Today is a great day! There are few times in life when you actually get a chance to see the people you care about become successful and achieve a lifelong goal. The uneasy truth about life sometimes is that even if you dream about something and work tirelessly to achieve it, you still may never obtain it. Sad, but true. In this case it has become a reality! Our assistant coach, Tony Ersland, a former Iowa Hawkeye, has been named the new Head Coach at Purdue University, and I couldn't be more proud of him.
The interesting thing about Tony, is that his first year in Nebraska was my first year here as well. In August 2006, we both arrived in Lincoln with dreams of greatness. He had just arrived from Northwestern, and was there to witness and help elevate the collegiate success of World Silver Medalist Jake Herbert. He had proven that he could work with talented athletes before. I will admit when Ersland first arrived to Lincoln, no one on the team liked him. He wrestled at the University of Iowa under Dan Gable in the 1990s when they were the most dominant team in all the land. Dan was a master motivator and a hard-nosed, no-nonsense guy. Tony employed that mentality on us at the start of his tenure to establish himself and earn respect and discipline in the Nebraska Wrestling room. We just thought he was mean. I wanted no parts of him.
As the years passed though, we continued to grow closer. I began to realize what it took to increase my level of wrestling to where I dreamed of it being. Tony had wrestled side by side with some of the best wrestlers this country had ever seen, so he was not short on telling us what we needed to do. It's extremely similar to a parent/child relationship. As a kid, when you are chastised, or given extra work, you don't initially see it as an act of love or concern. You see it simply as punishment. As you become more mature, you realize that they were right all along, and only trying to help you when you weren't courageous or motivated enough to help yourself.
Ersland and I had a long running joke. As I was coming into my own as an NCAA wrestler, I would frequently badger him asking, "Am I a good wrestler in your book?" He explained that his qualifications of "good" were extremely tough, and his book was very small. After I won my first NCAA title in 2009, I still didn't make the cut. I won a second in 2011, but still again he said, "You're ok, gotta keep winning." Once I started winning World Championships and the Olympics, I didn't even ask him anymore. I knew I had finally won enough that he couldn't deny me anymore. As he announced his new position to our wrestling team this week I asked him one last time, "Am I good yet?" He laughed and said, "I guess you're pretty good." That is a prime example of the relentless pursuit of mental and physical toughness that Tony embodied. He never wanted to tell me that I was the best because realistically, I could always improve.
One last story... I had just won my second NCAA championship in 2011, and I was planning on wrestling in the U.S. Open that spring, which was only three weeks after NCAAs. I was relatively new to freestyle, and would be up against some of our country's best wrestlers. I took a week off following the national tournament, and essentially had to take a two-week "Freestyle for Dummies" crash course to be prepared for the Open. One day, Ersland and Bryan Snyder were putting me through a wrestling workout, and before the practice could end, I had to stop Snyder from turning me on top five times in a row. I would get to three, then get turned...get to two, get turned...four, turned. Finally, I had had it. I hopped up and walked out of the wrestling room. I quit. I was fed up. I walked up to the locker room, and sat by my locker and contemplated if I was really ready to make this journey into the unknown. In my mind though, I knew not to take my shoes off because Ersland wouldn't allow me to quit. About 3 minutes later, he came into the locker room, sat next to me and somehow convinced me to come back down and finish practice. I went on to win the Open while still in college, and a few more tournaments since.
I just want to say thank you to Coach Ersland for a great eight years together. Thanks especially for all the laughs and memories, and the times I didn't like you very much early on. Thank you for the working pace warm-ups that I grew to appreciate and the match pace cool-downs that I never appreciated. Thank you for all the workouts you put Raymond and I through when we were training for the Olympics. Thanks for smacking me multiple times in the face before every dual meet to get me fired up to kick butt. Thanks for the endless laughs from your choices in clothing over the years. Thanks for always challenging me, even though you didn't get much recognition for it. I would always tell you how great of a coach I thought you were, and now you get an opportunity to show the entire nation.
Good things come to those who wait. Tony's dream was to have his own program, and after taking second in a number of positions, he's finally done it. Sometimes God's answer to your prayers is "No". Although you may not understand it at the time, he has something better in store for you. There were a number of places Tony thought would be a great situation, tried in earnest to be hired, and was turned down. It was just God's way of saying, "Wait, I have something better for you." Good luck at Purdue. My only reservation is that Nebraska is going to have to kick the Boilermakers' butts every year!
Help me wish Tony Congratulations and Good Luck at his Twitter page: @tonyersland
"And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up."