A wrestling life: Coach Rob Koll on his career and Stanford wrestling’s future

Feb. 17, 2022, 12:35 a.m.

Coach Rob Koll is the 31st head coach in Stanford wrestling history and recently began his first season with the Cardinal. Before coming to the Farm, he coached at Cornell for 28 seasons, transforming the program and ending with a career record of 317-101-5. Under his leadership, Cornell produced 71 All-Americans, 16 NCAA champions and 177 NCAA qualifiers. Koll himself wrestled in college at North Carolina. With the Tar Heels, he won the national title at 158 pounds, was a four-time All-American and finished his collegiate career with a 150-20-1 record.

The Daily’s Stanford Stickney spoke with Koll about his career and how he has navigated his first season at Stanford. 

The Stanford Daily [TSD]: How did you get involved in wrestling?

Rob Koll [RK]: My father was a wrestling coach. He was the head coach at Penn State. Of course, back then you were a full-time tenured professor and a wrestling coach. When I got the job at Cornell, he asked me what I taught. When I explained to him that I didn’t have to teach, he asked me what I did all day long. It was different. My father’s experience was before they incorporated specialization in college athletics, before they had to do any fundraising and before the recruiting process was as intense. I grew up in the Penn State wrestling room, traveling around with him to events and tournaments and coaches’ clinics. Wrestling came kind of naturally to me.

TSD: How did you get your first coaching job? 

RK:  I have to admit, I never thought I would enter the coaching field. When I graduated from North Carolina, I was getting ready to go to grad school because I did not know what I wanted to do. One weekend I was out of town working at a wrestling clinic in Cleveland, and the Cornell coach called my home. Of course, we didn’t have cell phones back then, and my wife answered the phone. Prior to that, I remember rummaging under the floor mats of our car, looking for spare change to buy a Subway sub. I was working as a barback, working camps and clinics on the side, everything I could do because I had one semester to finish up before graduate studies. I learned that she had essentially accepted the job for me when I called her back later that day. She was like, “Hey, Jack Spates from Cornell called, and you just accepted a job.” We kid about it. She didn’t actually accept the job, but I’m not sure I had a place to sleep had I turned it down. Three days later, I was in Ithaca.

TSD: What was your position when you first arrived at Cornell?

RK: I was the assistant coach. Cornell was a small Ivy League school in upstate New York, and it wasn’t much of a powerhouse at the time. And I remember asking the head coach if we were any good. He said, “No, but we’re going to be.” And it didn’t take long. 

TSD: Aren’t you a four-time All-American?

RK: I grew up in a household where my father was a three-time national champion. He never lost a match in college. I remember him talking about his athletes, and he considered good wrestlers as All-Americans and great wrestlers as national champs. I never wanted to be just “good.” Therefore, the idea of being a four-time All-American quite honestly was not my goal. Until I finally won the title, I was extremely unsatisfied with my career. Perhaps this is not psychologically the healthiest approach to the sport, but it certainly helped me to ultimately reach my goal. I know wrestlers who set their expectations artificially low so as to be sure to achieve their goals, but this is no way to go about becoming great.

TSD: How has your perspective changed from a wrestler to a coach?

RK: I don’t pretend to be the best coach in the country, but I do believe I hire the best coaches. And when you surround yourself with great coaches and great athletes, great things occur. Anything less than this is an exercise in mediocrity. 

TSD: Tell me more.

RK: My strongest skill set is being able to procure the necessary resources to build a great program and to get other people excited about our vision for the program. At Cornell, we were able to mobilize our alumni and friends to build the requisite financial infrastructure necessary to compete with any program in the country. This includes by far the finest wrestling center in the world. There’s no hyperbole in that statement whatsoever. I expect to apply this same model for success at Stanford.

TSD: What are some of the challenges associated with coaching? 

RK: Early in our days at Cornell, other coaches would say, “They will never win there. It’s too expensive. It’s too academically challenging. You don’t have the facilities.” Years later, we were winning. All of a sudden, those same people were saying, “Of course they are going to win. It’s a great school. They have great financial aid. They have such a great wrestling room.” It’s how you look at it. Every place has challenges. You just focus on what you have and turn your weaknesses into your strengths.

TSD: Are there challenges at Stanford? 

RK: People say you can’t get kids in. I don’t need 50 kids a year. If every year I can’t find 8 or 9 outstanding, recruitable athletes out of the thousands of prospective high school wrestling recruits, then shame on me. That’s not the fault of admissions. That’s my fault for not working hard enough to find those kids. If Stanford can be nationally competitive in every other sport, there is simply no excuse why we can’t do it in wrestling.

