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Tom Shifflet

The placard outside room 218 in the Hofstra Physical Fitness Center still says ďWrestling Coach.Ē Inside the office, the CAA championship trophies still stand. The desk is still slightly cluttered, and the man sitting behind the desk still has the prominent cauliflower ears, the telltale sign of a life spent on the mat. He was a highly successful High School wrestler in NY; he left the state and became a multiple time NCAA All-American while wrestling for a college coach who is one of the legendary figures in the history of the sport. He eventually returned to NY, became the head coach at Hofstra. He even answers to the name ďTom.Ē  But unlike his predecessor, the man behind the desk has not inherited a Hofstra program floundering on the brink of athletic obscurity.

This man is now the head coach of a team that finished 11th at last yearís NCAA Championships, a program that featured three All-Americans, a program that only graduated one starter from last yearís squad, and a wrestling team that finished in the Top 15 in the nation for home attendance. This is a program with high expectations. It is fortunate then, that Tom Shifflet is a man with high expectations of his own.

As a High School wrestler, Tom Shifflet was a 2x Section VI champion and 2x NY State finalist. He was the 1990 NY State Champ at 132 pounds. Shifflet continued his career at Edinboro University, where he was coached by 2x Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Baumgartner. At Edinboro, Shifflet became a 3x All-American, placing as high as 3rd in the NCAA tourney. He was the 1995 Eastern Wrestling League Wrestler of the Year, and has been inducted into both the Edinboro and EWL Halls of Fame. As a freestyle wrestler, Tom placed at the Olympic Trials, the US Nationals and the US World Team Trials.

Shiffletís coaching career began with two seasons as an assistant at Georgia State University and continued when he was hired to be one of Rob Kollís assistants at Cornell. During Shiffletís five year tenure at Cornell he coached 24 NCAA qualifiers and 3 All-Americans. In 2002, Shifflet was hired as the head wrestling coach for UNC-Greensboro. At UNC-Greensboro, he coached numerous Southern Conference champions, NCAA qualifiers, a pair of wrestlers to make the NCAAs ďRound of 12Ē and was instrumental in the creation of the ďSouthern ScuffleĒ, which has become one of the most competitive regular season tournaments in all of college wrestling.

Tom Shifflet was recently named as the 10th head coach in the history of Hofstra University Wrestling. Coach Shifflet discussed his career as well as his new position as the head wrestling coach at Hofstra with Bill Faxon, exclusively for the Long Island Wrestling Association.

LIWA: This off-season has been one of the more hectic in college wrestling history, particularly as it relates to coaching. The carousel went through Iowa, Iowa State, Ohio State, Virginia Tech among others, and eventually led to your hiring at Hofstra. What are your overall thoughts on all of the movement?

Shifflet: It was pretty crazy. I had no idea that it would continue one job after another. There were some positives from it, but there were also some negatives that have come out of all of the change. The big positive is that you have some young coaches that are getting involved with the elite programs. Tom Brands going to Iowa, Cael Sanderson at Iowa State, these are things that can put more fans in the seats, get more people following college wrestling. The negative is that for some schools, where recruits were considering leaving, maybe following a coach, a lot of confusion and even frustration developed. It got a little heated in some places.

Even here, we lost a couple of guys during the process. I never really had a chance to cultivate a relationship with them; they decided to follow Tom {Ryan}. But I donít blame them at all, Tom Ryan is an excellent coach, and theyíre headed to Ohio State where they have a good program. I wish them the best.

LIWA: At what point, while all of these changes were going on, did you think that there might be an opportunity for you, whether at Hofstra or at one of the other schools?

Shifflet: My focus was always on UNC-Greensboro, and building for the future of that program. Honestly, when the Hofstra position opened up, when Tom left for Ohio State, I wasnít sure what I wanted to do. But this is a Top 15 program located in a hotbed of wrestling, and a lot of people became interested. We had done a lot of great things at UNC-Greensboro, along with the Athletic Director and the wrestlers we made it into a competitive Division I program, and Iím proud of that. But I always want to put myself in the situation where I have the best chance to win, to compete at the highest level. I was very upfront about this with my AD, that I wanted to be in a situation where I could recruit the top kids, have a top schedule, that we had the fans and the support. Iím not saying that we didnít have these things at UNC-Greensboro, they are very committed, but there was a limit. I was happy at UNC-Greensboro, and I would have been content to stay there and continue with what we were building. But when this job opened up, I became excited about it. My wife is from Long Island, Iím from New York. I felt like I was coming home.

