Littered with ramen noodles, three empty cans of Red Bull and a party-sized bag of Lay’s salt and vinegar chips, John Stutzman’s desk could pass for that of a broke college student.
But Stutzman isn’t a broke college student.
He’s UB’s head wrestling coach, a job he’s held since the 2013-14 season.
Stutzman, who graduated from UB in 1998 as the program’s all-time leader in wins, embraces every part of his wrestling pedigree. If anything, it’s all he cares for. The ninth-year head coach kicks his feet up in his office, looks uncomfortable in ties and has only one request: to be on the wrestling mat for the rest of his life.
“My life is disheveled,” Stutzman jokingly told The Spectrum last week. “I’m not a nine-to-five guy, I’m a combative guy. I coach wrestling and that’s all I want to do. I can’t do anything else in life.”
Stutzman has two major concerns: winning wrestling matches and building a “family” atmosphere within his program. And in the case of UB wrestling, player-coach bonding means sharing ramen noodles and beef jerky while going on expletive-laced rants about grappling and hand-to-hand combat.
A quick stroll through Alumni Arena’s wrestling room showcases the genuine camaraderie that resides within UB’s wrestling team.
Stutzman’s office is a revolving door with wrestlers coming in and out. Whether it’s a conversation about the club’s upcoming dual meet or just a quick trip to grab a snack, there’s always something going on in Alumni Arena 66.
“We’re super close, it really is a family,” redshirt sophomore Sam Mitchell said. “There’s nowhere else I’d want to be.”
A self-identified wrestling purist, Stutzman recruits student-athletes who share his old-school mindset.
Now in his ninth season at the helm of UB’s wrestling program, Stutzman has led the Bulls to 41 dual wins over the past five seasons and won Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year in 2019.
With two decades of coaching experience, Stutzman has seen pretty much all there is to see on the mat. But no matter what new trends or techniques emerge in the sport, he remains consistent in his approach and coaching philosophy.
“My training methods will never vary. We’re gonna come in and do the same thing every day,” Stutzman said. “The best way I can put [it] is back in the ‘80s, Nebraska [football] ran the wishbone [offense]. They always wishboned, that’s me. It’s like, ‘This what we do, line up and stop it.’ I train us that way and sometimes we get stopped. But if you beat it down, if you beat it enough, then people believe in it. But you can only believe in it if you have success.”
Through a distinguished style of grappling, UB has been able to form an identity as an aggressive, old-school team under Stutzman. None of his wrestlers perform flips or float-overs, just traditional double-leg takedowns with strong fundamentals and maximum physicality.
“He’s very hard-nosed and gritty, he doesn’t like fancy wrestling stuff, he likes the basics,” graduate student John Arceri said. “He likes hard wrestling and hand fighting. He doesn’t like the flashy stuff, just the basic stuff works.”
Some might call Stutzman stubborn, but nobody can dispute that he’s been successful.
The Bulls are currently 11-6 with a 6-2 record in MAC duals, good for No. 2 in the conference.
UB set a program record by winning its sixth MAC dual of the season in a Feb. 5 comeback victory over Northern Illinois two weeks ago. Trailing 15-11 with two bouts to go, Mitchell and redshirt senior Toby Cahil were able to clinch dual-sealing victories to give the Bulls their fifth-straight dual win.
Stutzman says he saw the potential for comebacks like this in the preseason.
“In September we were doing some running workouts. And for the first time since I’ve been here in nine years, everybody was making their time runs,” Stutzman said. “They weren’t just making them, they were blowing them away. Because of those September workouts, I knew we were going to have a good year.”
But UB hasn’t always cruised to victory this season. This year’s Bulls squad faced major adversity after stumbling to a 1-3 start at the beginning of the season.
UB kicked off its season with matches against three nationally ranked teams in then-No. 23 Wisconsin, then-No. 15 Pittsburgh and then-No. 4 Michigan.
But, despite losing all three contests, the Bulls were able to hold their own against
a brutal gauntlet of opponents.
Stutzman’s decision to schedule some of the nation’s best programs was intentional. It gave UB the confidence to perform strongly in conference play, Arceri says.
“I think having those tough matches almost in a way made us believe in ourselves more,” Arceri said. “We were right there with the best teams in the country and we know we can do it with the best of them.”
Stutzman says that even though outsiders “thought the sky was falling” and friends were calling him crazy for scheduling such a difficult schedule, he knew facing quality opponents at the start of the season would work out in the long run.
“Right now, I know what good [wrestling] looks like. We go wrestle Michigan, I know what good is. That’s what we’re getting to,” Stutzman said. “So when you do those things, you’ve kind of figured out who’s good. And then you really figure out where you’re at. And even though we lost, we weren’t getting blown out.”
Now, with the season winding down, the MAC Championship push has certainly begun for the Bulls.
The Bulls have never finished first at the MAC Championships in program history. And while UB recently lost to No. 21 Central Michigan over the weekend, the Bulls still pose a legitimate threat to secure the conference’s top spot.
“You’ve gotta take it day by day, but these guys are not idiots. They know what’s at stake, you might as well talk about embracing it,” Stutzman said. “If you don’t talk about it then it doesn’t mean as much. They started talking about it three, four weeks ago, and I had to slow them down a little bit. Hopefully, we can put ourselves in a position to do something special that this program’s never done.”
While a MAC Championship would be the program’s defining moment, UB wrestling is still an entity greater than the sum of its parts.
At its core, the program is about the relationship that exists between wrestler and coach.
Stutzman is a coach so beloved that wrestlers and assistants have made customized “Stutzman 3:16” (a reference to former WWE star “Stone Cold” Steve Austin) shirts that are worn around the facility.
No matter what happens at the MAC Championships, the wrestlers and coaches say UB wrestling will remain a big, happy, sweaty, ramen and beef jerky-eating family.
“Stutz has done everything for us,” Mitchell said. “He’s brought us up when we’ve been in down places and he’s pushed us to levels we never thought we’d be able to reach. He’s the reason our team is doing as good as we are.”
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @DeCicco42 on Twitter
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine andSyracuse.com. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.