The new man in charge
Alum Stutzman looks to make mark on UB's wrestling team as new coach
When John Stutzman arrived in Chechnya, Russia, he, his wrestlers and assistant coaches were escorted from the airport by guards holding 9-millimeter guns.
They were thrown into the back of armored limousines and driven away at 150 miles per hour down the road, ensuring they wouldn't be followed. While walking down the streets of the war-torn country, they were stopped by military police and told to stay in their hotel room for their own safety - Americans weren't seen in a good light there.
Stutzman was head coach of USA Wrestling's University World Team at the Ramzan Kadirov Cup in Chechnya in 2009.
He believes the experience was worth the risk. It was a chance to coach in a country where wrestling was put on a pedestal.
"Wrestling is king [in Chechnya]," Stutzman said. "It's one of the oddest places I've ever been to. It was clearly an eye-opening experience ... I love it because over there wrestling is like our football."
Stutzman is now the head coach for Buffalo wrestling.
He's had several eye-opening experiences while coaching around the world. The excitement and fast-paced lifestyle don't faze him; in fact, it suits him perfectly. His high motor and intense personality led him to become a dominant 150-pound wrestler for the Bulls from 1995-98. Now - after guiding Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania to a 97-56-1 record over the past eight years - Stutzman returns to his alma mater using that same drive.
Wrestling isn't "just a 9-to-5 job" for Stutzman. It's his life.
Besides his wife, Anette, two daughters, Alexa Bryanna and Torin Valera, and newborn son, Paxton John, Stutzman doesn't have many interests outside of wrestling. A look around his office proves it. There are only wrestling trophies and pictures of his family.
"Besides his real marriage, I would say [Stutzman's] married to [wrestling]," said Buffalo assistant wrestling coach Bryce Hasseman. "He's constantly staying up at night thinking about it. He's constantly trying to find ways to make the program better."
Stutzman has been involved in wrestling nearly his entire life. He grew up in New Castle, Del., where the rest of his family played every sport except wrestling. Stutzman wanted to be different. Wrestling became an outlet for him.
"I was a very combative, rambunctious, an intense kind of kid," Stutzman said. "So I gravitated toward wrestling once I knew there was wrestling."
Stutzman had a storied career in his three seasons at Buffalo. It's difficult to look through the wrestling program's record book and not see his name. He graduated as the program's all-time leader in wins, with a record of 95-27, and is tied for fourth all-time in takedowns with 135.
But he always seemed destined to become a coach.
"He kind of took me under his wing and kind of showed me what it takes to be a Division I wrestler," said Charlie Voorhees, a teammate of Stutzman at Buffalo. "He has an amazing ability to be able to lead wrestlers and make a personal connection with them and figure out how they tick."
Stutzman wrestled for Niagara County Community College before transferring to UB. During his time at NCCC, he would come to Buffalo and train with the Bulls. When he walked onto UB's campus for the first time in 1993, he didn't only want to be a head coach; he wanted to run the Bulls' program in particular.
"I knew at that time I was going to be a head coach, and I knew I wanted to be a head coach at the University at Buffalo," Stutzman said. "It was always something about this place and Western New York that I knew I was going to come back. It's always been my dream and goal to get back to this university and get it to the next level."
But when Stutzman signed on as Buffalo's head coach earlier this year, he was placed in a difficult position. He was replacing his former coach and mentor.
Stutzman wrestled for former wrestling head coach Jim Beichner at UB and served as an assistant coach after graduating. Beichner gave Stutzman his first coaching experience and extra responsibilities, like running the offseason training and the free style programs.
"I was grateful that [Beichner] gave me the opportunity to stay on and kind of hone my skills a little bit," Stutzman said. "He kind of opened up my eyes on what it takes to be a college coach."
Stutzman felt better about pursuing the opening after his former coach reached out to him. Beichner called Stutzman - who was then head coach at Bloomsburg - after his firing and told him he was the best candidate for his old job.
It has been difficult at times replacing Beichner. He understands Beichner left behind a winning legacy, and not all of the wrestling alumni agreed with Athletic Director Danny White's decision to let him go.
"It's awkward sometimes because there are a lot of great alumni that loved Coach Beichner," Stutzman said. "I love Coach Beichner. Some people didn't want to see him go."
Another difficult aspect of the job for Stutzman has been rebuilding the program in his own image. Beichner served as head coach for 17 years and left a lasting impact. Stutzman wishes to leave his own stamp and that starts with bringing the same mentality his teams at Bloomsburg had.
Stutzman learned how to make a small school with limited funding successful at Bloomsburg - a school that has fewer than 10,000 undergraduate students. The wrestling team had only 3.5 scholarships to disperse. Stutzman's teams had to raise $100,000 every year just to compete. There was nothing glamorous about it. They crammed four people into a hotel room, but it was all about the wrestling.
