When John Stutzman heads off to Madison Square Garden this weekend, he'll be putting the cherry on top of an unprecedented season that's seen his squad defy the odds and make history. But the road that Stutzman had to take to make history at his alma mater was the toughest test in his coaching career.
That test started three years ago when former Athletic Director Danny White had called after firing former coach Jim Beichner. Stutzman immediately jumped at the opportunity to coach his alma mater, but was in for a rude awakening when he arrived. The ninth-year head coach knew that UB was in dire straits, coming off a 1-11 campaign, but things were much worse than he realized when he stepped on campus. Stutzman has been on record several times saying that the program was in the "Dark Ages."
So, Stutzman did what he's done his whole career: rolled his sleeves up and went to work. After three long years of dealing with adversity and building a program from scratch, you can see glimpses of what Stutzman had at Bloomsburg when they were a perennial top-25 team. For as well as the team has performed this season, what gets lost is the story of just how miraculous the turnaround has been to happen in such a short period of time given where the program was.
The Dark Ages Begin
Things weren't always so gloom and doom for the UB Wrestling team. Jim Beichner, much like his basketball counterpart Reggie Witherspoon, had built the program from scratch when UB made the transition back to Division I. Beichner sent numerous grapplers to the national tournament, including Kyle Cerminara, who remains UB's only Division I All-American, finishing 8th at 197 pounds in 2004. His most successful season was in 2011 when he sent six of ten wrestlers in his lineup to the national tournament and was awarded MAC Coach of the Year.
However, shortly after the pinnacle, the program began a sharp decline spearheaded by the dismissal of Desi Green prior to the 2011-2012 season.
Green was a phenom for the Bulls as soon as he stepped on the mat his freshman year. During his three-year tenure at UB, Green set the bar for everyone to follow: becoming the fastest to 100 career wins, setting the record for most takedowns in a single season with 71, and winning two MAC titles at 149 pounds. He remains second on the UB career takedowns list with 181.
In the video above from Green's final season with the program, while the match itself isn't illustrative of how good Green was, the commentary from Bob Koshinski on Green speaks volumes to his presence on the mat. Green was also a three-time national qualifier, on top of his MAC Championships, and looked like he would break several of Cerminara's career records during his senior season and become an All-American.
Prior to his senior season, however, Green was dismissed from the team due to a violation of team rules, an infraction later revealed to be connected to Green's use of marijuana.
Green openly admitted to smoking the drug when speaking to The Spectrum about his dismissal:
"Yes, I smoke marijuana," Green said. "But I have never been [academically] ineligible. I was a full-time varsity athlete. We were getting up at 6 in the morning, going to practice, and then going to classes, and going to practice after that. I still made sure I kept my grades good, which was hard for me because I was never school-oriented."
Green's dismissal also sparked a discussion among UB fans:
You can get into the discussion about Marijuana all you want, but he was a division 1 athlete. There is a clear set of rules, and I am sure he must have been made aware of them. In my time working in ERs, I have run across competitive athletes who won't take antihistamines for their sinuses without checking with a trainer.
The fact that he failed one drug test, and was unwilling to change his lifestyle shows where his commitment lies. It was not implied, and I don't want to make it seem as if it was, but if he wants to make a stand about the legalization of marijuana, it was pretty foolish to risk a 4 year free education for the cause.
I totally support weed legalization, and I kind of feel bad for Desi since he just doesn't seem to understand why it's such a big deal. But I totally back what athletics did. Right or wrong, weed is illegal, and that's it. He's an NCAA athlete, he knew that. Sucks, but athletics had no choice.
Plus it'll have looked horrible for the school if Desi won some MAC title, and failed a drugs test right after and had it stripped.
When the story broke, Desi was the only party openly speaking about the matter. The initial article The Spectrum had posted received backlash from within the department, prompting Coach Beichner and other Athletics representatives to reach out and respond.
