When I tell people I’m the wrestling coach at Duke University, the first thing they say to me is: ‘That’s great! I didn’t know Duke had a wrestling program,’ followed by, ‘So, do you know Coach K?’ ”
It was a well-delivered joke that one suspects head coach Clar Anderson has told before. As with most effective jokes, its veracity gives it punch, and the room full of former Duke wrestlers at the second annual Friends of Duke Wrestling Reunion held at the Washington Duke Inn this past winter loved it. The quip was an endearing reminder of the wrestling program they supported, but, more important, it was a window into Anderson’s world, where the pursuit of excellence in a sport that yields zero revenue and enjoys little fanfare is riddled with challenges.
As a former Duke wrestler, I can attest to the delicate mixture of humor and determination required to negotiate such challenges. Anderson’s the only person who’s ever called me Zachsimus; he even named a wrestling move “The Zachsimus.” Although I have a short list of wrestling accolades I recall fondly, knowing that Anderson, who was an NCAA National Champion at Oklahoma State University and a three-time All-American during his college career, refers to any form of wrestling technique as “The Zachsimus” ranks among my proudest achievements. It certainly beats Anderson’s favorite story about me, which involves my accidentally breaking my hand during a freshman year wrestle-off. It was embarrassing. He loves telling that one.
But much has changed in the nearly four years since I left Duke and wrestling behind, and if the program's recent upswing continues, Anderson's self-deprecating joke will soon be retired. For the first time in eighty-three years, the program had a designated All-American in Konrad Dudziak '10, who closed his collegiate career as the most-decorated wrestler in Duke's history, finishing fourth in the 2010 NCAA Wrestling Championships and second in 2009. His success, along with a strong team effort, put Duke at No. 19 in Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine's 2009 pre-season national rankings, which for Duke is, to put it lightly, unexpected. (With six starters returning to the lineup this year, the team should continue to build momentum.)
One day just a few years earlier, Coach Anderson entered the wrestling room and repeated to us a deflating conversation he had had with then-athletics director Joe Alleva. It went something like this: “The only reason I don’t drop the wrestling program is because it doesn’t cost us enough money to be worth dropping.”Anderson responded, “Well, it’s a good thing I have great self-esteem.”
Despite a lack of scholarships and a meager endowment compared with ACC foes, Duke wrestling has found success through Anderson’s spirit of “relentless abandon.” “I want my athletes to be relentless, and I want them to abandon their fears of failure,” says Anderson. His mantra has built five ACC championship teams and earned a regular-season ACC title. He’s won 2004 ACC Coach of the Year honors and the 2007 Bob Bubb Coaching Excellence Award for mentorship of student-athletes, which makes sense considering that Duke wrestling earned the highest GPA of all Division I wrestling programs in both 2007 and 2008.
The first place Anderson takes recruits on official visits? The library’s Rare Book Room. Although an unlikely recruiting destination, it speaks to the ethic of the program and the reality of the sport, which rarely provides even its most accomplished athletes a salaried livelihood. Essentially, college wrestlers crave an education—if only as a practical measure. “There is not a lot of fanfare for what you do,” says Anderson. “It’s a personal accomplishment. It’s like that person who climbs mountains or does things for time. They don’t have people cheering for them. It sort of reflects life a lot more accurately than it does for these superstars when they slam a basketball and everyone cheers. No one cheers when you get to work and hand in a report. Where are the high-fives then?”
Anderson earned his undergraduate degree at Oklahoma State University in 1985, majoring in fire protection and safety engineering. After a brief stint as an environmental hygienist implementing an asbestos-abatement program at OSU, he set his sights on joining the 1988 Olympic team. But the Olympic trials proved unfruitful, so Anderson returned home to work at his family’s plumbing company. A few years later, he decided to pursue a graduate program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “I decided that I wanted my life to reflect my values in building people, and running an asbestos-abatement business wasn’t that,” he says.
In 1997, while working as a children’s minister at an independent church, Anderson began coaching at Duke. “I got into coaching to be able to look back when I’m done and see that I’ve impacted many different people to be great and challenged them to go far beyond what I’ve ever done,” he says.
“When people ask me about my old wrestlers, I barely remember how they did on the mat. I remember the first time I met them and how they were as people.”
Anderson’s approach to building athletes has attracted an impressive support staff. This fall, Cornell’s Jordan Leen, a recent NCAA champion and three-time All-American, became a full-time assistant coach. Leen, whose alma mater was unanimously ranked first in the country in 2010 NCAA preseason polls, credits Anderson’s philosophy as a major factor in attracting him to Duke. Like Anderson, Leen appreciates the importance of developing well-rounded student-athletes who excel in the wrestling room, in the classroom, and beyond.
“You don’t have to choose one or the other, you know? And I think that’s the message” Anderson is championing, says Leen. “You can be great in a lot of different avenues. Go be great at electrical engineering and also be great in the wrestling room. Wrestling’s not going to be our life for most wrestlers, no matter how good you get.”
Konrad Dudziak, the program’s first All-American, understands the impact of Anderson’s approach. During his freshman year, no longer interested in wrestling, he chose to leave the team and began a downward spiral characterized by academic suspensions and legal trouble. “At the end of my freshman year, I had twenty-six citations in one week,” says Dudziak. “I still believe it’s a school record. I had a felony charge for larceny. I stole a golf cart. At that point I didn’t really care. I didn’t think I was going to come back to Duke. But I decided to get things together.”
Knowing that Dudziak might benefit from the structure, discipline, and mentoring available in the wrestling room, Anderson gave him another chance. “To expect people not to make mistakes is foolish and blind,” Anderson says. “That’s where we challenge them to be a better person after that issue, and, fortunately, it’s not a majority of the time.”
“I don’t think I’d be on the team anymore for any other college coach,” Dudziak told me last winter.
Anderson’s attention to his students as people, his ability to “see beyond the mat,” as a former assistant puts it, is the essence of his mantra. As successful as he was while competing, Anderson rejects the notion that athleticism should define him—or anyone. “I never used to wear wrestling T-shirts, because I never wanted to be known as a wrestler,” he says.“Everywhere I went people would say, ‘Hey, there’s that wrestler,’ and I thought to myself, ‘I’m so much more than that.’ ”
Weisberg ’07 is the founder and editor in chief of TheInertia.com, home to commentary from thoughtful surfers worldwide. He is also an editor at large for Surfer magazine and has written for The New York Times, Esquire, and O, The Oprah Magazine.