TSD: What drew you to Stanford as opposed to staying at Cornell?  

RK: I wanted to be able to win a national championship. I felt like at Cornell, I’m going to contradict myself a little bit. There are certain environmental factors that make it more difficult. And after 32 years, I felt that I was swimming upstream as to what more results we could get, and I felt this was just a really exciting challenge to see if we could change and enhance the sport on the west coast.

TSD: How do you plan to enhance the sport on the west coast?

RK: There is the ability to create major wrestling events and to grow the sport. This past weekend, Penn State wrestled the University of Iowa, at the University of Iowa, and the place holds 15,000. And there was every bit of 15,000 and a few more squeezed into that facility. Bay Area wrestling is not particularly strong, although there are a lot of wrestlers out here. It’s completely a holistic approach. We don’t just focus on Stanford. You build the region. You help whatever you can do with the high school, junior highs and youth outreach programs. Helping get high school coaches in the right programs and build a recruiting pool that’s local. It’s harder to recruit a kid from the east coast than it is to get someone from San José. There are over 900 high schools wrestling in the state. This is almost twice as many wrestling school programs as any other state in the country. There’s simply no reason we can’t have a huge and loyal fanbase.

TSD: How do you plan to create this kind of support?

RK: In our sport, a lot of the following comes from people who wrestle. At Cornell, I used this model, and I’m sure it’s the same at Stanford. It’s significantly easier to get a high school, peewee, middle school wrestler or wrestling family to become a Stanford wrestling fan than to get a Stanford student, who has never wrestled, to become a wrestling fan. A typical Stanford student is busy as heck and has never heard of the sport outside of the fake pro stuff. It’s difficult to get this population to come to a football game, let alone to a wrestling match. Furthermore, after a few years, they graduate. They’re gone, and they tend not to stay in town. Whereas if you build your marketing toward someone who is eight to 10 years old, you’ve got them for 10 years, and you’ve got their whole family. If I get little Johnny and/or Susie, because women’s wrestling is booming in this area, I’ve got the whole family — aunts and uncles and everybody else coming to the match. That’s what we’re also trying to do, because I believe no true great program survives in a vacuum without a strong following. This is why I’m obsessed with building that following, building a fan base and making wrestling a revenue positive sport. 

TSD: Was it challenging receiving a program that was almost dropped?

RK: Just to put that in perspective, wrestling programs at Princeton, Brown, Bucknell and Cleveland State, just to name a few, were all on the chopping block. The interesting phenomena, though, is all those programs are stronger now after they’ve been dropped — every single one of them is stronger. And there’s a reason for that. There was a call to arms, and the alumni got behind them. And once you start writing checks, the bigger the check, the more you care, the more you expect. I always compare it to owners of professional teams, and I look at everybody who makes a gift to our program as if they’re owners now. If you’re an owner, you go to the matches. You help athletes with internships. You raise a ruckus if the program isn’t performing well. When you have this type of involvement, coaches are held accountable. Lack of accountability is a serious problem with non-revenue sports. This was not the reason for Stanford’s program getting dropped, but at the aforementioned programs, there was so little alumni involvement that when they all performed so poorly, no one cared when they were dropped. Had those programs had full venues and an active alumni association, the likelihood of them being dropped is unlikely.

TSD: Where do you see the program in 10 years?

RK: We will be completely endowed much sooner than that. We will be producing national champions on a consistent basis, and we will have athletes competing on the Olympic level. That is going to happen. It just a matter of is it going to be in three years or six years. 

TSD: What are you excited about for the rest of the season? 

RK: Our big push is to increase our scholarship limit. Right now, we are at five in half, and we need to get to nine point nine, which is our NCAA limit. I am excited about next year. We are bringing in 10 new wrestlers into the room, and we only graduate one. Next year, we are going to have a really big room that will make it that much easier for the kids to improve.

TSD: What do you say to the young person who wrestles and wants to go to Stanford? 

RK: At Stanford, it’s not just the GPA — it’s the rigor. You want kids who push themselves academically. In terms of wrestling, obviously we are looking to sign the top kids every year. I’m always told that I need to find the “diamonds in the rough.” The heck with that. It’s not that we don’t want recruits that might be under the radar, but if given my druthers, I would rather start with a polished diamond. I don’t think I have ever met an 18-year-old who can’t get better. Just because they are national champions, does not mean they even come close to how good they can be when they become Olympians. We are not looking for good; we are looking for great. We want to start with great and make them greater. 

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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