When I was in High School training for the Junior Nationals, I trained here; I stayed at Jamie St. Johnís house. The next year I stayed at the Haiseís house for 10 days before we went to Fargo. Those were some of the best experiences of my life, as far as wrestling, and I built relationships that I still have today.

I wanted to put myself in the best situation to be successful as a coach, and to be able to give back to the sport. Iíve had unbelievable role models, from my college coach, Bruce Baumgartner, to my time at Georgia State where I worked with Gary Kurdelmeier, who won an NCAA title coaching at Iowa, to working with Rob Koll at Cornell. I wrestled for Sonny {Greenhalgh} at the NYAC. I had some great people that influenced me, and now as a coach I want to give back to the kids that are in the situation that I used to be in.

LIWA: You mentioned that a lot of people were interested in the Hofstra job. One of them, reportedly, was assistant coach Rob Anspach. How is your relationship with Rob, and were you involved with the decision to retain him as an assistant?

Shifflet: I met Rob last year out at Fargo; we kind of spent a day together with a few other coaches, had lunch, sat in the stands together, watched wrestling. So we kind of knew each other. Initially this was a little awkward, we both knew that the other was interviewing for this job. But when I was interviewing, I told them that if I got the job, I wanted Rob to stay. I knew this from the start. Youíre only as good as the people around you, and I spoke to Tom Ryan, and he had nothing but great things to say about Rob, about his work ethic, about everything heís done for this program. Was it a little awkward at first? It was. But we are working well together. Heís going to make the transition much easier for me. Rob wrestled here, heís got a ton of relationships in the community, and heís well respected. Iíd have been a fool not to ask Rob to stay on.

LIWA: As far as the other assistant position, did you have a discussion with Donny Pritzlaff about staying, and what are the plans to fill the position at this point?

Shifflet:  When I was interviewing for the job I heard that he was looking to go back to Wisconsin. Thatís where his wife is from, I think he felt it was the best situation for his wife and his family, and of course I respect that. He had a lot of success at Wisconsin, and I wish him the best. I would have liked for him to stay, but to be honest I never had a real chance to discuss it with him, by the time I was hired his mind was pretty much made up.

The other part of the equation is that we have a lot of talented young lightweights. Iím a middle weight, Rob is a middle to upper weight, and so bringing in a smaller guy was a focus for us. This came up during the interview process, they asked me who Iíd like to bring in, and one of the names I kept coming back to was Joe Dubuque. He was a 2 time NCAA champ, heís from New Jersey, and he has a tremendous outlook on things. Joe has now accepted the position, and weíre excited to have him.

When I interviewed Joe, the thing that really impressed me was that I could tell heís committed, that he wants to put in his time to learn how to become an effective coach. Heíll be involved with every aspect of running the program, just like Rob will be. And itís great that Joe, Rob and I are all still young enough that we all can get in the room and wrestle live. To have 3 coaches in the room that can still go live, thatís an important thing when youíre trying to recruit the best kids in the country, and thatís what weíre trying to do. Tom {Ryan} did a great job here and weíre going to try and take the next step, to go from Top 15 like last season, to Top 10 to Top 5 in the country. Joe Dubuque is going to be an important part of that. Joe has that fire, and heís going to be great for our program.

LIWA: Earlier you mentioned a few recruits that decided to leave, to follow Tom Ryan to Ohio State. One that didnít leave Lou Ruggirello. Can you discuss Lou and his decision to stay?

Shifflet: When I got hired my first priority was to try to retain the three recruits that had committed to Hofstra. Lou was one of those guys. He won a couple of New York titles, he was a High School National Champ, heís the future of this program. We want to build around guys like Lou. Heís a true student athlete; heís the kind of guy that you want in your program.

I met with Lou and his family. We discussed the future of the program, and what we wanted to do for Lou as a student and as an athlete. We assured him that we will give him everything possible to ensure that he will be successful at this level.