According to The Spectrum in a follow-up, Beichner cared deeply about Desi and gave him every chance to succeed in the program. It's also revealed that Beichner had given Green several chances to quit smoking in an effort to preserve one of the greatest wrestling careers in UB history.
"I care about Desi Green and I like Desi," Beichner said. "I've done everything I possibly could to help him and his daughter in the past four years. I wish him nothing but the best moving forward."
Beichner sacrificed and strived to give Green a future, and he was devastated that Green couldn't finish his career at UB.
Desi was given numerous chances. UB obviously wanted to keep him around. He was one of the best athletes in school history.
Beichner truly took Desi under his wing. He did everything in his power to give Desi a prolific career, and then he did everything he could to keep Desi around. But when Green continued to break the rules, there was nothing Beichner could do.
While it is abundantly clear that Green had a hard head and fully-formed opinions on his drug usage, Beichner still gave him several chances and created an environment where breaking the rules and not meeting the coaches' off-mat standards could slide.
The Spectrum editor weighed in on the Green dismissal in the same UBFan.com thread and claimed that he had not heard of the spring dismissal until just days before the article ran the following fall.
I have covered UB athletics for three years and when i was told two days ago Desi was off the team, it was the first I heard of it. Athletics didn't release a press release about this, they included in a newsletter.
It took months for anyone to notice that a program which had sent 20 grapplers to the National Championships since 2000 - boasting one All-American and several near-misses - and was on the heels of the finest season ever had jettisoned its biggest star. Even The Spectrum's sports reporters, closer to the department and its student-athletes than anyone, didn't find out until days before the season. The program despite its successes was an afterthought, allowing the coming struggles to fly under the radar.
An anonymous source from within the department told The Spectrum that ultimately the department and the coaching staff had no choice but to let Green go despite him being one of the greatest athletes in UB history or else they would face trouble with the NCAA.
But when it comes down to it, the university could get in major trouble with the NCAA if it didn't kick Desi off the team.
The trouble came anyway.
S--t Hits the Fan
After Green's dismissal the program started to fall to mediocrity in the MAC, posting only a 7-14 dual meet record and sending just senior Mark Lewandowski and freshman Max Soria to nationals after six Bulls qualified the year prior. The team would fall even further in 2012-13, posting a paltry 1-11 dual meet record, just two years removed from Jim Beichner's MAC Coach of the Year honor.
On the mat the team lacked motivation and effort; most guys went out and went through the motions of the match without putting in a serious effort and wrestling for the full seven minutes. The team's performance was an embarrassment compared to years' - even just two - past, but the off-mat performance in the classroom and community was an even bigger black eye for the program.
A competitive decline is perfectly acceptable and can be found in the ebbs and flows of any program, but fostering an environment where the student in student-athlete is neglected is not and should not. The primary metric by which the NCAA measures how well student-athletes perform in the classroom is the APR, and UB Wrestling's APR by the end of the Beichner era was at a historic low.
First, a quick refresher on APR, from an earlier Bull Run piece:
The APR reflects a team keeping its scholarship athletes in school and keeping them eligible. We don't need to go into the mathematics of how we get to scores in the 900s, but know that a 1000 is perfect. A 925 reflects a 50% graduation rate. Across all sports, Division I averages a 973.
And on how APR affects eligibility:
Recent years have seen the NCAA establish stricter and steeper thresholds when it comes to the APR. The old 'default' line of 925 has been raised to 930, and the NCAA has made it easier to receive stronger sanctions if a team does drop below that line. Postseason bans can now occur at the 930 line instead of at 900.
After the departure of Green the APR, which is a four year rolling average, for UB Wrestling declined from a 961 to a 925 in a single year. The single-season APR score causing such a drop was a staggeringly low 853 - as far from a 50% graduation rate as 50% is from a perfect score. At the time, UB had the lowest APR score of any of the 76 Division I wrestling programs, with Oregon State the only other below 900. Dropping so far, so quick in APR score implies that Beichner had lost control of the locker room and was not holding his student-athletes accountable for the standards that they agreed to uphold when joining UB.
