Fresno State gave Troy Steiner a five-year contract and a task – build a wrestling program.
And while the Bulldogs will not start competing until the 2017-18season, there will be wrestling on campus this summer through a regional training center set up by Steiner and USA Wrestling, another incremental step in bringing the sport back to campus after it was unceremoniously dropped in 2006.
Cost cutting, according to former Athletic Director Thomas Boeh.
That was the first of eight bullet points. While some still hold – such as the lack of a cost-effective venue for competition, it is not a broad-based NCAA championship sport with, at the time, just 87 Division I programs, and it requires a significant roster and scholarship commitment – the elimination of the sport did not sit well with a local wrestling community that includes some of the top high school programs in the country.
It has been angling for its return ever since, and recapturing its passion should be one of the easier tasks ahead for the former four-time All-American at Iowa, who spent the past 10 years as an Oregon State assistant.
Since his May 10 hire, Steiner said he has had “some” contact with the wrestling community in the central San Joaquin Valley, which of course is relative; some could be one, some could be 1,000.
“I’d rather have that than no one,” Steiner said. “I just think it’s that excitement that people have that they have it back and people are willing to lend a hand in a lot of different ways. That’s going to be a big challenge to put this thing together and I know I can’t do it myself. So I’m going to utilize the people that are out there because it’s their program as well. I’m just guiding and kind of putting it together, but it’s a program for the people there in the Valley.”
Question: It is a daunting but pretty fascinating endeavor to start from zero and build a program, though it’s not really zero with some built-in community support. There is a bit of a head start …
Answer: It’s definitely a unique situation and that’s what really intrigued me about the position, having the ability to start this thing back up and be able to pull from the people kind of how they want to build it and how I want to build it. We’re definitely going to have to pull together to get this thing going to the level that I want to see it go. I can’t do it without them and the kids in the area, so I’m going to try to involve as many people as possible.
So, where do you start? What really has to get done first?
I think first I have to put a staff in place. That’s the first thing, probably, and then talking to some of the prospective student-athletes there around the area and kind of seeing what their interest is in coming to Fresno. The recruiting process will never really end, but it definitely has started, contacting some of those area kids.
With the staffing, what do you have available with the number of assistant coaches, then strength and conditioning, training?
I have two paid assistants that can be hired, or start, on July 1. I don’t think I’ll have two in place at that time because I want to take my time and really make sure I get people that want to be here and they’re ready to step up to this challenge because there are going to be some long hours and probably some different things that you sometimes wouldn’t have to do as an assistant right away, until we get this thing going. And then, once we get the athletes in there, it will kind of probably shift back to into maybe some similar type positions that these guys have been in before.
But I’m going to take my time. I have to find the right people, No. 1, that want to be here and that are ready to step up to this challenge. But I would like to have one hired fairly soon, by mid-July at least, and then based on who that is, you know, find a guy that we can both work with and see that maybe has those other skill sets that we don’t have or fits what we’re looking for in that other position.
What’s that sales pitch like? Like you said, it’s going to take a significant buy-in to get this thing started and headed in the right direction. Football coaches, you’re used to a lot of turnover, a lot of movement. I’m under the impression that there’s more continuity in wrestling, so getting someone to leave what might be a good situation to take that leap at a place like Fresno State …
And that’s one reason I want to find people that want to be here and I think it’s very important to have guys that you’re going to have for a few years so we can continually push out the same message and you don’t have that revolving door with assistant coaches. I don’t want that. I want guys that want to be here and help do this thing.
I don’t think it’s an easy thing to sell, but from my position, looking to attract these guys, it’s the one program in the country right now where they can come in and learn from this level what it really takes to run a program. Hopefully these guys that will be coming in under me eventually will go on and get their own programs. Right now, there’s going to be such a learning curve, not only for them but for myself as well, on what it really takes to put a program together. When they do go out or do have an opportunity to get another position, maybe as a head guy, they have a template set for them.
I think it’s a very unique situation where they can come in and really learn a lot about what it takes to run a program and you don’t have that in a lot of situations because everything is already set in place. For someone who really wants to coach down the road, I think it’s a really unique situation.
I’m sure people have been calling …
I’ve talked to quite a few guys. The position opened about a week and a half ago and I’m just kind of waiting to see … who applied. I don’t know even who has applied yet. I have a good understanding maybe, but I’m sure there are some guys in there that I didn’t realize were going to apply. I get to look at those candidates and go from there, pick maybe three or four of them, maybe five of them, to do some phone interviews and go from there.
