Troy Steiner’s road to becoming Fresno State’s new wrestling coach began at his grandmother’s house 40 years ago in North Dakota.
Steiner’s uncles — both high school wrestlers — introduced Steiner and his identical twin Terry to wrestling by roughhousing every Sunday when they would visit grandma.
“When we got into wrestling, it was kind of a natural fit, even though we didn’t have much success,” Steiner said of he and his brother. “We were a lot more comfortable, because at the time we were so shy and we didn’t like being around other people. We didn’t have to talk. We just got out there and rolled around.”
Steiner, now 47, wrestled in his first “official” match when he was in kindergarten. His uncles entered him in an open tournament that was not associated with a school or club.
By the time he was in fourth grade, he joined a wrestling club, MatPac, in his hometown of Bismarck, North Dakota. Steiner credits club coach Milo Trusty as a big reason he stuck with wrestling, building a high school and college career that ultimately led him to be picked as the man to resurrect Fresno State wrestling.
Former Fresno State athletic director Thomas Boeh cut the well-respected and popular wrestling program in 2006 amid budget and Title IX issues to the dismay of the local wrestling community.
In 2014, newly appointed president Dr. Joseph Castro announced his intentions to reinstate wrestling. In 2015, new athletic director Jim Bartko officially announced that wrestling would be reinstated and Fresno State would compete in the 2017-18 season. Steiner as the head coach in May 2016.
Steiner said his own wrestling career began to develop when he started winning high school matches and realized he could do much more with wrestling than he originally thought. He knew he wanted to go to college to wrestle, and he and his brother eventually competed at the University of Iowa, a national powerhouse.
“I looked at it like a job,” Steiner said. “I was there to get something done, and obviously get an education, but I went to Iowa to wrestle. I could’ve stayed back home to get an education, I went there to wrestle. And there was only one thing I was shooting for, and that was to win a national championship.”
At first, Steiner was not sure if he belonged at that level, but he started having some success and his confidence grew. In 1992, he won the national championship in the 142-pound weight class.
After graduating from Iowa in 1993, Steiner trained with the goal of making a World or Olympic wrestling team. But he also got the bug to coach wrestling and took a job as an assistant at Oregon State.
Over the next 11 years he held assistant positions at Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, before returning to Oregon State as assistant head coach.
Steiner settled in at Oregon State, and turned down a few head coaching positions. When Fresno State announced that wrestling was returning and began looking for a coach, Steiner’s wife, Shawn, told him he needed to look at the job.
“I threw my name in,” Steiner said. “We had a phone interview, then they brought me in for an interview.”
Steiner said he told his wife she had to go with him on the interview trip because something this major should be a family decision.
After some negotiating, Steiner said the Fresno State administration stepped up and got the deal done. Deciding to leave the job at Oregon State was not an easy decision for Steiner, but he felt the time was right and made the move to Fresno.
“I saw the support there, and the resources they would give me, and I recruited this area before, so I knew this was an area that I feel we could really build something,” Steiner said. “We decided to do it. I didn’t want to wait any longer.”
Resurrecting the program is no small task. Although there is much history, Steiner said he does not feel pressure from the program’s past, but knows it is his job to create an environment that is very conducive to success.
“The pressure I feel is what you put on yourself, what you expect out of yourself and your program, and there’s no doubt I’m shooting for the top,” Steiner said. “I never came down here to run an average program. I want to give these guys the opportunity to compete for championships.”
By summer, Steiner wants to have all of the personnel in place — his staff, as well what he called his “senior level club,” which are post collegiate athletes that train at the Valley Regional Training Center. The training center supports senior level athletes as they train on the international wrestling circuit. Steiner said the senior level club raises the level of college athletes.
Israel Silva, Steiner’s assistant head coach, was a world-class wrestler and has experience as an assistant coach. The two met in Oregon when Silva was training at the Northwest Regional Training Center.
Steiner was Silva’s personal coach and traveled with him all over the world when Silva wrestled in two world championships.
