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|DOUBLE DUTY: World Team men's freestyle coach Duroe brings wealth of experience to Cornell College|
By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
When the wrestling coaching position came open last year at Cornell College, Mike Duroe initially never really gave it much thought.
Until his next-door neighbor came knocking.
When your neighbor is Dan Gable, you tend to listen.
Gable encouraged his close friend to consider taking the position and Duroe ultimately was glad he did.
The 50-year-old Duroe, who will coach the United States men's freestyle team at the World Championships this September for the second straight year, was encouraged by the progress his Cornell team made during the 2005-06 season.
Duroe led the NCAA Division III Rams to a school-record 15 dual victories and coached the school's first All-American in five years during his first campaign in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Last week, Duroe shed the interim head coach label and was named Cornell's full-time wrestling coach.
"I'm very excited about the future of this program," Duroe said. "My goal the first year was to get those guys believing in themselves and get them better technically. We accomplished both of those goals."
Duroe brings a tremendous amount of experience coaching at the highest levels of international wrestling to his new assignment at a small college in Iowa.
While busy with recruiting and numerous other duties at Cornell, Duroe has kept close tabs on the progress of the U.S. freestyle team. The team worked out for three days between sessions of the NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City.
Duroe ran one practice while National Freestyle Coach Kevin Jackson and Freestyle Resident Coach Terry Brands ran the other two. The coaches worked closely together with the dozens of top athletes training at these popular workouts.
Those coaches will lead the U.S. freestyle team into the World Championships in Guangzhou, China, on Sept. 26-Oct. 2.
"I'm really excited about this team," Duroe said. "These guys are very hungry and very motivated to do well in China. I think we have a chance to do very well over there."
Team USA is coming off an eighth-place finish in freestyle at the 2005 World Championships, bringing home only two medals. Joe Williams (74 kg/163 lbs.) and Tolly Thompson (120 kg/264.5 lbs.) each won bronze medals in Budapest.
"Eighth place is unacceptable for our coaches, our athletes and the USA in general," Duroe said. "We had a heart-to-heart talk with the World Team guys about what it was going to take for us to move up and get back to where we should be."
Duroe said he was encouraged by the performance by the Americans at a recent tournament in Uzbekistan. 2000 Olympic silver medalist Sammie Henson (55 kg/121 lbs.) beat an Olympic champion and World champion in that meet. Henson, 35, is wrestling well as are fellow 30-somethings in Williams and Thompson.
"It's encouraging to see guys like that still competing and having success," Duroe said. "A lot of our top guys are getting out too early. We need to keep our top guys in the sport longer. And make it more worthwhile for them to keep competing when they are still good enough to be winning medals on the World and Olympic levels."
Duroe said he talked with Cornell officials last fall about the coaching vacancy on the day before he left for the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.
"They talked to me for three or four hours the day before I left," he said. "I told them if they could find a good coach when I was gone to hire him. They didn't find one when I was gone, so I became the interim coach."
Once Duroe returned to the States, he then scrambled with a short window of time to prepare his new team at Cornell for the collegiate season.
"We made good progress considering when I got there we only had 4½ weeks to get ready for our first dual against Simpson," he said. "Simpson was ranked in the top 20 and we beat them in a close match, so that was encouraging. Then we wrestled another nationally ranked team, Augustana, and it came down to the last match and we lost by one point. That was pretty exciting, to start the season like that."
The Rams finished eighth in the rugged Iowa Conference meet and qualified two wrestlers for nationals.
"The Iowa Conference is a son of a gun and it's unbelievably competitive," Duroe said. "You have established programs like Wartburg, Luther and Loras that are top five programs nationally. Our conference tournament is like a mini-NCAA tournament. We got clobbered a little bit, but we're young and we have to learn from that experience."
Cornell sophomore 125-pounder Chris Heilman became the school's first All-American since 2001 when placed seventh at the NCAA Division III meet in early March.
"Coach Duroe came in here and took charge - he had an immediate impact," Heilman said. "He definitely knows what he's talking about. He really helped me with my technique as far as finishing my shots and getting out from on bottom. He also has helped me tremendously with the mental aspect of the sport and taught me to believe in myself.
"We're really excited about the direction he has this program headed. I think he's a great coach."
Duroe, a native of Charles City, Iowa, compiled a 82-27 record at Northern Michigan from 1980-85. He then spent two years running the Northwestern Wildcat Wrestling Club before coaching at New Trier (Ill.) High School from 1986-98.
Duroe was the Freestyle Developmental Coach and Freestyle Resident Coach for USA Wrestling from 1998-2001. One of his assignments at the time was the women's freestyle program, and the U.S. women's team won the World title under his guidance in 1999.
Duroe served as the head assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania from 2001-03. He has been the head coach of the Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling Club since 2003.
Cornell has a very young team with 20 wrestlers - eight sophomores and 12 freshmen - from this year's final roster expected to return.
"We would like to build our numbers to 30-35 kids in the room to establish some depth and provide more competition in the room," Duroe said. "We're working very hard in recruiting to attract some more talent. To be a consistent contender you have to get kids you can develop."
The Rams graduated just two seniors and had no juniors on the 2005-06 squad.
"We're thrilled that Coach Duroe is staying at Cornell," Cornell Athletic Director Tina Hill said. "He has been a terrific role model for our student-athletes and a tremendous asset for our athletic program. With his leadership we see great things on the horizon for our wrestling program."
Wrestling competitively outside the college season will be a priority in the coming months.
"You will see Cornell kids wrestling in some of our national events," Duroe said. "We have kids aspiring to go to University Nationals. That's great because going to tournaments like that is a real essential part of taking this program to another level."
Duroe admits trying to lure recruits to a Division III school, where athletic scholarships are not permitted, can be challenging. So is trying to persuade a young man to go to school in a rural college town of just under 4,000 residents.
Gaining admission to Cornell, a top academic school, also is more difficult than gaining entry to other DIII institutions. Cornell offers a unique one-course-at-a-time curriculum. It's the only school in the country that offers wrestling and also operates with that form of study.
"Cornell is a great academic school and a very unique school with a lot to offer," Duroe said. "Recruiting in Division III is crazy. We're talking to some really, really good kids, but then we've already lost some of those to Division I schools. Plus we're talking to some of the same kids that Wartburg is. We have to play the waiting game a little bit because we have to wait and see how Division I signings go."
Wartburg College is the current king of Division III wrestling and is in the same state and same conference as Cornell. The Knights won the national title this year.
"(Wartburg coach) Jim Miller has set the gold standard in Division III wrestling," Duroe said. "They've been on top for a while now and there's no sign of letting up."
Gable, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist who coached Iowa to 15 NCAA titles and 21 Big Ten titles in 21 years with the Hawkeyes, has been a fixture at Cornell home meets. Duroe lives across the street from Gable in Iowa City.
During the Cornell-Coe dual this past season, Gable was there to support Duroe along with Olympic bronze medalist Lincoln McIlravy, former Iowa NCAA champion Mark Ironside and current Hawkeye Matt Fields.
"Dan and I are great friends," Duroe said. "He's just a tremendous resource for me - he's been unbelievable. I bounce a lot of ideas off him. He kind of nudged me to look at Cornell, and he thought it would be a good challenge for me. It's been a great experience so far. We've got a long way to go, but I've got a lot of energy and a lot of fire in me."