The 2017-18 season is the target to put some wrestlers on the mat. When do you get some on campus?
They won’t be on campus as a student-athlete for Fresno until next summer. I can’t have any athletes there that get the benefits of the training room and the academic center and all of that type of stuff, but I am going to start a club up this summer, a (USA Wrestling) regional training center, and that will allow me to run practices for the area, some of the areas kids, that need the qualification.
There are certain criteria for the regional training center they have to meet and if they meet that criteria they’re allowed to come in and practice. So it will allow me to get around some of the area talent and work with them and give me a chance to get to know them and give them a chance to get to know me. That will start this summer, for sure.
That will be on campus?
We’d run it in the room. Right now, the room is not completely set up for wrestling. There is some other stuff in there. There are I think some other programs in there and the university uses the room as well and that will continue to be that way through this next year, but then once June hits in 2017, then the wrestling room will be only for wrestling.
This is more like a camp-type deal?
It’s really aimed at Olympic-style, freestyle and Greco, for their development, and so we can develop our younger athletes so when they hit the level where they can be in tryouts to make a World team or an Olympic team, you can start working with them earlier to get them ready for that stage. It’s a developmental piece that has been put into place.
Everyone has them, most of the big universities anyway. They all have this type of situation in place and you just have to follow the guidelines. You can’t wrestle any collegiate style or high school style. You have to wrestle freestyle and Greco-Roman. But it will give me an opportunity to work with kids and help them, because a lot of these kids will be going to wrestle freestyle this summer and next year as well. It’s a good thing, just for development in the area.
For those prospective student-athletes, as well, I’d think it takes something to go to a place that is just starting out. I’m sure there is an excitement there, but at the same time, a lot of unknowns compared to a more established program. Even for local kids, I’d think. Put yourself in the living room with one of those kids with a number of scholarship offers, mom and dad are there …
I think the thing is: There has been a lot of kids from the Valley that have left the area, but they haven’t had a reason to stay. That’s the thing I have to get. I have to get the environment and the things set in place so they have the opportunity to come to Fresno State, get their education, compete for All-American status or a national championship, and then if they want and have the aspirations of going on and trying to make a World team or an Olympic team, they can do it all right there. They haven’t had that in place, so obviously they have gone to where they can have that opportunity.
I want to make this a one-stop shop. They can come here, get their education, No. 1, get to compete at the college level and try to win a NCAA championship, and then if they have those other aspirations, they can do it all right here. That’s what I have to get in place. Yeah, there are going to be some kids that leave. I’m sure we’re not going to get all of them, but if I get this thing put in place and get the right people around it, why would they leave their support group that they have, their families, the coaches they’ve had, all of their friends? Why would they leave that if they can go the same things right there at home? They just haven’t had that opportunity.
It’s very early in the process, but do you give yourself a timeline for that? OK, I want the program that they want, that will serve them best, to be at that type of level by Year Three, by Year Two?
I want it Year One. By the time we come in next fall, I want this in place so they can start their college careers and go. I want everything in place. We’re going to keep building on it with the number of people we have around the program, but I do want that in place right away because that’s how you’re going to attract the better talent. If they don’t feel they have an opportunity to come here and win a championship and go on after that and try to make a U.S. National team or World team, then they’re probably going to go elsewhere if they’re very serious about that and have those aspirations. So you have to put it in place and create that environment right way. That’s what I need to try to do. So this year, it’s going to go quick, because there are going to be a lot of pieces that have to be put in place for this to get done.
I’m glad we don’t start this fall. I know a lot of people in the area, they were hoping, they were wishing, to have it this year and I told a few of them right way, ‘I’m glad I have the time because I want to do this right.’ The people in the Valley, they deserve that. The kids here, they deserve to have a great situation – and we’re going to do it.
Even then, no allowance in your mind for growing pains, for needing time to navigate this or that situation?
There are growing pains. But there are growing pains no matter where you’re at. I coached at the University of Iowa and there are struggles there, too. There are struggles wherever you are. As a coach and leading the program, I just have to recognize what they are, assess them and solve them. Solve the problems that are there. But there are always going to be some types of struggle. I don’t care where you’re at, where your program is at. There are always going to be things that have to be done and you have to stay on top of it, because everything is changing and that will never end. Change is inevitable. That will always happen, so you just have to adapt and change with the times and continue to grow and develop your program the best you can.