Although UB is a larger school with more money, Stutzman wants his team to have the same mentality and focus solely on wrestling, not what comes along with it.
"It was a no-thrills program [at Bloomsburg]," Stutzman said. "But I think as wrestlers, we don't care about the limelight stuff. That's the same mentality we're bringing here. No thrills. Of course it's different. We got a bigger budget, but it's going to be the same type of mentality for what we want to accomplish here."
Stutzman also wants his team to bring energy and excitement to Alumni Arena, the same energy that he once brought to it by slamming his opponents to the mat. Stutzman will make his debut as head coach of the Bulls in Alumni Arena on Jan. 4 against Northern Iowa.
"We're going to pack the place," Stutzman said. "I want to make it a hostile environment for the other team coming in. I want to create an energy that people will want to come watch UB wrestling."
Stutzman brought the training methods he learned overseas to Buffalo. His coaching has led to opportunities to travel all over the world, including Chechnya, Armenia, Romania, Poland and South Korea. He coached the New York Athletic Club at the USA Olympic Free Style Trials and served as head coach of USA Wrestling's University World Team, which he coached in the Ramzan Kadirov Cup in Chechnya in 2009.
An additional challenge he faces is bringing the team together - Stutzman has to mix wrestlers who were with the Bulls last season, new wrestlers who transferred from Bloomsburg and a class of freshmen he did not recruit.
The freshmen are players Beichner recruited. Stutzman can relate to the wrestlers' transition to a new coach, though, as he had to do it himself when he was a student-athlete.
Stutzman was recruited to transfer to UB from NCCC by then-Bulls head coach Charlie Cheney. But by the time Stutzman arrived in Buffalo, Cheney had been fired and replaced by Beichner.
"What these guys are right now is where I was," Stutzman said. "I know I've got to earn their trust. These weren't my guys when I got here, but they're my guys now. They're buying in and understanding what I want."
Stutzman was described as a "workout guy" by his teammates during his time at Buffalo. Even if the team did not have a second training session on a particular day, Stutzman did.
He expects the same effort and drive out of his wrestlers. Stutzman's training regimen for his team includes practices at 6 a.m. several times a week, where he is known to be vocal even in the early hours of the morning.
"There's never a time in practice where we're not going hard or breathing hard," said junior wrestler Wally Maziarz. "Everything is high pace and high energy and that's what he's all about."
Freshman wrestler Mike Silvis describes Stutzman as "hardcore." Because of his coaching style, Stutzman has made sure to hire the right type of assistant coaches at every job he has had. He believes he needs assistants who can offset his intense personality.
The wrestling team won just one dual meet last season and lost several of its best wrestlers from last season due to graduation or transfer. The Bulls will return only 10 wrestlers from last year, and over half of team are freshmen (13 of 23). Stutzman knows his team is far from being a contender in the Mid-American Conference this season, but he believes he has a blueprint to turn his alma mater around.
He has reached out to wrestling alumni to get them excited about the team again. He's also gone out in the community and held wrestling camps and clinics with local coaches. Above all, however, he believes the turnaround will start by recruiting the right type of wrestlers.
Stutzman wants wrestlers who are similar to himself: dedicated. He wants kids who only want to wrestle and go to school. He wants kids who love to wrestle and believe a program will have problems when it recruits kids who don't love to wrestle. Stutzman believes he's brought in those types of wrestlers with the team's recently signed recruits for next season.
The team's potential success is constantly on his mind. He doesn't even get peace during sleep. He lies awake in bed at night as thoughts of how to turn around the program and make his wrestlers successful rattle his mind.
"I don't sleep at night trying to figuring out how to make Max Soria a national champion," Stutzman said. "I don't sleep at night when I'm thinking about getting Justin Farmer to the national tournament."
Stutzman's first experience coaching the Bulls came Nov. 9 at the Oklahoma Gold Invitational. The Bulls finished fourth out of six teams in the tournament. He understands making this team successful will be a process, but believes the team could have performed better.
Stutzman knows this season will most likely be a rebuilding year. But he knows if his team struggles, it won't be due to a lack of effort. He won't allow it.
A losing season won't deteriorate his drive. He is relaxed and confident when talking about reviving the program. He often leans back in his chair and puts his feet on his desk as he speaks in his office.
"I'm lucky enough to sit in this desk and work here and kind of help guide it," Stutzman said. "When you watch our guys wrestle, you're going to know the difference. And I'm not saying it's going to happen this year. It's going to take some time. It's going to be fun to watch, and I want people on board and having fun and letting the fur fly."
The challenge doesn't faze him. For a man who's been all over the world, a challenge that's closer to home is welcomed.
He has dominated on the mat for the Bulls. Now he will try to dominate off it.