Wrestling coach pins down 200 wins

Dean Santarinala The Daily Illini Illinois Wrestling Head Coach Mark Johnson (right) chats with his team on a break during practice at Huff Hall on Tues Feb 10, 2009.

Dean Santarinala The Daily Illini Illinois’ Wrestling Head Coach Mark Johnson (right) chats with his team on a break during practice at Huff Hall on Tues Feb 10, 2009.

By Jay Lee

Mark Johnson remembers how his friends and colleagues reacted when he first accepted the Illinois wrestling head coaching position in 1992.

“They all thought I was nuts,” Johnson said.

Fresh off two years as head coach at Oregon State, the ambitious 36-year-old came to Champaign ready to turn around a program that hadn’t won a conference meet in five years.

“A lot of coaches, when they first come in, their goals are to make the program a nationally competitive program,” Johnson said. “I could tell that everyone was thinking, ‘Oh here goes another guy.'”

But Johnson delivered, taking what had been a doormat program in Big Ten wrestling and turning it into a national powerhouse. Now in his 17th year at the helm, Johnson picked up his 200th career win at Illinois on Sunday. His No. 9 Illini stand at 10-1.

“All it means is that you’re an old, old man,” Johnson said of his win total.

Johnson’s success with the program is unparalleled in Illinois history, with his 200 wins topping the program’s career wins list. B.R. Patterson is a distant second with 100 wins.

Since Johnson’s first season in 1993, only four teams in the country can claim more individual national champions and five teams more top-10 team finishes.

So are there 200 more wins in store for him and the Illini?

“When I first came here, I swear I said that it would be my goal to last 11 years because that meant my kids would have graduated high school,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Well, my girls are long done with high school now and I still have a job, so they can get rid of me whenever they want.”

Olympics

It was nearly three decades ago when Johnson first stood on top of the wrestling world.

A two-time All-American at Michigan, Johnson won the 198-pound title at the 1980 U.S. Olympic trials, securing a spot on the national team for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Having defeated the reigning silver and bronze medalists in the previous years, Johnson’s sights were set on the gold.

But the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan put Johnson’s dreams on hold, as President Jimmy Carter ordered an Olympic boycott.

Johnson admits that feelings of disappointment resurface every four years when the Olympics roll around. But the hard feelings he originally felt disappeared in a few months, something he attributes to being the master of ceremonies at the 1980 Special Olympics that were held in Johnson’s hometown of Rock Island, Ill.

“That day when I stood in front and read the Olympic oath in front of all those athletes and handed them their medals, all the bitterness left me,” Johnson said. “It put things into perspective.”

Special relationship

During practice, Johnson can be found leaning against the back wall, observing as assistant coach Jim Heffernan barks instructions during individual drills.

“My strength as a coach isn’t with technique, but it’s with communication with the players and really caring about these guys more than just as wrestlers,” Johnson said. “The biggest thing to me is that my guys become well-rounded people that understand that there is more to life than wrestling.”

By stressing the miniscule nature of wrestling in the grand scheme of life, Johnson has developed a special relationship with his players.

“Coach (Johnson) has always been like a father to me and there is absolutely nothing I wouldn’t do for him,” senior Mike Poeta said. “On and off the mat, when he talks, we all listen.”

Senior John Wise points to last year’s National Championships, when an accident the day before the tournament sent Wise’s father to the hospital in critical condition.

Having stayed up the entire night waiting in the emergency room, Wise was faced with the tough decision of whether he would compete in the tournament.

“I told him and his family that we were ready to pull him from the tournament, if he felt he didn’t want to,” Johnson said. “But his mom said there was no way his father would want that.”

Wise finished 3-2 in the tournament, falling one win shy of placing in the top eight.

“I didn’t really know what to do, and coach sat me down and walked me through everything,” Wise said. “Most guys wouldn’t even want to go near the mat in that situation, and to be honest with you, a lot of me didn’t want to either.”

Wise, who has wrestled and played football on both the high school and collegiate levels, said he has never had a relationship with a coach like he has with Johnson.

“John came to me in a time of need,” Johnson said. “And he was able to count on his coaches and his team.”

The real Johnson

Johnson has developed a reputation as one of the most personable figures in collegiate wrestling, known for playfully grappling with those around him – even strangers.

“He’s always just shoving people and giving headlocks. He just goes up to everyone and just starts punching them,” senior Roger Smith-Bergsrud said. “Sometimes he’ll just come up to you and not say anything for a while. And then a little while later, he’ll punch you, and then he’ll start talking.”

But his players warn against Johnson’s tough-guy reputation.

“The man absolutely loves ‘Gilmore Girls,'” Poeta said. “He wouldn’t schedule practice when it was on the air, and the next day that was all he’d be talking about.”

Johnson, the father of daughters Tricia and Mackey, isn’t willing to shy away from his love of the show’s witty mother-daughter duo from Connecticut.

“I would come in raving about it and just get a ton of flak for it. I love it, I really do,” Johnson said. “I was relieved to see that a few guys on the team at least knew what I was talking about, but they weren’t as excited as much as I was. I’d just go in the corner and talk to the female trainers about it.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to a team’s success.

Honorable mention

Paul Ruggeri

The sophomore gymnast took first place in the high bars at the 2009 Winter Cup Challenge in Las Vegas last weekend. Ruggeri had a two-day score of 30.5 en route to his victory against a field that included two Olympians.

Angela Bizzarri

The junior distance runner placed third and set a school record in the 3,000 meters at the Meyo Invitational in South Bend, Ind., on Saturday. Bizzarri’s time of 9 minutes, 11.62 seconds automatically qualified her for the NCAA Championships and smashed her personal-best.