I admire Lou, heís committed. He made a commitment in the fall and he never even asked for a release. He just wanted to make sure that everything was still on track.  I admire him, and I admire the fact that he made a commitment and he stuck to it. I respect that, and I will not let him down. I owe him, and I will give him everything that Iíve got.

LIWA: Do you foresee him in the line-up next year?

Shifflet: Weíve discussed the situation. Could he come in and compete right away? Yes, absolutely. Could he benefit from a redshirt year? Possibly, yes. Weíll look at it once he gets here, once he starts training with us. Technique wise heís good enough to wrestle. Mentally, heís good enough to wrestle. But physically, is he strong enough right now to compete at this level as a true freshman? Weíll look at it. Itís about Lou, and what is best for him and his success. But itís also about the team, and we have a great team returning. Weíve got a couple of returning All-Americans, weíd like to get a couple of other guys up on the podium and get that Top 10 or Top 5 finish.

I donít necessarily think that redshirting is the best thing for some freshman. Itís a new program, a new experience; you have a lot more freedom than youíve ever had. Itís a different atmosphere than youíve been in, and I have to make the decision. If I redshirt a wrestler, and Iím absolutely not talking about Lou specifically, does he lose focus as a student athlete? It happens all the time in this sport. If I redshirt you, are you going to lose that competitive edge, and get involved in things that might take your focus off of being a great student athlete? I donít want that to happen. It really depends on the individual, and we also want to put the best team on the mat. The people of Long Island, the people of New York, they want to see us go out there and beat the best in the country.

LIWA: Lou is here; the one that got away is Ryan Patrovich. Did you have any real conversations with Ryan about staying?

Shifflet: He made his decision. To be quite honest, I donít know if we ever had a chance to keep him. I wasnít really given the opportunity, and itís nobodyís fault, but I never got the chance to try and build a relationship with Ryan. I do believe that if I had the chance to coach him, if we got to know each other, that he might have seen things differently. But I also know that he and Tom Ryan have a great relationship, and ultimately thatís why heís going to Ohio State. I donít blame Ryan for going to Ohio State. They have a great staff, a program that has been successful in the past and probably will get back to that level. Itís a huge loss for us because Ryanís local, heís from the Island. And for me, as a coach, I need to make sure that I keep the best kids here. I want Long Island kids to be successful wrestling for Hofstra University. We need to move forward, it consumed a lot of everyoneís time, and I truly donít think that thereís anything more anyone could have done to convince Ryan into coming to Hofstra. But itís a loss, heís a winner. Ryan is going to be successful, make no doubt about it. Thatís why Tom Ryan, and everyone else in the country, wanted him so bad.

We need to move forward. I wish Ryan the best, and we still have his brother in the program. Mike is a complete stud, an All-American, and we want to help him make the next step and compete for a National Championship.

LIWA: Has Mikeís 6th year been approved yet? And will he be down at 165 after taking 4th at 174 last season?

Shifflet: Mike is going through the process as far as getting his 6th year. There are no guarantees, but heís got as good a case as any, with the injuries heís had, the time he missed, the shoulder surgeries, the whole thing. Weíre hopeful that it will be granted.

As far as the weight class, heís been an All-American; he wants to win a national title. We want to put him in the weight class that gives him the best shot. Heís wrestled the top guys in both weights, and right now there is some thought that 165 might be his better chance at a title..

Mike knows what to do. He trains hard, he has a positive outlook, in every aspect of being a wrestler Mike is as good as they come. Weíll make the best decision to get him a chance at that title.

LIWA: How long do you think it will take for Hofstra fans to forgive you for Daren Burns upsetting Chris Skretkowitz at the 2005 NCAAs?

Shifflet: Every time I speak to a Hofstra alumni, they talk about being at the National tournament and that match breaking their heart. Obviously for me, at UNC-Greensboro, that was one of the highlights of my tenure there. Itís a great feeling when youíre wrestling the #3 seeded guy in the country at the national tourney and you reverse him to his back for the pin.

