Popolizio and the Pack

How a coaching change and the creation of #PackMentality took NC State to new heights and gave Raleigh wrestling fever.

If a casual sports fan had wandered into William Neal Reynolds Coliseum on the campus of North Carolina State last Friday, they would have been greeted by the crowd of more than 4300 fans who were there to watch the dual meet between #3 NC State and their bitter rival, #8 UNC. They would have walked into a wall of sound coming from the Wolfpack fans and laid their eyes on a sea of red that filled seemingly every nook and cranny of the arena. The environment was exactly what you would expect in a high stakes rivalry sporting event and, if one knew nothing of wrestling or the history of NC State’s program, they would have thought that the Wolfpack was a perennial power and that crowds like this were fairly normal for wrestling matches. What they wouldn’t know is that less than a decade ago, attendance was scarce and wins were rare. They wouldn’t know that just eight years ago, the Wolfpack finished dead last in the ACC and scored a half point at the NCAA Tournament – and that half point was cause for celebration! What a casual sports fan wouldn’t know or ever assume by witnessing the record setting crowd in Reynolds Coliseum last Friday is how far the NC State Wrestling program has come in the last eight years, a turnaround that started with Debbie Yow’s decision to hire a man that would come to be known as “Skip.”

Part 1: The Skip

March of 2012 was a good month for Pat Popolizio. The Niskayuna, New York native was wrapping up his sixth year as the head coach at Binghamton University and had just led the Bearcats to a 14th place finish at the NCAA Tournament a mere five years after going winless in dual meets in 2006-07. Donnie Vinson and Nick Gwiazdowski had both earned All American honors in 2012 and had at least one year of eligibility left and both looked to be legitimate national title contenders in the very near future. It was starting to look like Binghamton could make a real run at cracking the top ten and putting multiple wrestlers in the national finals, a monumental feat for a program that had been reinstated less than a decade prior. Popolizio finally had things rolling at Binghamton and was excited to see what would come next, but little did he know that he would find himself trading Binghamton green for NC State red just a few weeks later.

More than nine hours south, the North Carolina State program was in turmoil as Carter Jordan was let go after serving as head coach of the program for eight years. The Wolfpack had struggled as a team in Jordan’s tenure, going 69-77-3 over that time. Jordan’s subpar record, coupled with team members running into off the mat issues, led recently-hired AD Debbie Yow to remove him and seek out a new head coach that would take the program in a more positive direction. Yow had just overseen the resurrection of another ACC wrestling program at Maryland and she was intent on doing the same in Raleigh, but she first needed to find the right man for the job. After just three weeks of searching, Yow found her man as Pat Popolizio signed on to become the head coach of the North Carolina State program.

Popolizio brought his no nonsense style of leadership (a style that led to his nickname “The Skip”) to Raleigh, along with assistant coaches Frank Beasley, Jamill Kelly, and Jeff Breese. They instituted a year-round zero tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol and vowed to push their student-athletes harder than they had ever been pushed both on the mat and in the classroom. Through the combined efforts of Phil Davanzo (Wolfpack alum and highly successful high school AD) and Dr Coyte Cooper (UNC professor and marketing consultant), the #PackMentality slogan and branding plan were created to help with recruiting and marketing, both of which turned out to be more successful than anyone could have imagined. Armed with a long term plan similar to the one he had succeeded with at Binghamton, a coaching staff that included the most relentless recruiter in America (Beasley) and an Olympic Silver Medalist (Kelly), a mantra that fans and athletes alike could buy in to, and an Athletic Director that fully supported the program and expected great things, Popolizio went to work.

Part 2: Gantt, Gwiz, and an Unsung Hero

With Popolizio and his staff in place, the time came to overhaul the roster and instill a new style of leadership. As is usually the case with new coaching staffs, a great deal of roster turnover took place and more than a dozen members of the team were either cut or quit by the start of the start of the 2012-13 season. There was a high level of attrition happening with the roster and Popolizio and his staff were focused on weeding out anybody that wasn’t all in on #PackMentality, even if it meant getting rid of the most successful or talented wrestlers they had. In an unexpected turn of fate, one of the young men who the previous staff had viewed as not having much talent or upside turned out to be a diamond in the rough that would help lead the culture change in Raleigh.

