There was actually a time when being public enemy No. 1 in Harford County wrestling gyms bothered Gary Siler.
Now, the Harford Tech coach accepts the attention as the sincerest form of flattery.
"When we were at the bottom, people were making fun of us. But now, we're on top and everybody wants to be us," Siler said. "I've always said that when you're at the top, you're under the microscope. When you're at the bottom, nobody cares."
Almost everybody seems to care or have an opinion about the Cobras these days.
In 1988, Siler took over a program with no tradition, a pared-down schedule and barely enough wrestlers to spread the mats before practice. Before Siler arrived, other schools could send their JV squads to face the Harford Tech varsity - and win.
Those days are long over.
Ranked sixth in the metro area, the Cobras are the favorite to win their fourth county championship in five years when the tournament starts Tuesday at C. Milton Wright.
The turnaround has given the small Bel Air school, not known for its athletics, a large dose of attention, but not all of it has been positive.
Some complain that being a technical school is a huge advantage, because Harford Tech draws from all over the county. Others are turned off by the bravado of the Cobras and their coach.
Harford Tech's wrestlers carry themselves as if they own the mat and their opponents. Their coach has wild hair and a disheveled appearance that often contrast the neat profiles of opposing coaches.
Then there are the allegations that the Tech coaching staff recruits.
"I think people are always trying to come up with reasons to tear you down," said junior Mike Taylor, who went to the school because of wrestling and an interest in computer programming. "There's always something, and none of it's true."
Said Fallston coach Andy Amasia: "They have to do some sort of recruiting to get students in their school, but if they went and recruited strictly for athletes, I think that's unfair. I'm not going to definitely say it's happening, but I don't know it's not happening, either."
Siler's response: "It's like the old baseball adage, 'If you build it, they will come.' We've built it up to a certain level where it's lucrative for people who want to wrestle here, and they do have other means of coming here. People are knocking down our doors to get in."
His Cobras offered no apologies for their cockiness, either.
"We love to be the best," senior Ben Sills said. "A lot of county teams hate us because of how we carry ourselves, but that's why we are the best."
Siler rattled off the names of seven wrestlers - Mike Long (103 pounds), fifth-ranked Eric King (112), second-ranked Mike Taylor (119), fifth-ranked Sills (125), sixth-ranked Brad Dreyer (135), sixth-ranked Josh Taylor (140) and Joe Knight (171) - who have legitimate shots to win a triple crown: county, regional and state titles in the same season.
Priming for this part of the season since November, the Cobras, eyeing a Class 2A-1A state title, went 11-2 over an ambitious portion of their schedule, including close matches against No. 3 Boys' Latin, No. 4 River Hill (both losses) and No. 11 Eastern Tech (a victory). They also showed well at three highly competitive tournaments.
"We want to make a dynasty here," Mike Taylor said.
For Siler, who teaches masonry at the school, that would mean following in the footsteps of his idol, retired Aberdeen coach Dick Slutzky, who led the Eagles to three state and 19 county titles, including 13 straight at one point.
With no prior coaching experience, Siler, who wrestled at Bel Air High and in an Army recreation program, attended camps and clinics and often sought the advice of Slutzky. However, nothing could have prepared him for the first couple of years, when the Cobras took their lumps. Siler said they've been in payback mode ever since.
"I'll never forget what I went through here," said Siler, whose program got a boost when Harford Tech added a freshman class to what had been a 10th-through-12th-grade school before 1992.
His team members say Siler and three-year assistant Mike Mazza, an accomplished wrestler at Lock Haven (Pa.) University, are the reasons for the program's turnaround.
"When Mr. Siler got here, people got serious about wrestling," Dreyer said. "He pushes our buttons, but he's the first to step up if someone has something to say about us."
And plenty is said about the Cobras. Some argue that Mazza's role as a volunteer with the Harford Grapplers club program, where many of the Cobras wrestle, gives the team an unfair recruiting advantage.
Mazza, recognized as the state's top assistant last year by the Maryland Wrestling Coaches Association, dismissed the theory, saying he also helps wrestlers from other county schools.
For detractors, the topper was the arrival of Sills, a senior who transferred from Archbishop Curley in September, leaving coaches wondering how a student can fulfill the school's technical requirements in one year.
Sills was allowed in because he had four years of foreign language credits, considered a tradeoff with the school's technical requirements.
One of Siler's county competitors, Bel Air coach Craig Reddish, expressed only respect for the Cobras' program. He cited Siler's influence, many of the Cobras' commitment to wrestling year-round and the improvements made in the school and its facilities.
"Winning is contagious and when they started winning, they started drawing better kids," Reddish said.
Siler laughs at all the theories to explain his team's recent dominance. Walking into a Fallston-Bel Air wrestling match earlier this season, Siler got a "tingle" when the crowd got quiet and stared at him.
"As long as you're on the top, they'll find any reason to point fingers at you and say you're cheating, but the proof is in how we wrestle," Siler said, "and the results are there."