Photos by Hillary Ehlen and special to Bison Illustrated
Adam Aho continues to make an impact on and off the mat, this time as head coach for the University of Mary in Bismarck.
Adam Aho may not have known it, but he was destined to become a wrestling coach. With mentors like his father, Marty, an assistant coach at Frazee High School for 44 years, legendary Bison wrestling coach Bucky Maughan and Minnesota State University Mankato head coach Jim Makovsky, he was groomed to become a coach. He was not even 30 years of age when Aho got his first head coaching job at the University of Mary in Bismarck. He has now turned a once-dismal program around and is looking to leave his mark.
Coming from Frazee, Minnesota, Aho was immediately on the radar of North Dakota State’s wrestling program. His senior year with the Hornets saw him compile an unreal 47-1 record and a state championship. His 225 career high school wins is still one of the top marks in the state of Minnesota. Never the less, he was pursued by other schools, even after committing to be a Bison.
Aho says Wisconsin came to him very late in the recruiting season. This came after Aho himself defeated several Wisconsin commits in high school matches. While the glare of the Big Ten loomed largely, Aho stayed true to North Dakota State.
“The appeals of being at NDSU was obviously the tradition and Bucky’s legacy. At that time, some of the best kids in Minnesota were coming to NDSU to wrestle. I knew a lot of them and the appeal of being an hour and ten minutes from home was big,” Aho said. “I was a dairy farmer and I grew up loving hunting, so staying in that environment was appealing too. There were a lot of pluses to coming here, the people are great, the facilities are amazing and it ended up just being a really good fit.”
On top of that, Aho was impressed with the wrestling philosophy implemented at NDSU by head coach Bucky Maughan and assistant coach Kris Nelson. It was a philosophy that favored take-downs, something Aho was accustomed to. “The wrestling style was big to me because it fit what I grew up in,” he said.
After sitting out the 2004-05 season with a redshirt, Aho went 8-6 the following season for the Bison. It was also in this season where Aho knew he wanted to become a wrestling coach after graduation. “That is when I realized I wanted to be a wrestling coach. When I switched my degree to physical education and health education, I decided I wanted to coach,” he said. “The goal was to be a head coach at the college level.”
Aho recalls the impact head coach Bucky Maughan had on him when he was an athlete. “Wrestling for Bucky was that he had the old school mentality on wrestling,” he said. “He wanted to work harder than everyone else and that sort of philosophy. That motivated me and instilled that work ethic.” Maughan was the head wrestling coach for 47 years, coaching from 1964 until 2011. However, Aho was also inspired to become a coach thanks to his high school coach Clay Nagel, who had coached at Concordia College in Moorhead in the past.
The following two seasons for Aho saw him improve on the mat. In his sophomore season in 2006-07, he notched 17 wins and followed that up with a 24-8 mark in his junior campaign. Aho finished fourth in the NCAA West Regional that season, he then went on to graduate from NDSU after the 2008-09 season.
That was when Adam Aho set his sights on becoming a wrestling coach at the collegiate level. He coached at a few high schools in Minnesota before getting the head assistant position at Minnesota State University Mankato under head coach Jim Makovsky. The Mavericks finished in eighth place at the NCAA Division II National Championships in Aho’s second year at the school. After that season, he saw an opportunity to realize his coaching dreams.
“When the job opened up at Mary, I asked Jim Makovsky if I was ready to be a head coach because we all think we’re ready for something like that until we’re thrown into the fire,” he said. “But I was very thankful to Makovsky because he gave me a lot of responsibility as an assistant and he trusted me, so he told me I was prepared.” Luckily for Aho, he would be able to mold the University of Mary program to his liking if he took the job. The school had suffered some extremely treacherous years on the mat before Aho arrived in June of 2013. “You don’t get a ton of opportunities to be a head coach, so I may as well take the jump and go for it,” he said.
In the four seasons before Aho came to the University of Mary, the wrestling program had a combined record of 12-36. While Aho’s first season as head coach in 2013-14 was no picnic, he did begin to lay the groundwork for improvement. The Marauders went from two wins in Aho’s first season to seven in his third season. The last two seasons have seen the University of Mary win 16 times. Last season, Aho was named NSIC Coach of the Year while two of his wrestlers were named NSIC Wrestler of the Year and NSIC Freshman of the Year.
“It’s been a very humbling experience because I thought it would be easy to recruit kids and be a head coach,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that it was really tough to recruit those first few years because we weren’t that good. Good kids don’t want to wrestle for a bad program. So there were some dark times, but it’s been very gratifying to know that we’ve been getting better from year to year. I think it’s going to continue to get better, but the closer you get to the top, those jumps aren’t going to be that big. But I still think we will progress as the years go by.”
As the old saying goes, the proof has been in the pudding for Adam Aho. Another accolade the Marauders accrued was a victory over NSIC foe Upper Iowa. That was the University of Mary’s first time defeating Upper Iowa in program history. “They finished fourth in the country last season. That was a huge duel win for us,” he said.
Even to this day, the first thing that comes into Adam Aho’s head when speaking on his favorite Bison memory is Bucky Maughan. “I would like to say it was a wrestling match, but as I get older my memory gets worse and worse with those kinds of details,” he said. “Some of Bucky’s speeches were probably some of my favorite moments. Just listening to him try and motivate us brings chills down my spine just to think about.”
Like Maughan, who built his life around the sport of wrestling, Aho sees himself doing the same. “I hope whatever I do, I do well and I’m successful at it. As of right now, I’m extremely happy where I’m at,” he said. “I love coaching college wrestling. Will wrestling be a part of my life for the rest of my life? Probably. I don’t see myself moving out of coaching college wrestling anytime soon, but I am finishing up my master’s in administration. Maybe if I get burnt out at the end of my career, I’d like to be an AD.”
It’s the idea of leaving behind a legacy that makes Adam Aho tick. Being impactful in the lives of athletes both on and off the mat is what is most important. “Wherever I go, I want to leave a legacy,” he said. “I think at Mary, if we continue the success that we’re having, I could see myself there for a while. Not going to lie, I’d love to leave there the winningest coach in the wrestling program’s history.”
While he may identify himself as a Marauder now, Aho still holds his Bison roots close. He even gave his own spin on what Bison pride means. As expected, he defined it through a wrestling lens. “Wrestlers, in my opinion, and this is not taking away anything from any other sports, they develop such a deep bond. They are in the intense workouts and everything else in a wrestling season,” he said. “What happens is you have this bond and that is what I think Bison pride means. When you say Bison pride, I immediately think about the bond I created with my teammates when I was here. It’s a mindset of ‘if you mess with one, you mess with all of us’ sort of thing. And I think the university has adopted that mindset.”
Just like his father before him, Aho plans to sway his two young boys towards wrestling. “Both of them love to wrestle on the living room floor together. I would anticipate they will both wrestle because they’re going to be engulfed in it,” he said. “But my wife and I are going to get them involved in sports and I want them to be multi-sport athletes, I think that is important also. I guess depending on which sports they take to, we’ll see if wrestling is there. I want them too though, I’m not going to lie.”
It is this commitment and passion for wrestling that has driven Adam Aho to the University of Mary. Now, he plans to pass his love for the sport onto the next generation in his family. It may turn out that we see another Aho in a Bison singlet down the road. However, one thing is for certain, Adam Aho has built his life around wrestling and that sort of fervor is the definition of what it means to be a Bison.
Be sure to look for the print edition of our special Alumni issue on magazine stands or in your mailbox later this month.