Oct. 14, 2014

By Garth Gartrell
Contributor to

The Ohio State football team once was known as the graveyard of coaches. Despite sitting in football mad Ohio, no coach until Woody Hayes could sustain enough success to remain for long as a Buckeye head coach.

The same cannot be said for wrestling. Ohio is one of the preeminent high school wrestling states in the country, but with little Ohio State success prior to the arrival of current Buckeye coach Tom Ryan, only four coaches have held that job for over 50 years.

In his eight years, Ryan has coached seven NCAA individual champions and several more runners-up (including, 2014 national runner-up Nick Heflin). His 2008 and 2009 squads were NCAA runners-up and many count Ohio State as a strong contender for the 2015 crown. The Buckeyes return many strong veterans, including several talented redshirts, and await the participation of an elite freshman class.

It does not take long to realize Tom Ryan is an intense individual. Pious, intense, self-effacing and humorous, he shakes your hand and peers at you with an obvious interest in whatever it might be you are about to tell him. If you try to avoid disturbing him with a text at 1 a.m. by emailing him instead, you might be surprised to get an email back right back, especially if it is about Ohio State wrestling. If you express surprise in his rapid response in the middle of the night, he might well respond “there is no time to rest reaching for greatness.” 

Jim Humphrey was an Ohio State wrestling great in the early 70s who went on to become a world silver medalist. Jim has known up close the four Ohio State wrestling coaches in 50 years and reflects on the unique success of Coach Ryan; “I think more than anything, he treats the job as a CEO might. He pays close attention to all aspects of his team, fundraising, marketing, messaging and facilities. He has hired an outstanding coaching staff and lets them do their jobs. He watches over the kids, attends to their needs and overall success as persons, and he is always thinking ahead—looking for the things that can make a meaningful difference to the program.”

“From the first day Tom took the reins as head coach, he has articulated a vision for building a championship wrestling program,” said TJ Shelton, Associate AD for Sport Administration at Ohio State.   “He immediately connected to former Ohio State coaches and honored them for the groundwork they laid before him. He embraced the high school and youth coaches throughout Ohio and encouraged them to be a part of what he was building. Tom has surrounded himself with outstanding coaches who share his passion and vision for program.”

In more recent projects, Ryan is focused like a laser in building a state of the art wrestling facility and hosting the largest NCAA dual meet in history this coming January. Every year, Ryan innovatively holds certain home meets at distinguished Ohio wrestling high schools. He has invited the inspirational Ammon Butcher onto his staff to develop a program for his athletes that can best be described as a “character development program.”  Butcher is an Ohio State graduate accounting student who lost the use of his arms and legs in a freak high school wrestling accident.

“Tom’s passion for the sport of wrestling is unmatched,” said Shelton. “A developer of young men, Tom cares about the student-athletes in his program well beyond what they do on the mat. He is a family man, but that family extends beyond his immediate family and includes anyone that crosses his path. He knows no stranger.” 

The arc of Ryan’s current life in wrestling can be said to start and end with two of the most iconic figures in the sport: Dan Gable, the most revered person in USA wrestling, both as a competitor and coach, and Logan Stieber, current Ohio State senior who this year will attempt to become only the fourth person in history to win four NCAA titles.

Tom Ryan is a compelling mix of talent, disappointment, drive, inspiration and achievement. The Long Island, New York native left his brother and a full wrestling scholarship after two seasons  at Syracuse (where he was a conference champion) to drive across the country and walk on, unknown and unrecruited, to famed Gable’s Iowa Hawkeyes. Let that sink fully. Gable hardly noticed him for the better part of a year, but Ryan eventually won enough respect to earn a “few hundred dollars” in scholarship money. Ryan went on to become an NCAA runner-up, giving a late takedown to Pat Smith, who went on to become the first four time NCAA champion.

“That match was the most mentally and physically draining match of my career as a coach” remembers Gable. “I talked to both young men later. Pat Smith told me, ‘I had tried everything and I just could not get to him. I remember there were about 20 seconds left and I figured I had time for one more try, so I went in for a takedown. As I did I looked at his eyes and I saw that by coincidence he was looking at the clock and just did not see me in time.’”

“Dumb,” said Ryan. “I was thinking I had the national championship and was just counting the seconds until the match was over.”

Gable also suggests another trait that in Ryan’s youth complemented his drive for achievement, but in his maturity brings out the CEO like attention to a vast number of projects. “Tom was one of those guys, that if he did not have drama in his life, he would figure out how to add it. Usually that is destructive, but sometimes that is part of the formula that makes one get up in the morning and push himself. I think the latter was the case with Tom,” explains Gable.

It is probably also one of those things that help him connect with his young wrestlers. You only have to follow his Twitter comments (@buckeye158) to witness his frequent and attentive interaction with his wrestlers—whether driving long hours with Stieber to an event, going to the baptism of another, leading his charges in some sort of physical feat like a long cycling ride or witnessing the motivational speeches of a wrestler’s family member. And he is not shy about pounding out comments of commitment to achievement. “It’s all a bit crazy,” Stieber adds affectionately. “But it’s a very good crazy and he will do anything to help us succeed. He really cares about our lives outside of wrestling.”

It is hard to speak of this next part for obvious reasons, but in the middle of this arc is an immense tragedy that cannot help but be part of the fabric of the man. While coaching at Hofstra, Tom Ryan and his wife Lynette lost their spirited five-year-old son Teague to an abnormal heart condition. Jeff Stieber, father of Logan and equally talented teammate Hunter, can hardly hold back his own tears as he recounts the action of Tom Ryan picking up his young son and running out the door of their house in an attempt to meet the emergency squad just that bit earlier. Ryan, who is no stranger to motivational talks, does not shy away from his heartbreak as he explains how he has dealt with the consequences and meaning to be taken from even the most severe and never ending pain.

Coach Ryan has managed to pull together an amazing group of talented wrestlers, culminating this year in a team that could well bring Ohio State a national championship. While the Buckeye football coaching and wrestling success/longevity profiles may not be the same, the one thing that parents felt about Woody Hayes is also true of Tom Ryan. As Jeff Stieber put it “we knew Tom would take care of our boys.”