Tommy Gantt came to NC State from Cahokia, Illinois where he had finished as a state runner-up in his senior year and was not a huge national name. He was not viewed by Jordan’s staff as someone who had an exceptionally high ceiling and he had a very average true freshman season in 2011-12, amassing just fifteen victories during an altogether forgettable year for the Wolfpack. When Popolizio and company arrived, however, Gantt bought into their system and mindset and started to make gains as a result. The man they called “T Gantt” came to be known for his hyper-competitiveness due to his willingness to do whatever it took to succeed – even if it meant grabbing clothes and wrestling off the wall in practice. Gantt’s quiet leadership would become a staple of the program and the 157 pounder would turn out to be the only holdover from the previous coaching staff to achieve All American status. Gantt’s competitiveness and tenacity filled a leadership role that was nothing short of crucial for the Wolpack program, but he wasn’t the face of the program that they needed right away. That burden fell upon the shoulders of a young man hailing from Delanson, New York by the name of Nick Gwiazdowski.

Gwiazdowski, much like Popolizio, enjoyed a very successful postseason in March of 2012. He overcame a first round loss at the NCAA Championships and rattled off four consecutive wins to gain All American status, something rarely done by true freshman let alone those wrestling heavyweight. Gwiz, as he came to be known, would be thrown for a loop in the week following NCAA’s when Popolizio and Beasley told him that they had taken jobs at North Carolina State and would no longer be his coaches at Binghamton. Unsure of who would comprise the new staff and loyal to the men who had believed in him coming out of high school, Gwiz chose to follow Popolizio and Beasley to Raleigh after a short period of consideration. Gwiazdowski’s transfer and subsequent presence in the Wolfpack program not only gave the program a clear leader and face, it also provided much needed credibility to recruits and the wrestling community. Even though Gwiz redshirted his first year in Raleigh he made waves by dominating the open tournament circuit and showing the nation that he was ready be more than just Popolizio’s first All American at NC State; he was ready to compete for a national title. All of this was monumental for the NC State program as it continued to grow and Popolizio worked to change the culture, but the story of Gwiz and his decision to transfer isn’t complete without mentioning a phone call he made to a longtime friend who never planned to leave Ballston Spa, New York.

Billy Cook isn’t a name that is well known by the wrestling world, and that’s completely understandable. On the surface, Cook was a spot starter during Popolizio’s early days at NC State who accumulated a 7-15 career record and never had a noticeable impact on the program’s success; in reality, that could not be further from the truth. Cook was a jack of all trades for the Wolfpack – serving as a manager, de facto Director of Operations at times, team captain, director of morale, and spot starter when called upon. In a perfect summation of how willing Cook was to help the program in any way possible, he decided to get certified and step into the lineup at 197 to keep the team from having a forfeit. Keep in mind that Cook had sworn to never wrestle again after high school and was literally mopping the mats in the wrestling room when he told Frank Beasley that he was willing to step in at 197 upon learning that the Wolfpack’s alternative was a forfeit. Beasley and Cook went straight to the compliance office to figure out how they could get him certified and eligible and Cook was on the mat in an NC State singlet just a few days later. To make this story even more surreal, the only reason that Cook was even enrolled at NC State was the aforementioned phone call from his longtime friend, Nick Gwiazdowski. Gwiz called looking for advice after learning of Popolizio and Beasley’s departure from Binghamton and Cook, who was sitting in the parking lot of the NY community college in which he was enrolled, picked up and did his best to help a friend out. When Gwizadowski mentioned that he was thinking about transferring to NC State, Cook half jokingly said that he would follow suit if that’s what Nick decided to do. Gwiz pulled the trigger on going to Raleigh, asked the coaching staff to help Cook get into school, and the rest is history – albeit often untold. A kid that was coasting through community college and never planned to leave his hometown in upstate New York turned out to be an unsung hero during a program’s meteoric rise.

Part 3: More than Just Gwiz

Popolizio’s first few years in Raleigh were centered around establishing a winning culture and putting someone other than Gwiazdowski on the podium at the national tournament. Gwiz, as we all know, put together an incredible career and helped push the Pack forward in numerous ways. The big man won a pair of national titles and made a third appearance in the finals as a senior, falling to Kyle Snyder in one of the most hyped and memorable heavyweight matches of all time. Those performances at the national tournament helped put the Wolfpack on the map, but for the program to take the next step somebody else needed to step up on the big stage before Gwiz graduated, and the Pack found their man at the 2015 national tournament.

