|New WVU wrestling coach Sammie Henson talks to reporters in the Jerry West Room earlier today.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
If body language is an indicator then it’s quite clear that Sammie Henson is anxious to get started as West Virginia University’s new wrestling coach.
About 10 minutes into his 15-minute introductory press conference on Monday morning the sport coat was already off, and after about another 10 minutes or so talking with a half-dozen reporters off to the side, Henson was ready to get back to his new office and start evaluating next year’s team.
“I have a lot of (personnel) stuff that I have to do, but I just want to get it over with and start looking at the team,” he said. “I’m going to do a depth chart that I will put together. I’m going to start having interviews and figure this out.”
There are clearly some things that Henson has to figure out. In the two years West Virginia has been in the Big 12 it has yet to win a dual match, the closest it has come to a win was a four-point defeat to Oklahoma back on Feb. 6 of this year. West Virginia’s other two losses were by 24 points to fifth-ranked Oklahoma State and by 10 points to Iowa State.
Last year, the Mountaineers lost all six matches to Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State by an average of 32 points, which included the Big 12 Duals. West Virginia’s dual meet record in 2014 was 11-7 – a vast improvement from its 2-13 record in 2013 – and the last time the Mountaineers had a wrestler place at nationals was in 2007 when 141-pounder Brandon Rader finished sixth; the last time WVU had a top 25 finish at NCAAs was in 2005 when it placed 18th.
That was nine years ago.
Yet there are some cracks of light, too. Seven of the 10 starters from last year’s team are returning, including four who made it to NCAAs. West Virginia now has a nice, stand-alone training facility and is within driving distance of some of the best high school wrestlers in the country.
It also has a tradition of producing All-Americans, national champions and top 25 teams through the years.
And although West Virginia is competing in a league with only four schools, three of them are considered among the top wrestling programs in the country. It’s Henson’s goal to get WVU wrestling back into that category as well.
“I’ve coached in the Big 12 and I’ve spent a lot of time during my coaching career in the Big 12 so I know what it’s like,” he said. “I know there are only four teams, but the teams that are in there are good. You’ve got Olympic champions, so it’s going to be a lot of work.”
How long will it take before Henson believes he can put a WVU wrestling team on the mat capable of beating the other three schools in the Big 12?
“I have a time table for myself, but I won’t tell you guys,” he joked.
Henson’s credentials immediately get your attention. He has been involved with more than 20 All-Americans and five NCAA champions in his 17 years as an assistant coach at such places as Penn State, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri. Twice he’s helped recruit the nation’s No. 2-ranked recruiting classes at Missouri and Oklahoma, he’s got extensive experience working with the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club and he has a decorated post-collegiate wrestling career that saw him win a bronze medal at the 2006 World Wrestling Championships and a silver medal at the 2000 Olympic Games.
His collegiate wrestling career at Missouri and Clemson was equally impressive with a 71-0 record and two NCAA titles.
In 2009, while training for the world team, Henson got his first look at Morgantown and WVU’s wrestling complex.
“It’s great; it’s right on the level,” he said. “We’re not at the bottom (of the Big 12). We’re right close to the top.”
During the short time he was on campus he said he could see right away the potential here for wrestling.
“When you go to places you want to win,” he said. “We’re building student-athletes and we’re building our leaders of tomorrow – every program wants that – but at the end of the day we want to win. That is college athletics. You’re not going into Oklahoma or Oklahoma State and lose and have a good (feeling).
“Here I thought, the region – flying into Pittsburgh and driving down here and the facilities that you guys had, the atmosphere and the people – the people make the place and I felt like I connected.”
“The main thing for me is a fit. When I was at Oklahoma the main thing I took out of the success we had there was it’s got to be a fit, and I felt like this was a fit for me from day one,” he admitted. “I knew (WVU assistant coach) Danny Felix when I trained here and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can coach here. This is a place where I can win.’ I know the people in Morgantown and the surrounding area and that’s how I was raised, so I knew I could recruit Sammie Hensons and I knew that it would be a great place to live with my family.”
Henson has moved around a lot during the last few years and he’s anxious to finally put down some roots.
“I was hoping when I came on my interview that it would be what I was expecting it to be and it was,” he said. “I look for me and my family to be here a long, long time – I’ve moved a lot and I’m tired of moving.
“We’re going to do some great, great things here,” he added. “It’s going to be a lot of work. I’m nervous about it a little bit because we’ve got a lot of work that we’ve got to do, but we’ve got a great university here and we’re in a great conference.”
He says his wrestling philosophy is simple – “hard-nosed and follow through.”
“I plan for the whole year and that way you are not putting out fires – you are just adjusting your plan,” he explained. “It’s been successful. If we’re placing above our seeds in eight or more weight classes that’s pretty good. If we’re below that then we need to change what we’re doing, but everywhere I’ve been I’ve had success.”
Indeed, he has. So now the work begins here at WVU for Henson.