“Troy was my mentor,” Silva said. “I believed the way that he coached was the way that I wanted to approach things.”
They kept in touch, and when Steiner was at Oregon State, he told Silva he wanted him on his staff if he became a head coach.
“There’s no person I trust more in the sport of wrestling than Troy Steiner,” Silva said. “I told him, ‘Anywhere you go, you become a head coach, I’ll come and I’ll be on your staff.’”
Throughout the struggles of starting the Fresno State program from scratch, Silva said recruiting went well, amazingly so for a new fledgling program.
“Our facilities aren’t done. We don’t have a team that we can tell kids that these will be your workout partners,” Silva said. “We’ve had to work hard and sell kids, student athletes, [what] the vision of Fresno State is going to be, not what it is now. And the kids that we have coming in believe in that vision and believe in what coach Steiner is going to build around here.”
Sixteen recruits have been signed and there will be another signing period in April. Fresno State has a 22-man roster cap for the first year. Many of the recruits are local, with some from Clovis High and Clovis West, as well as other Valley schools. Steiner said any top program in the country starts from within, recruiting locally and getting the community involved.
“I wanted to recruit very hard, out of this Fresno, Clovis community, out of the Valley and from this state, because people have fought hard to bring back the program,” Steiner said. “And this is their program.”
Steiner made connections in the Valley years before he ever thought about coaching here. For example, he met Clovis High head wrestling coach Steve Tirapelle, and his son Adam Tirapelle, who is an assistant at the same school.
“He (Steiner) told me numerous times that he’s much more excited since he got here than actually when he took the job,” Adam Tirapelle said. “Because he realizes what he could build and how much people around here like wrestling.”
Steiner reached out to Clovis High and the other Clovis schools immediately after getting hired, Tirapelle said, and has been putting in the effort to make relationships with the schools.
“He can put a lot of kids on the team, and in the practice room, that can help this program right here locally for [a] very low cost,” Tirapelle said. “That’s always the name of the game. If he can get quality kids for reasonable costs, then that’s how you can compete at the division one level.”
Steiner expects his wrestlers to compete every time they step on the mat, but knows that there is a learning curve. He said that he does not expect to be able to beat the top teams like Penn State and Iowa next year, but how fast the program moves along will determine how soon he will expect to be beating the top teams.
“This program was gone for 10 years,” Steiner said. “There’s been some people that have fought very hard to bring it back. A lot of people in the wrestling community fought hard, and now we got it back. And now we’ve got to show the administration and Castro that they did the right thing in bringing it back. That’s what I really want to emphasize to people.”
Student-athletes who signed with Fresno State’s wrestling program in November include:
Richie Brandt – 197 pounds (Utah Valley/Liberty HS/Madera)
Beau Colombini – 165 pounds (Windsor HS/Ukiah)
JJ Figueroa – 133/141 pounds (Bakersfield HS/Bakersfield)
Chris Garcia – 141 pounds (Clackamas CC/Clovis West HS/Clovis)
Robert Garcia – 125/133 pounds (Selma HS/Selma)
Isaiah Hokit – 157 pounds (Drexel/Clovis HS/Clovis)
Josh Hokit – 197/285 pounds (Clovis HS/Clovis)
Gary Joint – 133/141 pounds (Lemoore HS/Lemoore)
Brandon Martino – 165/174 pounds (Clovis HS/Clovis)
Khristian Olivas – 149 pounds (Utah Valley/Clovis HS/Clovis)
Owen Pentz – 174/184 pounds (Morgan HS/Morgan, Utah)
Danny Salas – 184/197 pounds (St. John Bosco HS/Bellflower)
Jeremy Trihn – 125/133 pounds (Oxnard HS/Oxnard)
Sean Williams – 125 pounds (Oklahoma/Lemoore HS, Lemoore)
Trevor Williams – 125/133 pounds (Oakdale HS/Oakdale)
Jacob Wright – 149/157 pounds (Dinuba HS/Dinuba)