Coaching a labor of love for wrestling assistants

by Allison Younge

For many people, a normal day of work involves punching in at a time clock for an eight-hour shift, complete with programmed coffee breaks and random trips to the water cooler.
For Minnesota’s three assistant wrestling coaches, Marty Morgan, Joe Russell and Mark Schwab, a normal work day begins before 7 a.m., a training stop watch replaces the time clock and scheduled recess occurs in the humid confines of the Gophers’ practice room. Twelve-hour work days are typical for Minnesota’s assistant coaches, but they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Marty laughs about it all the time. He says, I can’t believe that people are paying me to do this,'” Gophers head coach J Robinson said. “That’s the key — when you find something that you like doing, you don’t go to work.”
A similar attitude is apparent throughout the Gophers coaching staff. Working to build Minnesota’s wrestling program into a national powerhouse requires dedication from every vantage point. While 10 wrestlers have the opportunity to display their focus on the mat during their matches, the masterminds of the program line the Gophers bench in suits and ties.
With their energy directed toward present and future teams, the Gophers’ assistants are directly related to Minnesota’s success.
“All of it is linked to what they do,” senior Jason Davids said. “They are there all the time. Their commitment to us is the same as our commitment to the team — it’s 100 percent. It’s their job, and they’re all very good at it.”
Throughout his 12 seasons at Minnesota, Robinson’s counterparts have emerged. Entering the program at different times through different avenues, Morgan, Russell and Schwab hold unique credentials.
Morgan, Robinson’s top assistant and head recruiter, grew up a part of the Minnesota wrestling scene. A graduate of Bloomington-Kennedy High School, Morgan began his college career at North Dakota State University, where he won a NCAA Division II title as a true freshman.
After transferring to Minnesota as a sophomore, he went on to become a three-time All-American and two-time NCAA tournament finalist wrestling at 177 pounds. As a senior in 1991, Morgan became Robinson’s first national champion at Minnesota following a perfect 39-0 season.
Since then, Morgan has become a fixture in the Gophers program. Well known among wrestling community, Morgan has successfully landed numerous top-notch recruits in and out of state.
“Our work ethics are the same,” Robinson said. “He came through the system, he won with the system, he knows that it works and he believes in it.”
In his fourth year as assistant coach, Russell, a native of Greshman, Ore., considers himself a Minnesotan. Following a stellar prep career in which he claimed several youth national titles, he visited Minnesota on a sunny April day and liked what he saw.
“They told me it was always nice and warm in Minnesota,” Russell said. “Being from Oregon, I knew that if it was cold you must be at the top of a mountain. If you wanted to be warm, you’d drive to the bottom of the mountain. I got here and I didn’t see any mountains around, so I figured it couldn’t be that cold in Minnesota. They tricked me into coming here, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Russell and Morgan wrestled together for three years with the Gophers before joining Minnesota’s coaching ranks. After serving as a captain during his senior season, Russell was named to the All-Big Ten Academic Team. He earned his four-year degree and went on to complete law school at Minnesota. Robinson looks at Russell’s wrestling and law credentials as assets to the Gophers’ program.
“The way I look at it, I’m probably the only coach who needs a lawyer on his staff to take care of him,” Robinson joked. “He keeps me in check. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Schwab, the newest member of the Gophers coaching staff, was a four-time Iowa high school state champion and two-time All-American wrestling at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. He joined the Gophers three years ago as a volunteer assistant coach and was promoted a year later to full-time assistant alongside Morgan and Russell.
Although hailing from Minnesota’s rival wrestling state, Schwab fits well into the Gophers program — setting the pace for enthusiasm in and out of the practice room.
“He personifies intensity and hard work and transfers that to the kids,” Robinson said. “They see how totally committed he is — it’s his life, he lives it.”
Specializing in the weight range in which they competed in college (Morgan leading the heavier weights, Russell the middle weights and Schwab the lighter weights) allows the coaches to offer wrestlers the individual training attention necessary for improvement.
This weekend, at the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers will work to grasp the next rung of achievement. After a second-place finish at last year’s conference tournament, a title is the Gophers’ only remaining challenge. While more long days and sleepless nights are sure to be in store, Minnesota’s three assistants welcome the added workload.
“Wrestling is in my blood, and I can’t get it out. I absolutely love it,” Russell said. “We come to work at 6:45 in the morning, but we sit here and play all day. To me, it’s just a blast.”