MORGANTOWN — Oliver Luck opened his introduction of West Virginia’s new wrestling coach Monday morning with a fairly bold statement that may surprise a few people.
“This,’’ the WVU athletic director said of the opening he had just filled, “is a prized job in the wrestling community, I think.’’
It didn’t surprise Sammie Henson, though. He agrees wholeheartedly.
“I was here training several years ago and I told my wife, ‘I could coach there. I could win there,’ ’’ Henson recalled. “I just knew, the type of people you have in Morgantown and the surrounding areas, that’s how I was raised. I knew I could recruit Sammie Hensons. And I knew that it would be a great place to live with my family.’’
Well, five years after that initial visit, Henson is back. He was introduced Monday morning as West Virginia’s new wrestling coach. He replaces Craig Turnbull, who was not retained after the past season and 36 total at the school.
So why is the West Virginia job a prized one? Well, the school sits near the border of two high school wrestling hotbeds, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Throw in the handful of prospects West Virginia itself produces, mix in the small (just four schools) but powerful Big 12 and there seems to be almost unlimited potential.
Now the task for Henson is to realize that potential. He’s getting a late start in terms of building a roster, given that most of the talented high school wrestlers are already committed elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem to bother Henson too much.
“Yeah, there are a couple,’’ Henson said when asked if there was much unsigned talent remaining. “That was one thing I was worried about [during a WVU search process that lasted seven weeks]. I knew the process and it was frustrating a little bit at times because you saw kids getting signed and you feel like you’re missing a deadline.’’
This, however, isn’t a short-term assignment for Henson, who is entering his first head coaching job on the college level. Yes, he wants to put together the best team he can as soon as he can, but more importantly he wants to establish a program. That’s going to take some time, and Henson insists he has that time.
“I look for me and my family to be here for a long, long time,’’ Henson said. “This is not a [short-term] move for me. If you look at my resume, I’m tired of moving. This is a great fit for us.’’
That resume is a long one, but it is littered with accomplishments. Henson, 43, spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Missouri, one of two schools he attended and for which he wrestled in the early 1990s. Henson was an All-America wrestler at Missouri before transferring to Clemson, where he went 71-0 in two seasons and won two national championships. He would later finish his degree at Missouri.
He was an assistant at Penn State, Army, Nebraska, Cal Poly and Oklahoma before returning to Missouri in 2012. Henson has also served as the coach of the Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club, from which many of the top wrestlers in the country emerge.
After his college career, Henson went on to win a gold medal at the 1998 World Championships in Iran. He was a silver medalist in the 2000 Olympics and won a bronze medal in the 2006 World Championships at the age of 36.
Luck was quick to point out, however, that Henson’s resume as a wrestler isn’t what got him the job at West Virginia.
“That’s pretty good, but we’re not hiring him to be a wrestler,’’ Luck said. “We’re hiring him to be a coach.
“What won us over beyond his technical knowledge of wrestling and his ability to lead our program is his emphasis on academics. It’s very important. We not only want to win, we want to win academically and graduate our athletes and have them come out of this institution with meaningful degrees.’’
Henson, who is married with four children, will work under a five-year contract that will pay him $110,000 per year. Turnbull’s most recent contract called for him to be paid just under $100,000.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.