The APR score dropping below a 930 would precipitate a one-year postseason and practice-time ban for the program, but that ban came down well after Beichner had already left the school, leaving John Stutzman to pick up the pieces.
The decline on the mat coupled with the poor classroom performance was more than just cause for Danny White to fire Jim Beichner, but the final incident that broke the proverbial camel's back came just before the 2012-2013 season closed.
On February 16th, 2013 at approximately 2:30 AM, wrestlers Justin Lozano and Clayton Reeb followed Joshua Rubin on UB's South Campus, taunted him and the group he was with, and then assaulted Rubin, knocking him unconscious and leaving him with facial lacerations. Lozano and Reeb were both arrested and charged with second-degree assault and first-degree loitering.
Shortly after this incident Beichner was relieved of his duties as head coach. Beichner would leave Amherst as the program's second-winningest coach, but the program was dead in the water.
The Stutzman Era Begins
After leaving UB as its career wins leader, Stutzman continued as an assistant coach at UB, MAC-rival Northern Illinois, and Bloomsburg before taking over as the head coach of the latter Huskies in 2005. While at Bloomsburg, Stutzman's teams were highly successful on the mat, earning 97 dual meet victories in his eight years as head coach, including no losing seasons and only three seasons with fewer than 10 wins.
At Bloomsburg, Stutzman was named EWL Coach of the Year thrice, including his final season, which saw his team finish the regular season ranked inside the top 15 with a 17-3 record and the EWL regular season championship.
Stutzman also coached three All-Americans and built the Huskies into a perennial top 25 team despite exceptional obstacles: he had to fundraise $100,000 to keep the program alive each year. Wrestling is Bloomsburg's only Division I sport and the costs associated with keeping that were so great that it fell to Stutzman each year to find funding for his program. Bloomsburg's budget is still a hot-button concern for its fans and fundraising is listed as a necessary duty for assistant coaches, whose positions are only guaranteed if the fundraising finds enough money to pay them.
On paper, Stutzman's resume was a perfect match for UB, a program looking to build a winner in one of the premier conferences in the nation. Danny White thought so and on May 7th, 2013 Stutzman was officially hired as the 15th coach in program history.
I remember the first time I saw John Stutzman coach at UB.
January 4th, 2014 - Stutzman's first home match vs. #9 Northern Iowa.
"MOVE HIM TO IT!"
"GET TO THAT LEG!"
"HUSTLE! HUSTLE! HUSTLE!"
Hearing Stutzman's trademark bellows for the first time and seeing the response on the mat from the wrestlers showed me that he understood what he was doing and knew how to motivate his men. As a former wrestler, I know that having a coach active in the match is far better than one quiet and uninvolved. Stutzman bellowing out instructions and garnering a response on the mat showed that he was a players' coach and one who could connect to his student-athletes.
For most of the dual meet I focused in on Stutzman himself, I just couldn't look away, even though there was wrestling less than 10 feet away. He had gravitas but also wore his heart on his sleeve, passionate about the sport and the men that he was coaching. Being around the sport for as long as I have, I still haven't found a coach as passionate as John Stutzman. Sitting in the stands and listening to him bark orders made me want to run through a wall for him.
On paper, the Bulls were hilariously outmatched by a Panthers squad that boasted four top-20 ranked wrestlers, and UB was down its top wrestler as Max Soria dealt with injuries for much of the 2013-2014 season. In addition to the Soria injury, the UB roster was decimated by the poor academic performance the previous year, leaving only nine wrestlers eligible when Stutzman began his tenure, meaning he was forced to wrestle underclassmen that should have been redshirting.