LIWA: Ironically, during Chris Weidmanís march to the NCAA Semi-Finals this season, before he beat Wynn Michalak, before he beat Ryan Bader, his first win was over that same Daren Burns.

Shifflet: Yeah. That is funny. The year before we beat the Third seeded guy in the country. Now this year we have to wrestle Chris, and we didnít know that much about him. He wasnít seeded, so weíre thinking that we should win this match, and then get a crack at the Central Michigan kid that we lost to in the last 15 seconds in the All-American round last year. But Iíll tell you what, Chris just dominated the match. He did a great job, he just kept shucking us by, he did a great job.

LIWA: Alton Lucas was an extremely highly touted recruit coming out of Long Island. Last year he was switching sports, between football and wrestling, he was in several different weight classes, he was in and out of the line-up, he was pulled from his redshirt but didnít wind up competing in the conference tournament. Have you spoken to Alton, and do you know what his plans are as relates to wrestling?

Shifflet: I have spoken to Alton. Heís not going to be playing football in the fall; his complete focus is on wrestling. He wants to be an All-American next year. Heís very positive; heís looking forward to next season. I donít know what will happen down the road, he might want to play football again. But this year he is only focusing on wrestling, and we want to get him on the podium and become an All-American. Believe me, heís capable of it. The focus for this year is on academics and on wrestling and thatís it.

LIWA: Will he go either 165 or 174, whichever weight Mike Patrovich doesnít go?

Shifflet:  If Mikeís at 165, he goes 174. One thing weíre going to struggle with this year is depth. We have a great nucleus, but not a lot of depth. I see Alton as our 174 pounder; heís just too big for 165 right now. So we want him to wrestle 174 and become an All-American.

LIWA: Speaking of depth, there have been some changes at heavyweight. Can you discuss whatís going on?

Shifflet: Heavyweight is up in the air. We lost John Andriac, and thatís unfortunate. I never got a chance to convince him otherwise. I hope heís doing whatís best for John. But we have Gus Delvecchio, who actually beat John in the wrestleoff last season, so we know he can win some matches. Weíre looking at some things, talking to some people as far as heavyweight, but nothing specific that I can really comment on right now.

LIWA: At UNC-Greensboro you were instrumental in creating the Southern Scuffle, which became enormously successful. Do you have any plans on what you will do to promote wrestling at Hofstra?

Shifflet:  Iím just about done with our schedule for next year, it should be in concrete very soon, and then Iím going to get into how weíre going to promote this schedule and promote wrestling. When I worked with Gary Kurdelmeier he was always promoting wrestling. We had a candlelight dinner before a dual meet, you had dinner, and after dessert a dual meet broke out. He was always doing things like that. Rob Koll at Cornell taught me a lot about promoting wrestling, and Iím definitely going to take ideas from him.

At UNC-Greensboro I really had to come up with ideas to build a program. I was fortunate that I had a lot of support from the administration, particularly with the Scuffle. Now, are we going to run a ďNorthern Scuffle?Ē Probably not. Financially this might not be the best area for that. Down south you can get a hotel room for $59, that isnít remotely going to happen on Long Island. But weíre going to set up good experiences for teams to come in here; weíre going to recruit them to come wrestle us. Weíll have promotions before the dual meets, and once we have the schedule in place youíll see some of our ideas, some of the ways weíre going to promote not only our program but High School, Middle School, and Kid wrestling on Long Island.

LIWA: Historically Hofstra has recruited very well on Long Island and in New Jersey, but not particularly well upstate. Do you think the fact that you have roots upstate can change that?

Shifflet: No question. Iíve got a lot of great relationships; Iím from Buffalo, right next to Rochester and Section V, which is some pretty tough wrestling. I spent 5 years at Cornell, in Section IV. Iíve got to know a lot of coaches all over New York. Next year UNC-Greensboro will have 6 guys from upstate New York on their team.

LIWA: And what are your plans to get connected with the wrestling community on Long Island? Tom Ryan had his ďEliteĒ club, are you planning anything similar?

