in the 2021 NCAA Championships finals last March when Stanford’s Shane Griffith, wearing a black singlet without the word Stanford on it, claimed the NCAA title at 165 pounds.

At that point, Stanford had dropped 11 sports programs, including wrestling and showed no indication that they would change their mind. Griffith, putting on a Keep Stanford Wrestling sweatshirt, told his story live on ESPN and made a huge national statement about the plight of the affected student-athletes. This match was destined to be the last wrestling match in Stanford history.

It was not the last Stanford match, however.

“It started with Shane’s national championship. This was the first of several dominos to fall,” said Robert Hatta, co-chair of the Keep Stanford Wrestling movement.

Less than two months later, on May 18, 2021, Stanford issued a press release which started with these words: “Bolstered by an improved financial picture with increased fundraising potential, Stanford will continue 11 varsity sports that had been slated for discontinuation at the end of this academic year.”

There were three things that Hatta felt were key to the success of the effort to reinstate the programs. We summarize these points below:

1) The first big decision was when Keep Stanford Wrestling and the other sports decided to work together and the 36 Sports Strong effort became a powerful voice in the community.

2) The second item was the momentum that was generated after Shane Griffith won the NCAA wrestling title, and the black singlet concept was utilized by other sports in their protests. In addition, with the return of students to campus, the university began to understand the support for the teams from the student body

3) The realities at Stanford had changed from the time when the decision was made, and the pandemic threatened to be a huge financial problem for the university. A different reality emerged.

“In July 2020, the world looked like it was going to end. The economic impact on the school was sharp and sudden. Ten months later, that didn’t look so bad. They gratefully used it as an opportunity to re-think and re-engage. That was a turning point for us. They actually started to have conversations with us behind the scenes. Prior to that moment, we couldn’t get an audience with the key decision makers that led to any constructive conversation,” said Hatta.

Looking back, Griffith understands the magnitude of his NCAA title run, but sees the successful outcome as part of the group effort by entire Stanford wrestling community and the other sports programs affected.

“I don’t like to take full credit for anything we do. We all did this together. Just to know that we all did our job to give Stanford wrestling the best representation we could to hopefully prevail and reinstate the program was awesome. The NCAA title in general was a longtime goal of mine. Having the important people there, my teammates and my family, it all made sense to go out with a bang if it was the last time. At the end of the day, we all knew what we had to do. We did a great job doing what we had to do to keep the program afloat. The policy got overturned and we were reinstated, which was great,” says Griffith.

Griffith talks about the bond that was developed between members of the wrestling team who together endured the challenges caused by the university decision to drop the program.

“The mindset of ours was more than representing Stanford. Honestly, it wasn’t about them at all. It was about doing it for one another. If this was the last time, we wanted to go down in history and give it all that we had. Times were tough, but we knew we were all going through it at the same time. If we gave it all we had, there were no regrets at the end of the day,” said Griffith.

Shortly after the season ended, and before the reinstatement was announced, Stanford’s head coach Jason Borrelli accepted the head coach position at American University, something which Hatta calls “collateral damage.”

“Getting the program reinstated was phenomenal but in the near term we also lost Coach Borrelli and it appeared we would lose other assistants as well. They did everything with so much class throughout, but those bridges were burned with the athletic department. We don’t fault them at all. They had to take care of their families; as far as they were concerned, this was a program that was cancelled,” said Hatta.

A strong core of the wrestlers stuck together, did not transfer and the program was saved. However, the university needed a new wrestling coach. On May 29, Rob Koll, who was head coach for 29 years for national power Cornell, accepted the Stanford position.

Koll is not shy about sharing the reasons why he decided to leave Cornell and accept the new challenge at Stanford. One thing is clear; Koll truly believes that Stanford can rise from the ashes and become a national power quickly.

“It’s ironic I am going to a place where they dropped the program. A lot of programs have been dropped. If that is the litmus test for a team’s success, half the teams out there are not going to be able to win. I wasn’t too concerned about that. They didn’t hire me to be mediocre, and I would not have come if I had anything except an expectation to be a national contender. We are building the infrastructure and support system to allow us to do that,” said Koll.

The Stanford wrestling alumni were very pleased with the Koll hire, which was a significantly positive move by the administration.

“The alumni had some impact on getting Rob Koll, in that he saw how committed we were to the program. He knew he would have a strong alumni base behind the program as he got started. But also credit the university. They went out there. They weren’t about just getting a warm body in the role. When they decided to turn the programs back on, they went out with the intent to get the best coach they could and they did. Rob Koll doesn’t mess around. He got right to work. He’s a whirlwind,” said Hatta.

One of Koll’s immediate moves was to bring in a new coaching staff, adding assistant coaches Enock Francois and Vincenzo Joseph, as well as volunteer assistant Grant Leeth. He also announced the addition of a number of new Senior-level wrestlers for the California RTC. Just last week, Stanford announced that three of its paid wrestling coaching positions had been endowed.

“Fifty Dan Gables in their prime can’t be a national championship team of Olympic caliber wrestlers if they don’t have the resources and the athletes. Without the resources, we can’t bring in the athletes. That is what we have been doing the last four months. We have fast-forwarded this program quite a bit,” said Koll.