The coach has never been shy about the situation when he arrived. It's not an excuse, and it's not a reason UB can't be great, but to him, as we'll see later, it's an important first step in today already recognizing the program's successes for the large steps forward that they are:
Question 3: What kind of progress have the Bulls made since you were hired as head coach back in 2013?
Stutzman: When I first got here, there were 15 guys on the roster. Three were ineligible and three were suspended for social activities. We really had nine guys in the room at the time I got here. There was an academic problem and some social problems here.
For a man that had been so used to winning throughout his entire career, both on the mat and on the sidelines, going from 17-3 his final year at Bloomsburg to 3-17 his first year at Buffalo was draining on Stutzman. You could see it in his face that each passing loss on the mat stung and ate at his core. Despite the cruel, repetitive defeat in his inaugural season Stuzman remained steadfast and set out to build the UB roster in his image, knowing he could prove to local pundits and the wrestling community at large that UB Wrestling was here to stay.
Not everyone agreed that the program was on the up and up. After all, just three wins is still bad, even if it's a threefold improvement over the year prior. Since Stutzman bore the brunt of the NCAA sanctions, some - purposefully or not - failed to draw the connection between current struggles and the past few years.
Toss in that Beichner was fired by then-controversial AD Danny White in the same month as longtime and well-regarded Men's Basketball coach Witherspoon, and like Reggie was a Western New York native, and the Wrestling program came under a more scrutinous eye, one that may have done some good not long prior when the program was more notable for assaults and academic trouble than for anything on the mat.
I've taken care to document everything above in what Stutzman would come to call 'the dark ages,' because anyone who wasn't close to the program would be led astray by a typical attempt to discredit White from the local media.
Admittedly, the first few weeks after his dismissal were a little strange. Jim Beichner had spent his childhood working in the family farming and garbage businesses in Sinclairville before wrestling became his passion and took over his life. And suddenly it was gone.
The wrestling community should remember Beichner, a star in high school and college who became a coach and took over the program at the University at Buffalo. He stayed 18 years before Danny White showed up one day, evaluated an injury-riddled season and gave him the heave-ho.
It's clear by now, and it was clear then, that an "injury-riddled season" would have been welcome compared to the actual state of the program. I'm not out to villainize Beichner, and even a quick reading of the linked piece recognizes it as primarily an attack on White (notice if you click through, the word choice in 'young' and 'heave-ho'), but to characterize everything above as an "injury-riddled season" and later as "terrible timing" was beyond disingenuous as to the true depths Stutzman had been thrown into.
Western New York is not Pennsylvania, but it still produces a reasonable amount of wrestling talent. There are knowledgeable people in the area and the commentary on the program wasn't limited to a single article or writer. Well into Stutzman's second season, a different local journalist, who is now in a separate line of work, over the course of a few days toed the same line as The Buffalo News article and downplayed the evident improvement in the program, especially considering the overwhelming youth of the team:
How headscratching is it to move away from a direction of drug use, assault, and APR penalties?
@lebronstein I wouldn't say he's had mixed results. The team has improved leaps and bounds over last season w/ a younger lineup.— John McWhinnie (@J_McWhinnie) December 30, 2014
@J_McWhinnie So you say— Jonah Bronstein (@lebronstein) January 1, 2015
Considering where the program had been just prior to Stutzman's arrival, any improvement at all that not only halted the decline, but turned it around, should have been celebrated. The highest finish at the New York Championships in half a decade with the youngest team in the country should have been celebrated.
And from me, it was. From someone bent on trashing the new Athletic Director and someone - who I had never seen at any sparsely-attended matches at Alumni Arena - citing vague "coaching peers" and the "wrestling community", there was still outright dismissal.
Building a Winner
Year One of the Stutzman era was filled with growing pains and frustration as in any rebuilding situation, but the biggest positive would lay the foundation for everything to come: the nation's 18th ranked recruiting class.