Shifflet: Tom did a great job, and Iím not here to change everything he did. There are some things that Iíll do differently in hopes of taking us to the next level, but I also want to stick with some of the great ideas that Tom implemented. Weíre going to work on clinics and a club with a couple of sessions for the fall. And I know with Joe Dubuque, we think heís someone that people will want to train under. We want to build relationships with the top wrestlers on Long Island from a young age. You saw it with Ryan Patrovich, how important that preexisting relationship can be.

LIWA: Mike Patrovich, Chris Weidman and James Strouse will all be seniors next year. You will also have a lot of juniors. Your first recruiting class at Hofstra will be an important one. How much have you thought about it so far?

Shifflet: Weíve sent out tons of questionnaires, a bunch of info, emails. Weíre going to have an Open House on August 19th; it will be an unofficial visit, a chance to meet the new coaching staff and get a tour of the campus and to learn about some of the great academic programs that we have here at Hofstra. Recruiting really starts July 1st, and weíve got a huge list of top wrestlers that we want to contact. Iíve always felt that recruiting is one of my biggest strengths, going back to my days at Cornell University. Itís about building a relationship with these student athletes. I can sell Hofstra Wrestling because I believe in it. I wouldnít have applied for the job if I didnít believe in it. This is a great program with great tradition and great support. A lot of recruiting is belief in your program, recruits and their parents can tell. And I believe in Hofstra wrestling. This is a hotbed for recruiting; weíve got Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Upstate New York all right here. Weíre going to try to get kids to commit early, get working on this right away.

LIWA: You were an extremely successful wrestler in your own career. Do kids know about this? Do they care?

Shifflet: Iím not sure. I think Iím known more for coaching, for my time at Cornell, for building a program at UNC-Greensboro. I donít think Iím known as ďTom Shifflet New York State ChampĒ or ďTom Shifflet Three Time NCAA All-AmericanĒ or anything. But I do think Iím known for technique and being able to teach it. I fell just short of my goal as a wrestler, short of winning an NCAA national championship. But now my goal is to help others to do what I didnít, and Iím comfortable with that. I want to get All-Americans, get National Champions, and thatís what drives me. Itís just as important to show what you did wrong as it is to show what you did right.

But Joe Dubuque, now thatís a hot name in the wrestling world. Two time National Champion. Everyone across the country knows him, they saw him on ESPN.

LIWA: Bruce Baumgartner is one of the most prolific American wrestlers of all time. He was also your college coach. What was that like, and what did you learn from Bruce that helps you as a coach?

Shifflet: I went to Edinboro because of Lou Rosselli, we knew each other since we were kids, and I went to follow Lou. Bruce was the assistant when I was being recruited, and it meant a lot when he would call, when he came to my high school. Going to Edinboro was great for me, and Iím really glad that my parents got a chance to see me wrestle so often, it was only 2 hours from home. My dad got me started in wrestling, he coached me in high school, my parents did so much for me, I felt like the least I could do was go somewhere that they could see me. And to be honest, in college I almost think my career was less about me than it was about wanting to make my parents proud.

As far as Bruce, he became the head coach right when I got to Edinboro. I consider myself a very ethical person, thatís something I pride myself in, and a lot of that comes from being around Bruce Baumgartner. The guy is a role model for anybody. Heís a good coach; heís also a good person. When I was a freshman and I did some dumb thing, he was the guy to give me a second chance. Young kids are going to do things that arenít smart, and a good coach is there to pick them up and to guide them. I really canít even put into words how much he shaped me as a person. Heís still a guy that I call when I need advice. And Iím sitting here as a head coach because of my parents, but also because of Bruce Baumgartner and Tim Flynn and everything theyíve meant to me.

LIWA: Previously you were building a program nearly from scratch, now you are dealing with legitimate expectations. Youíve taken over a program that is returning most of the team that finished 11th at last yearís NCAA tourney. Is it harder to coach when the stakes and the expectations get raised?

Shifflet: I want to be in a situation where the program is geared towards being in the Top 10, having All-Americans and National Champions. Not to say that we werenít aiming for that at UNC-Greensboro, but now Iím in a situation where itís close to reality. Iím excited to guide this program to the next level. You know what itís like at Cornell, with the fans and expectations. I liked that, and now Iím looking forward to it here. It makes me work harder. I donít want to let anyone down, thatís not who I am.

 Iíll do whatever it takes.