Kevin Jack came into the 2015 NCAA Tournament as an unseeded and relatively unknown true freshman who had nearly been kicked off the team just a few months prior, and left as an All American. The Danbury, Connecticut native knocked off the wrestlers seeded fourth, fifth, and 12th en route to the semifinals and an eventual fifth place finish. The biggest, “who on earth is this guy” moment for Jack took place in the quarterfinals, where he knocked off returning NCAA finalist Devin Carter 10-8. Even in a losing effort against Logan Stieber in the semifinals, Jack proved that he belonged among the nation’s elite wrestlers and gave fans a glimpse of the storm that was brewing in Raleigh. Granted, Gwiazdowski was busy winning his second consecutive national title while this was happening but Jack’s performance was arguably more important for the future of the Wolfpack program. Jack showed that it wasn’t just a one man show at NC State and that the coaching staff was recruiting and developing elite wrestlers. The Pack had started to put the country on notice that they were here to stay.

Even though the Pack had a pair of returning All Americans and a two-time champ in Gwiazdowski, nobody expected the season that they put together in 2015-16. Bolstered by the return of redshirt senior Tommy Gantt and the emergence of redshirt freshman Sean Fausz and junior Pete Renda, the Pack rattled off a 23-1 dual record that included wins over Iowa and Oklahoma State – both on the road. Popolizio and his crew had fully arrived on the national scene and traveled to New York City for the national tournament with higher expectations than ever before. The travel heavy dual season combined with a bit of nerves resulted in a relatively disappointing 11th place finish, but there was no shortage of bright spots. Pete Renda had a breakout performance to finish third, Tommy Gantt rebounded from a second round loss to earn All American honors, and the team tied the program record for the most All Americans in a season with three. Popolizio and his staff walked out of Madison Square Garden at the end of the weekend having learned a valuable lesson about peaking, knowing that Gwiz and Gantt were graduating that spring, and still looking to take another step into the elite tier of college wrestling programs.

Part 4: Magic in Cleveland, World Medals, and Raleigh is a Wrestling Town

2016-17 was another solid (but not spectacular) season for the Pack, but there were signs of great things to come if one was willing to take a deeper look. Popolizio and his staff decided to redshirt Pete Renda along with incoming freshman Hayden Hidlay, who they had pegged as the future face of the program, with the future in mind. The Pack still put together an outstanding season in a lot of ways, finishing 13-2 in duals and 17th at the national tournament for their fourth straight top 20 finish – a program first. Kevin Jack turned in his best NCAA Tournament performance in 2017, finishing third and avenging his lone loss of the tournament in the process. Along with Jack, Sean Fausz and Michael Macchiavello both had solid tournaments and finished one win shy of All American honors to wrap up a season that saw both young men make enormous strides and show that they could compete with the nation’s best. With Jack and Renda leading the way, Macchiavello and Fausz looking to continue their improvement, and a pair of freshmen with high ceilings waiting in the wings, the Pack turned their focus to 2017-18.

The Pack started the 2017-18 school year with high expectations, but the program was thrown a massive curveball in September when associate head coach Frank Beasley accepted a job as head coach at George Mason University. Not only was Beasley Popolizio’s right hand man, he was the brain and driving force behind the recruiting strategy that had brought a number of top tier recruits (Hidlay, the Bullard twins, Nick Reenan, Renda, Jack) to Raleigh and he was head coach of the Wolfpack Wrestling Club, an RTC that operates out of NC State’s room and is home to a number of their former athletes including Gwiazdowski and Gantt. Ask any member of the Wolfpack and they will tell you how surprising and, at the time, devastating the loss of Beasley was to their program. Having now seen all three of his original NC State assistant coaches move on from the program, Popolizio was forced to simultaneously find a replacement for Beasley and keep the Pack moving in the right direction. After all, the fall semester had already started and the season was just a couple of months away.

