Many in the collegiate wrestling world were surprised when Cary Kolat left a comfortable position as an assistant at perennial Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse North Carolina to become head coach at Campbell.
Campbell had no wrestling history to speak of and had just been hit with a one-year postseason ban.
Kolat rebuilt the Campbell program pretty much from scratch and led it to unprecedented heights. The Camels captured three Southern Conference Tournament championships and sent a total of 19 competitors to the NCAA Championships during his six-year tenure.
This past season, Campbell was ranked as high as No. 12 by InterMat after posting an 11-2 dual meet record and securing its second straight Southern Conference regular season championship with a 7-0 mark.
Kolat was named Southern Conference Coach of the Year for the second time after a program-record six wrestlers qualified for the NCAA Championship meet. Campbell’s remarkable success under Kolat prompted the school’s athletic department to pump money and resources into the program, renovating the wrestling facility at John W. Pope Jr. Convocation Center to the tune of $2 million.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy to take the Campbell job. Nobody else wanted it,” Kolat told The Capital in a telephone interview last week. “I looked at Campbell and thought I could build a solid program there. My goal was to establish Campbell as a wrestling school, and I took that as a challenge.”
Having succeeded in that mission, Kolat sought out the next challenge for his coaching career and that desire led him to the United States Naval Academy.
On March 20, athletic director Chet Gladchuk announced Kolat had been hired as the eighth head coach in Navy wrestling history. He replaced Joel Sharratt, who was fired exactly one week earlier after six years at the helm.
Many within the sport figured Kolat would parlay his success at Campbell into a more attractive job at an established top 25 program. Navy boasts a proud program with tremendous history but has not been a consistent national player of late.
“I felt it was time to look at new opportunities and I’ve always been impressed with the Naval Academy,” Kolat said. “There is no doubt in my mind we can build something special at Navy.”
Kolat almost accepted an assistant’s position at Navy under head coach Bruce Burnett in 2000. Kolat was a member of the United States national team from 1991 through 2002 and Burnett served as head coach for most of that time.
Kolat had just finished ninth at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia when Burnett sought to hire him. The three-time World Cup gold medalist turned down the job back then but has kept Navy in the back of his mind ever since.
When the head coaching job in Annapolis opened, Kolat immediately contacted Burnett for advice.
“Bruce was one of my coaches when I competed and now is one of those mentors you go to when you want to navigate an issue,” Kolat said. “I had a lot of questions and we discussed all aspects of Navy wrestling. We talked about the history of the program and what it is capable of accomplishing."
Burnett’s message to Kolat was simple: Navy can excel at wrestling with the right leadership.
“Bruce felt like I was the right fit, and after talking to him I felt like I was the right fit as well,” Kolat said.
“Navy recruits itself”
Kolat sees a dramatic shift in the overall paradigm of college wrestling. The Big Ten Conference is always going to be the dominant player. Nine Big Ten schools were ranked in the final dual meet top 25 by InterMat.
Standing second on the list of power conferences is the Big 12, which had five schools ranked to close out the 2019-20 campaign. However, Kolat has seen the Atlantic Coast Conference improve from top to bottom because schools such as Duke, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech have committed to the sport the way North Carolina and North Carolina State always have.
Navy competes in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association, which has long been dominated by Lehigh. However, Cornell and Princeton have become perennial contenders in the EIWA, which had four ranked schools this past season. Among those was Army West Point, which finished No. 13 in the InterMat poll.
“You’ve seen good wrestlers start to consider education and what it can do for you later in life. At Navy, I can offer recruits the No. 1 public school education in the country,” Kolat said. “Navy recruits itself. It offers student athletes opportunities other places can’t, like a free education and a guaranteed job after graduation. I’ve got something really big to sell to recruits.”
Kolat came to Annapolis and spent almost two full days meeting with Gladchuk, evaluating the wrestling facilities and touring the academy grounds. He engaged in lengthy, spirited discussions with the athletic director about his plans for the program and was satisfied by the response.
“Chet is a big part of this. You always want to be comfortable with the people you work with. Personally, I wanted to make sure I was sitting in front of someone genuine," Kolat said. "I got to spend the better part of 24 hours with Chet. I came away knowing this was a guy I wanted to work for because he wants to win.”
Former Arundel High standout Brandon Agamennone has published a book titled Pitching Prodigy: Unleashing Greatness on the Mound. The Crofton native, who is now a scout with the Boston Red Sox, enjoyed an eight-year professional career.
Kolat was asked if Gladchuk outlined various expectations for Navy wrestling, any aspirational goals. Topping the list was turning the tide of the dual meet series with archrival Army, which has won five of the last six meetings between the service academies.
Navy leads the overall series 49-10-5 but half those losses have come since 2015. Army, under the direction of sixth-year head coach Kevin Ward, has won four straight for the first time in series history.
“Beating Army was No. 1. That’s no secret. That is how it’s always laid out for every athletic program at Navy,” Kolat said. “Chet wants to see Navy beat Army each and every year. He wants to see the program return to the top 20, then the top 10. He wants to see guys on top of the medal stand. I think you can do all that at the Naval Academy.”
Kolat offered praise for Sharratt, who led Navy to a 43-24 dual meet record and developed four EIWA individual champions during his six-year tenure. The Midshipmen sent five or more wrestlers to the NCAA Tournament in four of those six seasons.
