Mark Johnson, in his eighth year at Illinois, picked up his 100th career dual victory with a 37-3 decision over Marquette.
Dec. 13, 1999
It is obvious from the moment that he walks in the room. A group of 35 or so college wrestlers are leaning against the wall, getting ready for practice. Waiting on their leader to get there, the wrestlers are laughing and joking. Then he walks in. Suddenly, everyone snaps to attention. All eyes are focused on the man standing before them. The men huddle in and listen attentively. No talking, no laughing, just 35 sets of ears listening to the man speak.
This type of respect is what Illinois Wrestling Coach Mark Johnson deserves. This is the type of respect he has earned. An All-American in his college days, Johnson then was an assistant to Dan Gable at national powerhouse Iowa, where he helped the Hawkeyes take four national titles in eight years. After three years at Oregon State University, Johnson took over an Illinois program that had only had two winning seasons in the last 10 years and built it into a national powerhouse. The intensity that Johnson brought to the table as an All-American and Olympic wrestler is the same intensity that has made him one of the most respected coaches in the country.
"Mark is a superior coach for the same reasons that he was a great athlete," says Gary Abbott, Director of Communications for USA Wrestling, one of the publications that puts out the weekly wrestling rankings across the country." He's always had a strong work ethic and has a great knowledge of the sport."
Johnson made it known to everyone right away once he got to Champaign that things were going to be a lot different. The program he inherited was absolutely in the pits.
"It was about as bad as you could get," Johnson says with a slight chuckle. "It was a program that had just finished last in the Big Ten and hadn't won a Big Ten dual meet in five years. That's part of what made me want to take the job, because I knew the quality of the high school wrestling here and I knew if we got the support we could become very successful. (Athletic Director) Ron Guenther was a former wrestler, and he made things very nice for me here."
Johnson set about turning the program around really the only way possible, by changing the mindset and getting some more talented wrestlers.
"The change I made right away was a change in attitude," Johnson says, "From top to bottom in this program I wanted to make people have a perception that we were going to be successful on the national level and compete for a national championship every year. I think a lot of people thought, yeah he just saying what they all say, but I meant it. I know what I'm doing, I've been involved in national championship programs before. And then the other thing I did was to make a change in recruiting."
Indeed he did. The very first recruit Johnson visited as Illinois head coach was Ernest Benion, who would subsequently sign with Illinois and then go on to become national champion in 1995.
"We brought some good kids in right away, even though it was late in the recruiting battles," says Johnson. "We had three kids in that first class who were four-year starters for us."
Another of Johnson's early recruits was Steve Marianetti, who became a three-time All-American in the 142- & 150-pound weight classes, and won a national championship in 1995. Johnson looks on Marianetti as perhaps the wrestler he would like for all his other subjects to try and personify.
"Steve Marianetti is the guy who really got the ball rolling for us," says Johnson, "He pretty much catapulted us into the national limelight with his performance at the national championships. Ernest Benion and Eric Siebert then kind of followed in Steve's footsteps and both won national championships, also. All three guys were the same type of guys, talented wrestlers who really wanted to work. These are the three that everyone in the program now can look to. They're the three up on the wall as national champions."
So with the program having established itself, good turned into great, as Illinois has now had five consecutive top-12 finishes at the NCAA Championships, including a seventh-place finish last year, the team's highest finish in 40 years. Now, the wrestling program under Johnson at Illinois has a firm entrenchment on the national scene.
"We want to be remembered for having a nationally competitive program and doing it the right way, with good people," says Johnson.
In the Illinois Wrestling media guide, Guenther is quoted as saying, "Mark has more he wants to accomplish here. He wants to finish the job and put Illinois on top." On top, of course, would be as the national champions. And this year looks like it could be the best chance yet for Johnson and Illinois to do it.
"It's still on paper," says Johnson, "but this is probably my best team I've had. We're solid up and down the lineup, now we've just got to prove it. We've got the potential to challenge for the national championship, this is the team that can do it. There's no question that a national championship is still the one thing we want to accomplish here. I mean that's been my goal since day one, and I don't think that people around here think that's a joke anymore. If you talk to people around here and you talk to people who know the sport around the country. There's no question that people think we have a shot to compete for a national championship.
"Wrestling is a sport where if you work hard, good things are guaranteed to happen, and we have kids who have bought into that. Our leader this is year is Adam Tirapelle, and he's the hardest worker we've got. Guys like (sophomore Big 10 champion) Griff Powell have become such hard workers because of him.
Whether Tirapelle and Powell, as well as fellow All-America candidate Carl Perry, can make this the year of the Illini at the NCAA Championships remains to be seen. For now, Illini fans can only be content with the fact that their program is in good hands and will continue to be as long as Johnson is at the helm.
"The wrestling at Illinois is good and will continue to be as long as Johnson is coach, says Abbott.
"He's so intense and in your face," says Karl Roesler, a former All-American at Illinois, who is now in his first year as an assistant at Illinois. "He's going to continue to be successful and get wrestlers to come here. It's definitely an experience wrestling for him," Roesler says with a laugh.
So hopefully, this year's experiences will culminate in a Big Ten and even maybe a national championship for Johnson and his Illini. Johnson's grapplers started the year well with a third-place finish in the huge Las Vegas Invitational and demolished Marquette and Southern Illinois Dec. 11 at Huff Hall.
"We've started to prove how good we can be," says Johnson. "There's no limit as to how well we can do this year."