While Popolizio and the administration searched for the right man to replace Beasley, assistant coaches Adam Hall and Obe Blanc and director of operations Melissa Simmons did their best to keep things running smoothly. Blanc stepped up to run the RTC, Hall took on a heavier load with recruiting, and Simmons did more work behind the scenes than words can really describe. During her five years in Raleigh from 2014 to 2019, Simmons was regarded as the backbone of the program in a lot of ways by taking care of the vast majority of non-wrestling matters (travel, hotels, paperwork, recruiting reservations, etc). In her time as a member of the Wolfpack, Simmons unquestionably revolutionized the director of operations position and showed the nation how valuable that position could be when filled with the right individual.

After about a month of searching, Popolizio and the administration found their man and Donnie Vinson was named as the newest addition to the Wolfpack’s staff. The move brought the Binghamton graduate south from his previous job at Cornell to coach alongside his college mentor and brought what Popolizio described as “creativity and youth” to the already exciting NC State program. Vinson stepped into a program that was ready and wanting to take the next step and win a team trophy at the national tournament, and it seemed like 2017-18 could be the year that it finally happened.

The Pack rolled through the majority of the season, finishing with a 15-2 record in dual meets with their losses coming to Oklahoma State and Ohio State. Hidlay put together a perfect regular season as a redshirt freshman, Macchiavello moved up a weight and established himself as elite with a win over Kollin Moore, and the program gained international exposure when they traveled east to wrestle a dual meet in Naples, Italy. The program won the ACC dual meet title and disappointingly finished second at the ACC Tournament, but everyone remained laser focused on the end goal of bringing home a team trophy from the national tournament.

Adversity was not in short supply for the Wolfpack during the 2018 national tournament in Cleveland. Kevin Jack and Sean Fausz, both seeded fifth, lost in overtime heart breakers in Thursday night’s round of 16, Fausz injured his ankle and finished 1-2 on the weekend, and Renda lost a pair of gut wrenching bouts to finish one win shy of All American honors. This team, however, simply would not let an opportunity as special as this one slip away. Hayden Hidlay roared to the finals before suffering the first loss of his college career to Jason Nolf, Tariq Wilson became an unseeded Cinderella story en route to a third place finish while wrestling just two hours from his hometown, Kevin Jack rebounded from his loss Thursday night to become a three time All American, and Michael Macchiavello showed what blind faith and hard work can do when he knocked off Jared Haught to win an NCAA title five years after coming to Raleigh as a one time North Carolina state champion. When all of the dust had settled, NC State was tied with Michigan for fourth – tying the highest NCAA finish ever for an ACC team and earning the first team trophy in Wolfpack wrestling history. Tears were shed as the team took the stage to accept the fourth place trophy just five years after finishing 63rd at the very same event. Popolizio’s plan and vision were turning to reality, but it wasn’t finished just yet.

A large part of the long term vision at NC State has been developing wrestlers who would not only win NCAA titles, but world and Olympic titles during and after college. That part of the plan is in full swing as Nick Gwiazdowski has made three consecutive world teams and won a pair of bronze medals at the 2017 and 2018 World Championships. Both of the Hidlay brothers – Hayden and the younger, but bigger, Trent – have both made age level world teams with Trent bringing home a bronze medal from Junior World’s. Sean Fausz joined the fun when he won a silver medal at the 2018 U23 World Championships in Romania.

Not only has Raleigh been the location for some of the athletes who are training to compete at the world level – it was also the host of the 2019 World Team Trials inside of Reynolds Coliseum. For the first time ever, a major USA Wrestling event was housed on the campus of NC State and the home school and crowd proved to be outstanding hosts. States like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey are often thought of as the center of the wrestling world, but Raleigh is quickly becoming its southern headquarters.

That point brings the story full circle, back to last Friday night and those 4300+ fans packed inside of Reynolds Coliseum watching a pair of top 10 nationally ranked North Carolina schools square off – in wrestling! The community support and interest that Popolizio and his crew have built up may be the most impressive part of this entire story, and one can be sure that Reynolds will be packed and rocking all over again tomorrow night when the Pack takes on conference rival Virginia Tech in another top 10 ACC match up. Regardless of how that dual plays out, one has to admit that NC State’s rise has been incredible to watch and that Popolizio is one of the best head coaches in the business. He, along with his staff consisting of the fiery Adam Hall, the always smiling Donnie Vinson, and North Carolina’s own Timmy McCall, continue to prove that all NC State wrestling and Raleigh ever really needed was some #PackMentality.