Illini of the Decade: #9 Adam Tirapelle

Adam Tirapelle had a storybook wrestling career at Illinois, putting his name throughout the school record books and leaving his mark on one of the most successful programs in the nation. He’s second in school history in career wins. He’s first in school history in career pins. He’s a 2001 NCAA champion. And yet, his story at Illinois is one that almost never happened.

Adam was introduced to wrestling early on, as his father, Stephen, was a high school coach. From the beginning, it was obvious that Adam had a love for the sport.

“(Adam) grew up in the gym a little bit, watching the team and running around,” Stephen said. “At 10 years old, he’d go on trips and he would coach the JV kids. A lot of time coaches would walk in and ask, ‘What’re you listening to that kid for?’… And I’d tell the other coaches, ‘Hey, he knows what’s going on.’”

And for Adam, wrestling became more than just an after-school activity.

“I think I always knew I’d be involved in wrestling,” Adam said. “It’s a lifestyle, and I’ve always been a wrestling fan, too. I’m a fan of the sport. And some people who wrestle are not really fans of the sport, they just like to participate in it, but they don’t really enjoy it. And I do enjoy it.”

That passion for the sport carried Adam through high school to the junior nationals, where he was first introduced to Mark Johnson, the head coach of Illinois at the time. Adam was being recruited by many schools, including Minnesota, Oklahoma State and Stanford, but that didn’t stop his father from trying to sell Johnson on his son’s ability.

“I was at a (wrestling tournament), and (Stephen) just started talking to me,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘I’m watching my kid, I’m actually his coach,’ and it was Adam. And he was good … They kind of recruited us a little bit.”

However, even with Johnson interested, Adam still had many offers on the table. Eventually, he decided on Stanford, in his home state of California.

“I thought it was coming down between (Illinois) and Oklahoma State and North Carolina,” Johnson said. “Then all of a sudden he tells me he’s going to Stanford. I was like, ‘Stanford?! You gotta be kidding me!”

But once Adam enrolled, he quickly realized that it was not the place for him.

“Stanford seemed like it was too good of a thing to turn down, so I went there my freshman year,” Adam said. “It was everything I didn’t want.”

Once again, Adam’s father went to work. Just three weeks into the school year, Johnson got a late night phone call from Stephen.

“His dad called me at 1 o’clock in the morning,” Johnson recalled.

Stephen explained how Adam was unhappy at Stanford and felt like he had made the wrong choice, but Johnson wasn’t very receptive at first. “(I said) ‘tough’ and hung up on him,” Johnson said.

Eventually, Adam convinced Johnson and transferred to Illinois before his sophomore year. Once at Illinois, the differences from Stanford were immediately apparent.

“(Illinois) was a perfect fit for me. The coaches were a perfect fit for me, the guys on the team, I got along with really well and had similar interests,” Adam said. “I tell people, my thing that kind of sums it up is my one year at Stanford seemed like it took forever, and my (years at Illinois) seemed like it went by in a second.”

However, Adam was not the only one to benefit from his change of scenery, as he proved to be a natural leader for other team members. Johnson called Adam’s leadership abilities “if not the best, one of the best … that I’ve ever been around.”

“Without a doubt, he was just a natural leader as soon as he stepped into the room,” said Griff Powell, Adam’s teammate and roommate at Illinois. “Adam was a guy who was always trying to … pass on anything he can to the team. When we were there (at Illinois together), we had some good teams … and Adam was a main part of that.”

Even though Adam didn’t take the traditional path to end up as an Illini, Johnson couldn’t have been more pleased with the way things turned out.

“He’s one of my favorite all-time wrestlers,” Johnson said.