In spite of all the first-year struggles, Stutzman utilized his wider recruiting base and budget to reach out across the wrestling powerhouses of the nation to secure some of its best talent. That first class featured a combined 58 state championship appearances, 40 state medals, and four state championships. Stutzman understood that winning breeds winning and recruiting grapplers that competed and succeeded at the highest prep level was the way to build his roster. Among others, this class has already produced a large chunk of this past year's starting lineup: Jake Gunning, Kyle Akins, Bryan Lantry, Colt Cotten, and Brandon Lapi.
The bright spot of Stutzman's highly rated recruiting class was quickly dimmed later in the offseason as past program debits caught up to the second year coach. The NCAA handed down a one-year postseason ban for the Bulls, meaning no competition in the MAC Tournament or the NCAA Championships. The ban allowed seniors to transfer away without penalty and leave Stutzman with no leadership on his squad. Luckily, both Max Soria and Wally Maziarz stuck around to finish their careers as Bulls.
As he did so many years before, Stutzman poured his heart out during the season and tried to instill his vision for the program into his young team. Thankfully, Soria and Maziarz provided invaluable leadership in the wrestling room to set the example for the crop of 19 newcomers that would serve as the foundation of the program for the years to come.
The team found more success in Year Two. Stutzman's dark tunnel began to yield glimmers of light. Max Soria was a dominant force, winning a New York State Collegiate Championship and ranking in the top 15 in the nation for much of the year. True freshman Sean Peacock took hold of the starting spot at 133 pounds and won 19 matches. The individual matches were closer than ever before and there was a newfound intensity and fire on the mat that reflected from the coach. Dual meet wins were still difficult to come by, however, as the team finished 5-14 and was winless in the MAC for the second straight year.
In some ways, the postseason ban was beneficial to Stutzman. The greatest coaches can take the adversity that his team faces and use that as a motivator. Stutzman had a mountain-sized chip on his shoulder with the way UB Wrestling was being treated by the NCAA and the wrestling community. He gave that chip to each man that stepped foot in his wrestling room and it helped set the stage for a historic season.
Wrestling is much more than a sport for those who compete. For me, wrestling was a teacher. It taught me discipline, commitment, the value of hard work, and accountability to others. Wrestling was the toughest thing I've ever done and I'm graduating with honors in May with degrees in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. My high school coach, Jake Blowers, wrestled Division I at UB and in a lot of ways he's responsible for me attending UB. He was more than just a coach; he cared about how good of a wrestler I was, sure, but he cared more about how good of a man I was off the mat, he cared more about my academics and that I was making a positive impact on my community.
A coach is more than someone that trains you for a competition, but someone that is training you for life itself. Coach Blowers taught me a lot in the wrestling room back home, and the lessons I learned on the mat I still use every single day.
I can see parallels between my relationship with my coach and the relationship that John Stutzman has with Colt Cotten. Stutzman is a mentor to Cotten and it's well documented that Colt looks up to Stutzman as a father figure after he and his mother were abandoned by his biological father. Stutzman has shown a commitment to Colt above and beyond what a normal coach would show. In an interview with WIVB, Stutzman simply said:
"He is my son."
Stutzman is an excellent coach. He's proved that already, but figuring out what type of man a coach is is a more difficult task, especially for those who don't interact with him on a daily basis. Seeing Stutzman, without hesitation, say that he treats Colt like his own son speaks volumes to his character. Stutzman resonates well with his wrestlers and part of that is because he cares about developing men instead of just wrestlers.
Sure, he wants UB to be a top-ten program on the mat, but he also wants UB to be a top-ten program off the mat and in the classroom. He is able to connect to a guy like Colt Cotten and know him on a personal level and care about him getting a world class education while also wrestling at a world class level. If he can connect with a wrestler like Cotten on that level then surely he has with the rest of the members of his team. The evidence can be seen in the classroom: since Stutzman has arrived, the UB Wrestling team is among the most improved in the entire UB Athletics department in terms of overall team GPA.
