Continuity breeds success for Heffernan, Illinois wrestling

By Ethan Swanson

All-Americans, national champions, conference championships: Illini grapplers past and present can lay claim to all these honors. But without a solid team structure and effective coaching, even the most talented wrestler will falter. For Illinois wrestling, head coach Jim Heffernan has brought consistency and high standards and made the Illini a perennial contender, both in the Big Ten and nationally.

Heffernan graduated from St. Edwards High School in Cleveland, Ohio, a powerhouse in wrestling. In high school, he claimed two state championships with a fifth-place finish his sophomore year, drawing the attention of Iowa, one of the country’s premier wrestling schools.

Heffernan was a four-time All-American at Iowa, and with Heffernan leading the way, the Hawkeyes were crowned NCAA and Big Ten team champion three out of the four years of Heffernan’s time on the team. Along with a national title as a junior in 1986 at 150 pounds, he also captured four individual conference titles, only the ninth wrestler in Big Ten history to do so, but after college, Heffernan decided not to further his own wrestling career.

“Coaches were a huge influence on my life,” Heffernan said. “I had a great experience through wrestling. My goal going into it professionally is to hopefully help these guys with the same opportunities and experiences I had with the sport.”

Heffernan began his coaching career in 1988 as a graduate student at Iowa. Not until 1990 did he team up with former Illinois wrestling head coach Mark Johnson at Oregon State before the pair ultimately came to Champaign in 1992. 

“He and I saw things pretty similarly during our careers here,” Heffernan said. “We came from the same system at Iowa; we’ve obviously had to change some things being at a school like Illinois. We were similar in terms of our approach.”

Combine Johnson and Heffernan’s tenure at Illinois and the Illini have sent 123 wrestlers to the NCAA Championships. Since 1997, Illinois boasts 45 All-Americans and seven national champions out of 17 total NCAA finalists. Heffernan won the NWCA Assistant Coach of the Year award after the Illini produced two national champions and a ninth-place overall finish at the NCAA Championships in 1995. During the 1996-97 season, Heffernan helped guide the Illini to a 14-1 dual meet record and a third-place Big Ten finish, the best conference standing Illinois had seen in 39 years.

“He’s been through a lot in the sport,” senior and two-time national champion Jesse Delgado said of his coach. “He’s just really experienced; he’s able to guide us through whatever we have to go through.”

Mark Johnson retired from the head coaching position after the 2008-09 season as the most successful coach in Illinois’s history. Heffernan was his obvious successor.

Heffernan has continued Illinois’ prominence. Just last season, the team placed eight wrestlers in the NCAA Championships, the program’s most since Johnson’s retirement in 2009. Delgado won his second-consecutive national title at 125 pounds and captured his third-consecutive All-American honors. Heffernan has coached multiple All-Americans in each of the last five seasons. He drove former senior Tony Dallago to become Illinois’ all-time leader in career pins last season as well.

“Heff is a great technician, he can break down things for you really easily,” redshirt junior Jackson Morse said of Heffernan. “If we needed a kick in the butt, he wouldn’t have a problem giving it to us, but for the most part he tries to stay laid-back.”

As Heffernan is in the midst of his sixth season as Illinois’ head coach, his 23rd year with the program overall, he says there is no place he rather be and Illinois means as much to him as he means to Illinois.

“The goal in this sport is to be a head coach in this conference,” Heffernan said. “We’re just trying to make this program that best it can be. I’ve been at this school 22 years, that doesn’t happen a lot in college wrestling.”

Ethan Swanson can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @EthanSwanson88.