Courtesy of Ohio State Athletic Department
For many in the wrestling community, it’s a family sport.
Often, when one brother wrestles, so do the others.
In the case of Ohio State’s wrestling coach Tom Ryan, who has eight of his wrestlers competing for a national championship this season, that’s precisely what happened.
“The truth in the situation for me is that basketball was my first love, I played it from second grade until seventh grade,” Ryan said. “And in seventh grade, the coach of the junior high team didn’t think that I was as good as I thought I was.”
His junior high basketball coach cut him. His five-year love affair with basketball was in shambles.
But Ryan’s brother, who was on the wrestling team, had another idea.
“He said, ‘Listen, I want you to try wrestling.’ And I was like, ‘You’re crazy, I ain’t wrestling, I ain’t wearing that singlet,'” Ryan said.
But after his first workout with the wrestling team, Ryan said he was hooked.
Since he first stepped onto the mat, wrestling has led Ryan to many places, the first being Syracuse University where he followed his brother to wrestle.
“My brother was a great role model to me growing up, we were very close,” Ryan said. “Basically, wherever he went at college to wrestle, that’s where I was going to go.”
And yet, his heart was at the University of Iowa, where he had attended wrestling camp almost every summer, Ryan said.
But Iowa never called and offered him a spot on their wrestling team.
Syracuse, on the other hand, was only four or five hours from his hometown, and the full scholarship they offered him made the cost of college easier on his family.
For two years, Ryan wrestled and lived with his brother at Syracuse.
After finishing 2-2 at the National Tournament at the end of his sophomore year, Ryan said he grew frustrated with his own performance and sought a place that could challenge him to be the best he could possibly be.
“I felt that the pull of wanting to stand out in the sport was really tightening at me,” Ryan said. “I had this ache inside, and I just felt that the best way to cure the ache was to go somewhere known to really challenge people.”
He packed his car, talked to his parents, his coaches, his team and his brother, and headed to the University of Iowa, the place where his heart was.
For two months after arriving in Iowa City, Ryan lived in a hotel until he enrolled in school and walked onto the wrestling team.
After coming to Iowa, there was no turning back, Ryan said.
“I talk to my team a lot about this, but go burn the boat. It’s like the Vikings, when they conquered a foreign land, the first thing, the first thing they did when they got to shore was burn their boat,” Ryan said. “And the thought process there was, either we conquer this new place or we die here. And that was the thinking; I’m going to this place and there’s no looking back.”
His first day of working out with the Hawkeyes still stands out to him, Ryan said.
“I remember vividly wrestling with two brothers, twin brothers, they were the Steiner brothers, and they beat me unmercifully,” Ryan said.
He said he left practice crying “quite uncontrollably,” and remembers sitting in his car contemplating whether or not he was willing to do what it took and not just what he wanted to give, to make this work.
“It was that moment in my life that was a clear crossroads and I obviously decided to stay and before long, I was a starter there, and impacting the program in a positive way,” Ryan said.
Ryan graduated from Iowa having been selected as an NCAA Division I All-American twice and won two Big Ten Championships in 1991 and 1992.
In the years that have passed since Ryan wrestled his last match for the Hawkeyes, he’s held an assistant coaching position at Indiana and a head coaching job at Hofstra that led him to OSU.
Since he took over in 2006, he has led the Buckeyes to two NCAA runner-up seasons in 2008 and 2009 and was awarded the National Coach of the Year in 2009.
On Jan. 20, he became OSU’s first wrestling coach to beat Iowa since 1966.
For Ryan, though, it’s more than taking down a school like Iowa and making a statement for OSU wrestling. It’s more than just winning Big Ten titles and National Championships.
He said the first time he and his family set foot on campus, he realized he had a huge platform to impact peoples’ lives.
Even as a freshman wrestler, Cam Tessari said he can already see how invested Ryan is.
“He’s a great guy, a great wrestling coach, a great person all around. He definitely wants the best for you in all aspects of life,” he said.
Redshirt freshman Logan Stieber agreed.
“He’s real energetic, he always has funny stories and he’s got probably the best analogies I’ve ever heard,” he said. “He really cares about everybody on the team and he’ll do anything to help us out and make sure we’re the best we can be.”
Ahead of last weekend’s Big Ten wrestling championships in West Lafayette, Ind., Ryan set a goal for OSU to qualify 10 wrestlers to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championship in St. Louis, Mo., March 15-17.
Seven qualified for the national meet, and redshirt freshman Logan Stieber won the Big Ten championship at 133 pounds. The NCAA Division I Wrestling Committee announced Wednesday that an eighth wrestler would receive an at-large bid to the national meet..
Ryan might be serious about crafting the Buckeyes into a national power, but some of his wrestlers say he also has a softer side.
Ryan can also be goofy, said freshman wrestler Derek Garcia.
“He’s always one of the guys to make jokes and be serious,” he said. “He’s a good guy, an awesome coach, I don’t know how to explain it.”
For Ryan, it’s not about him — far from it.
The team always starts practice with a talk from Ryan, Tessari said.
“He wants you to succeed as a person, rather than just on the mat,” he said.