One of the biggest challenges Stanford faces this year is the fact that the wrestling team missed a year of recruiting. By the time that Koll came on board, the recruiting period had ended. His first season will not include new athletes that he recruited.

“We came in without a recruiting class. People say it is a rebuild. Jason Borrelli, Ray Blake and Adam Tirapelle had a nice program they were building. They had outstanding kids in the room. You can’t forget a recruiting class and not have it affect you. It affects you a lot of ways. It affects you that you don’t have the workout partners, it affects you that you don’t have the depth in certain weights. Now a days, if you look at how freshmen are, you see what Shane (Griffith) did as a freshman. I don’t know if they had any Shane Griffiths on the recruiting map last year, but if you have one or two guys like that, it changes your whole program. We didn’t have that advantage last year so we are swimming a little bit upstream, but we are swimming hard,” said Koll.

The alumni, who were so important in the fight to save the program, are now standing behind Koll to help improve Stanford’s wrestling team.

“The rest of us, as alumni, made good on our word. We engaged the athletic director and endowed the three paid coaching positions. We are in the process of endowing several of the scholarships behind the program, and we are building a new operating budget endowment that is specific to wrestling. That is a new vehicle the university put in place. Previously, if you wanted to write a check to the athletic department, you wrote it to a central fund and they would do whatever they wanted with it. Now they are allowing you to donate to specific sports. It is a pooled endowment, so a whole bunch of small donors can now contribute versus one big one,” said Hatta.

Many of these alumni will be in Maples Pavillion tomorrow to help welcome wrestling back to campus and celebrate the effort which saved the program. Stanford’s wrestlers are keenly appreciative of how the alumni stepped up on their behalf.

“I think it is always great to give back to the people who have supported you the most. We have been talking about creating this pipeline for California wrestlers to see what they are capable of and giving them a dream and a vision for the next stage at the collegiate level. (The Oklahoma State dual meet) is an awesome opportunity to put on a show for people, to say thank you for supporting us and being there for us,” said Griffith.

Hatta and the alumni also understand what their role will be as Stanford moves into the future under Koll’s leadership.

“In terms of setting a vision for the program, that comes from Rob. Our job is to support the coach and support the team and support each other. There is a real family vibe amongst the alumni. We are not driving this program. We helped bring it back and keep it. Now they keys are in Rob’s hands. He absolutely has visions for an NCAA team title. He believes he can do it because on the West Coast and the state of California, we can be a Div. I powerhouse in recruiting. He taught the world how to recruit to Ithaca, N.Y., which is no Palo Alto. He is excited to be able to do that with a whole new set of resources and advantages that perhaps Cornell didn’t have,” said Hatta.

Rob Koll is an excellent communicator and is willing to share his vision with others. It starts with building a strong fan base, something Koll was able to achieve at Cornell.

“It is so important for our program for what we can do not just for college wrestling but for the youth programs and get people excited. Ultimately, we want to build a huge fan base. At Cornell, every year I was obsessed with it. We grew it and grew it and had a fan base, and then sold season tickets. Ultimately, we will do this at Stanford,” said Koll.

Koll is entirely impressed with the athletic facilities at Stanford, the beauty of the campus, and its first-class reputation for academics.

“That’s why I know we are going to be successful. It’s not just the campus. It’s not the buildings, it’s the people we put into those buildings. We have some really special kids right now in these buildings. I guarantee if they come out and watch the (Oklahoma State) match, they will be proud if they are Stanford fans, because our guys will fight like crazy,” said Koll.

He also plans to showcase the current Stanford student-athletes as an example for potential recruits.

“Kids get on campus, they meet Shane Griffith, they meet Real Woods, they meet Nick Stemmett, they meet Peter Ming and they fall in love with these kids. The parents say, ‘I want my kid to be like these kids,’ whether he’s a national champion like Shane or a national qualifier or they don’t even make the team. They want their kids to grow up and be like them,” he said.

Koll has always recruited nationally, and his first class of recruits consists of 10 athletes from 10 different states, none which are from California. Koll expects that to change in future recruiting classes, with more and more California wrestlers coming to Stanford.

“By year two, we want to be the California school of choice. We already are, but it’s harder to do when everybody is from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The California wrestling is extraordinary. We just have to get the kids to stay in California,” said Koll.

For the current Stanford wrestlers, there is a feeling of gratitude that they have a chance to continue to pursue their athletic and academic goals at Stanford. While they are also excited about the future, they are very pumped up about the present, starting with the Oklahoma State dual.

“I feel like most things are back to normal, but we all have a different sense of drive and fight. Obviously, wrestling is a hard sport and takes a lot of grit out of you. After everything we went through, we developed a tighter bond as a family and a stronger determination mindset to prevail in any adversity we face along the way. As you saw last year, there were so many ups and downs, but being able to work through that together helped us in the long run. Recruiting was a little hard. Not having any new guys, new freshmen, is a little awkward at first. But we are excited to be together and hit the mat again this weekend,” said Griffith.

Tickets for Saturday’s Oklahoma State match remain available, with prices between $10 and $15.

Stanford vs. Oklahoma State Wrestling Tickets