MIKE CASAZZA: New mat coach feels culture match

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Oliver Luck can’t help but to see sports differently, and sometimes the West Virginia athletic director has no choice.

He’s most commonly connected with what happens with football and men’s basketball, and he recognizes those sports as the money-makers on campus. Yet, he’s committed to baseball and a new stadium and he’s made upgrades a priority for the indoor track at the Shell building and for the visitor’s locker room at the soccer stadium.

But Luck looks at two sports in particular through a different lens because he believes the people of West Virginia and the fans of the Mountaineers do so, too. One is rifle. It matters to Luck because of the image of the school mascot’s rifle and the popularity of hunting within the state’s borders, but also because of the famed success of the school’s rifle program.

The other? Wrestling. Luck sees wrestlers to be a lot like the determined and dedicated working class in his state, a state he believes can help fill out a roster, a state that’s surrounded by even more fertile recruiting areas.

And if we’re all being honest, wrestling at WVU has the resources it needs to be better than it’s been lately, which was why we were all called to the Coliseum Monday morning for the press conference naming a new head coach.

That coach is Sammie Henson, a two-time NCAA champion and three-time All-American who committed himself to a stunningly successful amateur career while he was an assistant at Oklahoma, Penn State, Army and Nebraska.

“Of all the sports over the years, wrestling has a very strong, very defined culture,” Luck said. “It’s a classic blue-collar sport. It’s tough. They all mangle their ears and break their noses. It’s hard. It’s not an affluent sport, it’s not a country club sport by any stretch of the imagination. I think at the end of the day, you just need a coach who really understands the culture and who can relate to the kids.”

Henson, 43, replaces Craig Turnbull, who was fired in March. Turnbull’s teams were 0-9 in Big 12 matches in its first two seasons in the four-team conference and 13-20 overall in dual matches. WVU also lost 0.43 scholarships in 2004-05 and 0.88 scholarships in 2006-07 because of missteps with the Academic Progress Report.

While Luck can’t accept that, he can understand.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “You see the APR scores from not just our wrestling program, and they’re struggling. One of the reasons is these are blue-collar kids and not necessarily the elite, private schools, though there are some great wrestlers coming out of private schools. But I think there’s a culture and Sammie understands that very well.”

Henson gets it because he’s been in it for a long time. He was a Big Eight Champion and an All-American at Missouri in 1991 before transferring to Clemson. He was 71-0 there and won national championships in 1993 and 1994. He started coaching as a volunteer assistant at Oklahoma (1997-2000) and moved on to Penn State (2000-02) and Army (2002-03) as a full-time assistant before going back to volunteer status at Nebraska (2006-07).

During that time, Henson was also a star on the mat. In 1998, he won a world championship in Iran and was named the USA Wrestling Man of the Year and a finalist for the Sullivan Award as the country’s top amateur athlete. He won a silver medal in the 2000 Olympics and bronze in the 2006 world championships.

He returned to full-time coaching at Cal Poly (2007-09) before going to Oklahoma (2009-11) and finally Missouri (2012-14).

“I feel like this has been long overdue for me,” he said.

If it was a long time coming for a man the university’s press release hailed as “one of the most celebrated wrestlers in the history of the United States” and “one of the elite assistants in the country,” understand he saw it coming, too. In 2009, Danny Felix, a WVU assistant, was one of seven freestyle wrestlers to make the Team USA roster and compete in the world championships.

Henson traveled to Morgantown to be part of the group that helped Felix prepare. When he returned home, he told his wife, Stephanie, “I can go coach there. I can win there.”

“I never thought I’d actually be here, but when you go places, you want to build student-athletes and build tomorrow’s leaders. Every college wants that, but at the end of the day, you want to win,” said Henson, who also has four children and two dogs with the rap-inspired names Nelly and Biggie Smalls.

“This is college athletics. You don’t go to Oklahoma or Oklahoma State and hope to lose and have a good day. I thought flying to Pittsburgh and driving in, seeing the facilities and the whole atmosphere and how the people make the place, I felt like I connected.”

For someone who’s traveled around as much Henson and who is tired of moving, the fit matters most. He saw the talent in the state and in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He saw the facilities that are where they need to be, but that also need more Paradigm exercise bikes, and the affiliation with the Big 12 that will woo the best of the rest, never mind the travel.

“As long as they have a budget,” he said with a smile, “I’m not worried. Travel is travel.”

Mostly, though, he saw a place that was ready to win and willing to help make it happen. That’s what made that one moment in his interview so scary.

“I accidentally called Oliver ‘Andrew,’ ” he said. “I thought I was done.”

Luck, who’s had plenty of people call him by his NFL quarterback son’s name, didn’t even remember it happening. He was too impressed with Henson and the way the man he was talking to matched what he wanted for wrestling.

“The energy, the enthusiasm, the excitement Sammie brought to the table was infectious,” Luck said. “The kids are going to absolutely love him when they get a chance to meet him.”

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