In that, and this is something that was a bit of a surprise, but taking a look at the Pac-12 and the nationally ranked wrestling programs, it’s really a national recruit for schools. A lot of talk in the Valley, obviously, but you were at Oregon State and you had wrestlers recruited from 10 states, Arizona State was 15 states. Cal Poly has wrestlers from New Jersey, Ohio, Florida …
It is, and that’s because there are only 77 or 78 programs right now at the Division I level. When there used to be 150 or 300 programs at one time, you pretty much just stayed in your area. We’re definitely going to stay in that area because I know it’s a hotbed; it’s a group of guys and they have as good a foundation as anyone else. You’re going to definitely try to pull from that as much as possible, but we’ll go where we need to. Certain weight classes that we’re looking for, if we don’t see it in the Valley, we’ll find the right type of kids that want to be in this program and want to be around our staff and the team that’s already there in place or will be there in place.
So you have that ability, a recruiting budget to do that?
We do, and we will. There’s no doubt we will. We’re not going to just recruit California, but California will be a big piece of it. Most of it will be the west corridor – Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and we’ll go wherever we need to. I’m going to pull from North Dakota, where I’m from. You have contacts all over the country – high school coaches, club coaches, all over the country. I’ll reach out to them and see who they have that they feel can be at this level. You take it from there and do your homework to see if it’s the type of kid that fits your program and fits the style that you’re looking for and the attitude you’re looking for. We’ll go nationally when we need to, for sure.
With the 10 weight classes, then, in putting together that first team, what’s the game plan there? Do you focus on a couple of individuals or weight classes that you build around? Do you try to hit them all, one though 10? Freshmen? junior college kids?
I think I’ll have a mix of maybe some junior college kids, maybe some transfers. There will be some freshmen in the lineup I’m sure. I don’t want all 10 to be freshmen because you have to have some experience and someone leading. But it will be a mix of people in the lineup. That always changes from year to year, no matter how long you’ve had your program. But I want to have a mix. I don’t want to have 10 guys that have never been in a college match before. But if you can have a mix, maybe some guys that were in junior college, maybe some guys that transferred in from other programs, maybe some guys that haven’t wrestled yet but have some eligibility left ...
It’s hard to say what it is right now, but it will be a mix of experience level. The one thing that I want to have: They have to have similar characteristics of what I’m looking for. They’re not afraid to work. They’re good character kids. They’re kids that are looking to step into this challenge just like I am. They’re not afraid to go to a program that isn’t established, and to make a name for themselves from scratch. That’s the type of kid that I want.
There are growing pains. But there are growing pains no matter where you’re at. I coached at the University of Iowa and there are struggles there, too. There are struggles wherever you are. As a coach and leading the program, I just have to recognize what they are, assess them and solve them.
This being Fresno State, given its history with Title IX, the participation number is sure to be scrutinized. The average for a wrestling program is around 32 student-athletes. Are you under any limitations there with the number of wrestlers you can have in the program?
The first year I’m starting out at 22. I have a roster cap of 22, so that’s low. But they assured me that by Year Three I would be at 32. It will ramp up each year and we’ll get to that point by the year three to have 32 guys. That’s why the first year, that’s why anyone coming into the program, I have to be pretty selective of who I want and I have to make sure the kids are what I’m really looking for because of that number.
I have to let the people know in the area and the kids in the Valley and around the county, whoever I’m recruiting, I can give them an opportunity, but in the end they have to take that opportunity and run with it because when I start the season in 2017, it’s going to be 22 people. There could be more early on. When the school year starts, it could be 30, 35, but once our competition starts in November, it will have to be reduced down to 22. People have to know that and that’s why it’s going to be a privilege to put that uniform on.
Is that a budget consideration or just balancing …
It’s equity with Title IX, and I understand it. It’s not just this program that’s being hit or has been hit before. This has happened to other places and I think you’re going to continue to see that across the county, but they have assured me that by Year Three I will be up to 32 and I can work with that.
This might be a question for the athletic director, but wrestling to some degree is balancing against women’s water polo and the average number of student-athletes on a team there is 22. So, how does your number grow?
You’d probably have to ask (Jim Bartko) that. I’m not sure exactly how they do that, but that’s their job to figure that out.
As long as you’re at 30-plus at Year Three, you’re good, though?
Year One does come before Year Three …
Yeah, I’m just excited to have it back and I can’t wait to get down there and get this transition over with, get there and become a part of that community and part of that Red Wave.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
Timeline for Fresno State wrestling
- July 2016: Hiring of assistant coaches
- Summer 2016: Recruitment of student-athletes begins
- November 2016: Early signing period; recruits can sign national letters of intent with the Bulldogs
- August 2017: Student-athletes arrive on campus
- Winter 2017-18: Wrestling program begins competition