Photo By Hillary Ehlen
Transition occurs in every sport over time. There is really no way to avoid it either. Athletes leave due to graduation or otherwise and staff may depart for opportunities that better themselves in the long run. Both can be equally devastating on a program, but it is how the program reacts that matters most.
Roger Kish will enter his ninth season at the helm of Bison wrestling this season. In that span, he has had eight different assistant and volunteer assistant coaches. He had his most cohesive unit last season with assistant coaches Jarrod Garnett and Matt Nagel along with volunteer assistant coach Gage Hutchinson. Both Garnett and Nagel were in their third season with the program.
Yet, as the season came to a close in Pittsburgh last March, transition was on the horizon for Kish and NDSU wrestling. Over the course of the summer, Garnett took an assistant coaching job at Rider University in Lawrence Township, New Jersey. Garnett, a native of Delaware, wanted to find a job closer to home. Matt Nagel and his wife Dani welcomed their third child as well and he felt it was time for him to set coaching aside. Hutchinson moved on to opportunities outside of wrestling in his native Michigan.
Because of the departures, Kish spent much of his offseason piecing together a staff for the 2019-20 season. If you were to talk to him today, he could not be more confident in his choices. With new assistant coaches, Obe Blanc, Austin Marsden and Cody Pack now on campus, the Bison are ready to hit the mats. Despite the turnover in staff, the 2019-20 team is shaping up to be one of Kish’s most talented in his tenure.
Bison Illustrated sat down with coach Kish to unpack an eventful offseason and preview the upcoming year.
Take us through the process of hiring a whole new staff. How did that process go for you as head coach?
The circumstances in which it kind of lead to having to restructure the staff was pretty unique and it was really the timing. One coach got an opportunity closer to home and help out East. Another coach just had his third child and some of the time constraints in our profession is sometimes challenging. It was one of those things where all of us knew going into it. We had talked about it and discussed and the conversations were had. So it wasn’t like some sort of big surprise for me. It was something I was able to start working on shortly after the season wrapped up.
I had a ton of support from our administration which was the key. To be able to take my time and make sure I did the appropriate vetting process for our assistant coaches. When it started, there was one guy I’ve always admired. From day one, I always had my eye on if I got to handpick and that was Obe Blanc. I’m really excited because he was my first and last conversation as we wrapped up that head assistant position.
With the way the season worked out and the summer training, he was one of the senior level coaches for the World Team. He is one of the most sought after international and senior-level coaches in the country. That was something we kind of had to work through, but for coach Blanc it was a pretty unique process. I knew he wanted to take that next step in his career and the responsibilities he was going to have here were really important in his professional development.
At the end of the day, it was a good fit for him and his family, it was a good fit for our program. It’s something I was really excited about because from day one I knew the guy that I wanted to work with. Ultimately, I probably could not have done it without the support of our administration and staying patient with me as we went through this process.
Then you look at coach Marsden and his process was a little different. When me and coach Blanc got together, we wanted to figure out how to structure this staff. Having a young and energetic heavyweight coach is unique to programs. His pedigree of wrestling and he comes from a strong program at Oklahoma State. He has had the experience working at West Point and additional responsibilities and a different role at the University of Buffalo. He’s a young guy and he’s on the mats every day and he does a lot of good things.
You have some experienced seniors returning this year. How have they helped the team through this transitional period?
As we were going through this hiring process with our new staff, the leaders have done a great job of stepping in and keeping the program and younger guys invested in the process. Nothing changed. In reality, this is one of our best summers of training in my time here. We were down coaches, but in a way, it almost united the group even more.
When you have a united unit, it helps. These guys were invested and they bought into the process and arrived here with what I believe is one of the best coaching staffs in the entire country. Our guys are excited and you can see it in their training and just their body language.
You have some local recruits coming into the program this year. How much focus do you put on keeping North Dakota and Minnesota kids in the Midwest and at North Dakota State?
It’s a big deal. Our goal is and always will be to get the best kids in the state of North Dakota to stay in the state. We have a lot of pride in that and our kids have a lot of pride in that. At the end of the day, we want to keep our local kids home and that’s a big deal for us.
On the same token, we not only want to keep them home, but we want to set them up for success as well. Sometimes timing is very hard in the sport of wrestling. You might have two really good 125-pounders and you know they’re going to push each other, but sometimes it’s hard. It’s a unique situation, it’s athletics so you have to buy into the process of chasing someone down and having someone nipping at your heels.
If someone were to look at your roster, the only real hole they might see is at 125 pounds. With Brent Fleetwood graduating and Paul Bianchi transferring, how has that weight shaken out with two young guys like McGwire Midkiff and Corey Gamet there now?
We get a transfer in here two years ago in Fleetwood who came in and contributed a lot to that spot. When you have a guy who is at that level, some of the other guys have choices. Do you want to continue to work and compete for that spot or not? Take a guy like [McGwire] Midkiff who was redshirting for us last year. He had the opportunity to go down in weight and wrestle 125 and fill in for Fleetwood after his departure and that’s a big deal. He was excited and anxious to do it and he has had a great summer of training and competing in preparation for this year. This is where he wants to be and what he wants to do.
We’re really excited for him because of that. I’m really proud of him for wanting to challenge himself not only on the wrestling mats, but it’s also a lifestyle challenge. He has to be very diligent and disciplined in his diet every day, every meal, every workout, it’s on the foresight of his mind. He needs to get used to that so he can compete at a high level when the time comes.
Then you got a young guy behind him in Corey Gamet, a blue-chip recruit out of Michigan and he is going to come in and challenge. He has a great competitive spirit and he is going to look to push Midkiff right out of the gate. We see it every day in their runs and in their lifts and on the mats. That’s what you want, you want the young guys nipping at the heels.
With returners at nearly every starting spot this season, how do you assess this team’s talent heading into 2019-20?
Top to bottom, we’ve done a great job at creating a lot of talent. This room has so much talent and its fun to be a coach and watch these guys compete and see what they’re doing. They’re also wrestling at a really high level, but there is still another level there that we got to get to.
Assessing the talent, there is a lot of it, not only with your projected starters, but there is a lot of talent in the guys who are going to be pushing those starters. If you were to ask me today what the starting lineup is going to look like, I think I could give you a pretty fuzzy version of it. There is nothing set in stone though and our lineup is settled in the room on a day to day basis. Just because we have a scrimmage to help us put a depth chart together, you see it here every day, so it’s not a surprise. Sometimes what happens in competition matches has little relevance to what we see in this room.
There is a lot of talent up and down the lineup and you see guys challenging one another. There are probably a couple of weight classes where we have some seniors and leaders that might not be as challenged with some young guys right away, but it’s only a matter of time, I think.
Meet The New Bison Wrestling Staff
Obenson (Obe) Blanc
Head Assistant Coach
Previous Experience: North Carolina State (2014-2019), Served on Team USA coaching staff during the Pan-American Games this summer
Alma Mater: Lock Haven/Oklahoma State (118-41 career record)
Three-time Pan-American finalist, two-time U.S. Open and U.S. World Team Trials Champion in 2010 and 2013 and an alternate for the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Previous Experience: University of Buffalo (2017-2019), Army West Point (2017)
Alma Mater: Oklahoma State (108-22 career record)
Three-time Big 12 Champion. Two-time All-American (2014, 2016)
Volunteer Assistant Coach
Alma Mater: South Dakota State (116-36 career record)
Two-time Western Wrestling Conference champion (2014, 2015)
Bison wrestling holds its annual Green and Gold scrimmage tonight at 7 p.m. inside the Scheels Center.