When Bob Kopnisky took over the Missouri wrestling program in 1974, he was greeted by 10 athletes of minimal experience, none of whom had placed in the top four in the Big Eight.
When the NCAA Wrestling Championships open tomorrow at Cole Field House, Missouri's eight-man contingent will be one of the largest, and the Tiger's 44-point, fourth-place showing in the rassle-happy Big Eight enables Kopnisky to celebrate a most prideful homecoming.
As a 158-pounder in 1965, Kopnisky carried Maryland's colors to an NCAA championship in Laramie, Wyo. It fulfilled one cherished goal, and tomorrow he will fulfill another.
"It feels real good to come back here like this," Kopnisky said. "As an undergrad, I always dreamed of coaching a major college team. Now I'm back with a team I'm proud of, and one that hopefully will do a good job this week."
It has not been easy, building a team from that rock-bottom beginning. Two wrestlers quit after Kopnisky assumed command. A third left at the midpoint of that first season. His initial recruiting crop assured that there would be no weight-class forfeits. It did not assure a winning season and the Tigers finished 5-6. Since that low point, however, they have successively closed at 10-3, 12-3 and 14- [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
"At first, the kids just didn't realize the work I required," Kopnisky said. "But there's only one way to get something done, and that's through hard work. My having been through it and won has helped me convince them.
"When I say something, they accept it. I don't have to get out with a whip. If I ask a kid to pull weight, he does it. He knows I've experienced it. A coach who hasn't been through it may find a kid rebelling, saying, 'You don't know what it's like.
When Kopnisky talks about "pulling weight," he speaks from experience. His normal weight as a Maryland senior was 175, yet he wrestled at 147 in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships.
"I had thought about wrestling at 147 in the nationals," Kopnisky said, "but I changed my mind after the ACC. I could function well at 150 or 152, but I couldn't function at 147. I didn't feel good. I didn't feel strong. I actually weighed only 155 for the national final."
After graduation in 1965, Kopnisky assisted Maryland Coach Sully Drouse for a year while studying for a master's degree, then spent a year at Plattsburgh (N.Y.) State. In 1967, he became an assistant to Ed Peery at Navy and helped build a potent machine that won Eastern titles in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972 and 1974. Significantly, Navy has not lost a dual meet to Maryland since 1965. In 1970, Kopnisky sat, fidgeting and looking somewhat embarrassed, as the Mids blanked the Terrapins, 34-0.
"My going to Navy created some hard feelings with Sully," Kopnisky said. "For a long time he was kind of bitter. But they were willing to hire me, and it gave me a chance to work with an excellent coach, and it put food on my table."
Kopnisky is realistic about the intense competition he faces in the Big Eight, but he is optimistic about continuous improvement. Last year Missouri sent six men to the NCAA, mostly fourth-placers in the Big Eight meet. This time Kopnisky brought along one runner-up, six third-place men and one fourth-placer.
"We have four or five who on a given day can place in the nationals," Kopnisky said. "Recruiting is tough. The hardest thing is to counteract what the other Big Eight schools have to offer. With only 11 scholarships, though, they can't recruit everybody.