“I think Joel’s a great coach and I’m not going to speak to the state of the program because I wasn’t there,” Kolat said. “I’m still assessing everything involved with the program. I’m getting to know my wrestlers. I’m looking forward to figuring out ways we can improve.”
Navy has not captured the team title at the EIWA Championships since 1990. The Midshipmen were runner-up in 2013, but that was the only time they finished higher than fifth between 2009 and 2020.
“Every accomplishment is a step in the right direction. We will celebrate every victory then move on,” Kolat said. “If we haven’t won EIWA in a while, then that’s something to get done.”
Hiring Staff, Building Relationships
Kolat announced his coaching staff earlier this week and is bringing two trusted assistants from Campbell. Mike Evans was a three-time All-American in the 174-pound weight class at Iowa, compiling a 107-27 record along the way. Blaize Cabell was a three-time NCAA qualifier as a heavyweight at Northern Iowa.
Lloyd Rogers, who has spent the past seven seasons at Navy, will continue to serve as the volunteer assistant. Dan Neff, who just completed his second season at Navy, will also remain on staff in some capacity.
Navy junior Tanner Skidgel recently captured his second consecutive EIWA championship. The 165-pounder from Tulsa, Oklahoma wants to become an NCAA champ and believes Kolat can help him achieve that goal.
“Cary Kolat is a very big name in the wrestling world, both as a competitor and a coach,” Skidgel said. “Coach Kolat turned Campbell into a top program in a short amount of time, so I’m excited to see what he can do here at Navy.”
Skidgel said Sharrett will be missed by all the Navy wrestlers and expressed respect for the outgoing head coach. That said, a Zoom meeting that served as Kolat’s introduction to the returning Navy wrestlers proved enlightening.
When one of the midshipmen asked Kolat why he decided to come to Navy, the newly hired head coach said he likes to be uncomfortable. “The moment you get comfortable is the moment you stop learning and getting after it,” Kolat said.
“Coach Kolat said he’s here to make us champions. He believes in being creative and doing everything possible to master the craft of wrestling,” Skidgel said. “He talked a lot about building personal relationships with every wrestler and stressed the importance of outworking our opponents.”
Kolat is known as one of the greatest wrestlers in Pennsylvania history, both scholastically and collegiately. The Rice Landings native captured four consecutive state championships and compiled a perfect 137-0 record at Jefferson-Morgan High. He was named Most Outstanding Wrestler at the state meet all four years, an honor no one competitor in Pennsylvania high school wrestling history has earned even twice.
However, Kolat has developed strong ties to Maryland and Anne Arundel County. He was a two-time national champion at the 142-pound weight class and compiled a 50-1 record at Lock Haven in 1996-97. One of his teammates at Lock Haven during that time was former Northeast High standout Mike Kusick, one of the greatest wrestlers in Anne Arundel history.
Kolat is married to the former Erin Serago, an Old Mill High graduate whose brother wrestled at the Millersville school. The couple lived in Maryland from 2005 through 2010 with Kolat providing private training and development during that time.
Some of the finest wrestlers in recent Maryland history passed through the Kolat Wrestling Club in Timonium, including Centennial four-time state champion Nathan Kraisser. He was a member of the Maryland State Freestyle team that Kolat trained and coached for the Cadet Junior Nationals in Fargo, North Dakota.
Kolat recruited Kraisser to North Carolina while serving as an assistant. When Kolat became head coach at Campbell, Kraisser followed him there and became the first and only All-American in program history.
Kraisser said Kolat’s immense knowledge of wrestling is a given and feels what sets him apart is the way he invests in every member of the team.
“He cares about how they do, not just on the mat but as a person. They’re not just a wrestler to him,” Kraisser told The Capital last week. “It’s not just part of his job. They’re a person and he wants the best things for them. When people see that from their coach that makes them buy in and listen more to what they’re saying.”
Kraisser began training with Kolat in sixth grade and quickly saw improvement in his performance. He praised the way Kolat organized workouts in the wrestling room.
“I’ve heard other people say Kolat runs the best room I’ve seen. He’s very good at running a room and getting the most out of people in that workout,” Kraisser said. “Every time I’ve gone back to him, like if we got separated for a little bit, I made jumps in my wrestling. Since I’ve known him so long, I also have that trust. I may not always agree with his opinion or what he’s saying, but I know he’s doing everything possible to help me.”
Wayne Hicks was the Navy wrestling team captain as a senior in 1965-66 and was the NCAA runner-up at 137 pounds that season. Hicks served as a volunteer assistant at his alma mater under head coaches Ed Peery and Reg Wicks then later was head coach at St. Mary’s High.
Hicks has followed the Navy wrestling program closely ever since graduating and is thrilled to see Kolat come aboard as head coach. In fact, Hicks was among those who lobbied Gladchuk to hire Kolat.
“I think Cary Kolat is the best possible coach we could have at the Naval Academy. He’s a winner who fosters winners,” Hicks said. “(Kolat) is probably the best wrestling technician in the country, if not the world. He believes in hard work and knows how to teach and motivate.
“I think Cary will raise the program to new levels, possibly that we’ve never reached before,” Wicks added. “He’s a legendary wrestler and will be a magnet for talent.”