In the lead up to this season's opening match against Maryland, I had laid out that the growth and improvement that was seen from Year One to Year Two would need to see an exponential increase into Year 3:
Last season showed growth and improvement in Year Two of the Stutzman Era, but with a postseason ban lifted and top-shelf recruits ready to contribute, this season will need to be a big step forward for the program.
The starting lineup this season was young, the youngest in the country as a matter of fact, but teemed with talent from from Kyle Akins at 125 pounds to Jake Gunning at 285 pounds. Due to the youth movement I was expecting further improvement from a squad that had won a combined nine dual meets in the previous three seasons.
My wildest expectations were blown away during the first two dual meets of the season when UB took down the Big 10's Maryland and blanked Davidson 47-0. As a program, UB hadn't defeated a member of the Big 10, the nation's premier wrestling conference, since upsetting then-#12 Nebraska in the 2009-2010 season and UB hadn't shut out a Division I opponent since they shutout Syracuse in the 1999-2000 season.
Only two matches into the season and the progress was evident. Stutzman's charges, though young and inexperienced, were gaining confidence. This confidence, inspired by Stutzman's leadership and goals set for the program, became the most successful season in recent history for the program.
"I made a prediction to some local kids and I said 'Man, we're gonna get 10, 11, 12 wins this year'. And that's coming from 3 to 5 to doubling our win total and to be quite honest with you people looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language."
-John Stutzman after UB defeated NIU
Even though he was speaking a foreign language to outsiders, Stutzman knew that he had winners in his lineup and from that first match against Maryland up through the MAC Tournament it was clear that the talent in the lineup was improving drastically.
As the season wore on, the wins and the firsts continued to pile on: Akins, a redshirt freshman, earned the NYS Collegiate Championship at 125 pounds; Tyler Rill placed at the prestigious Midlands Championships; James Benjamin pinned a nationally ranked opponent from NIU; and Jake Gunning became Stutzman's first MAC finalist.
Most importantly, though, Stutzman did something that he hadn't done since he left Bloomsburg: earn a winning dual meet record. His team finished the regular season 10-9, including Stutzman's first two MAC wins and an upset of a nationally ranked opponent in #21 Old Dominion. The team that just a season prior was losing dual meets in lopsided affairs had suddenly kept each meet close and were competing with and beating nationally ranked opponents.
The historic season culminated in the MAC Tournament two weekends ago when each UB entrant wrestled at or above their seeding, with six Bulls earning a spot on the podium and three punching tickets to the NCAA Tournament.
Each placefinisher pulled upsets in his bracket, with Joe Ariola avenging three regular season losses en route to a fourth-place finish, and Bryan Lantry shocking #8 Mack McGuire of Kent State to earn a spot on the podium. Wins of this magnitude were unheard of in the past two seasons: In UB's last MAC Tournament only a single wrestler earned a spot on the podium.
Tomorrow, when Colt Cotten, Joe Ariola and Bryan Lantry take the mat in Madison Square Garden they will be looking to be Stutzman's first All-American at Buffalo.
John Stutzman's rebuild at UB is far from complete. When he first arrived on campus he changed his initial prediction of a five-year rebuild to possibly eight years before UB was where he envisioned it belonged. After just three seasons on the job Stutzman has turned a 1-11 program that was dead in the water into a 10 win program that is produces national qualifiers.
He implemented his successful Bloomsburg system with far more resources than he had in building a national powerhouse in Pennsylvania, and the dividends are paying off early. Stutzman has brought in wrestlers that fit his mold of a high energy, high effort performer that gives everything they have every single match just as he does on the sidelines. More importantly, the team is performing well in the classroom and in the Buffalo community.
Stutzman envisioned All-Americans and National Championships when he returned to Buffalo and each of his men get a reminder every time they set foot in his wrestling room.
There's still a long way to go, but under Stutzman, UB Wrestling has grown out of the Dark Ages, and into a renaissance.