Photos by Hillary Ehlen and special to Bison Illustrated
Head coach Roger Kish uses lessons taught to him by his coaching mentors to create his own chapter in Bison wrestling history.
Roger Kish knows he has been lucky throughout his wrestling career. Whether it be as an athlete and coach under J Robinson at the University of Minnesota or an assistant under NDSU head coach Bucky Maughan for two seasons, he certainly knows he has been privileged. “I’m really lucky. You look at college wrestling coaches and there are maybe five or six coaches that stand out. I’ve had the privilege of working with two of them,” Kish said. “As an athlete and as a coach. There’s probably not a whole lot of guys who can say they worked with both J Robinson and Bucky Maughan.”
Kish, who wrestled at Minnesota and was a Big Ten champion in his sophomore season, became a graduate assistant for the Gophers during the 2008-09 season. It was then that Kish took an assistant coaching position at North Dakota State. Little did he know that it would transition him into a head coaching role after Maughan retired in 2011. Now in his eighth season as head coach of the wrestling program, Kish recalls his top learning moments from Maughan and Robinson. “Utilizing the experiences, not just the day to day operations, but just the depth,” he said. “A lot of it is learned from just watching.”
Each season remains different for Kish. The wrestlers he brings in are different and the schedule seems to get tougher and tougher as the years go on. However, Kish has been able to adapt his coaching style to fit his specific teams. This season is no different. “Every season is different and we see different guys work their way through different line-ups,” he said. “We have a talented team, top to bottom, they’re tough, even in some of the areas where we may not be as talented, we’re experienced and that fills the gap.”
The primary focus for Kish and his assistants has always been to prepare wrestlers for postseason competition. They do this through a tough schedule and an expected Big 12 conference gauntlet. “You look at our schedule and it’s really tough because we want to challenge these guys. At the end of the day, we’re trying to prepare them for the end of the season,” he said. “That’s really what it comes down to, to get these guys to compete at Big 12 tournament time, NCAA tournament time and ultimately win some conference matches along the way and position ourselves the best way we can.”
In his tenure, which Kish agrees has gone by rather quickly, he has positioned his teams near the top of the conference standings. Before North Dakota State left the Western Wrestling Conference in 2015, Kish led the Bison to two Western Wrestling Conference championships and regular season titles. He was also named WWC Coach of the Year three times. Kish also guided 17 Bison to individual titles in the Western Wrestling Conference.
As is the case with any program switching conferences, it comes with some amount of growing pains. NDSU wrestling is no different, but they have placed fourth and fifth as a team in the Big 12 conference tournament the last two seasons. The Bison also had four NCAA tournament qualifiers last season in Cam Sykora, Paul Bianchi, Andrew Fogarty and the now-graduated Clay Ream. Kish spoke to how he plans to improve his individual wrestlers coming into 2018-19.
“It’s really trying to get these guys to see different things and get them as equipped as we can. It’s not a training operation or what they’re doing in their day to day, it’s the year leading up to it,” he said. “From a coaching standpoint and competitive standpoint, we want to get these guys as much exposure and experience as we can get them. Bringing in different guys to train with them or get them up to different competitions in the off months is really important. Get them the best competition we can to help them grow. To get them to the next level is exposing them to more than they have been exposed to.”
Part of that is done in the offseason for North Dakota State. However, the Bison have been able to lock in some marquee duals this season. 2018-19 will mark the third straight season where Iowa State comes to Fargo. The Bison also welcomed the Big Ten’s Northwestern and will bring in the Pac 12’s Oregon State and Big 12 foe South Dakota State to the SHAC this season. Not only does this improve his current roster, but it helps Kish in the recruiting game as well. In an ever-changing wrestling landscape, scheduling big duals plays a key role in Kish bringing in top-level talent.
“It’s important. These young kids and the way technology has transformed our sport and specifically college wrestling, where these young men and women can watch college wrestling from a long way off,” he said. “Back when I went through high school, you didn’t watch, you went to the NCAA tournament and figured out who was good there and followed some results from pen and paper. Our athletic team has done a great job of helping us promote it and all of our matches are getting live-streamed across the country through various wrestling media outlets. That’s been really important for us. And these big teams coming to Fargo, for a lot of the kids we recruit here in the Midwest, that big wrestling climate daily is a big deal. These guys appreciate it.”
That is not to say Kish has not learned his fair share of lessons from being a head coach. He says that the mistakes he made early on in his career have proved to be the most beneficial. “You ultimately learn what things don’t work in this game,” he said. “What doesn’t work sticks out the most, but every group is different. Things that worked for some groups here early in my time, didn’t work for the group I had last year or the group I’m working with this year. Everyone is just different and the culture and climate of our team has shifted.”
However, Roger Kish knows how important it is to uphold the tradition NDSU wrestling has. It is a tradition of excellence and valor on the mat. Much of that is thanks to the legacy left behind by Bucky Maughan. Now, Kish is forging his own legacy, one that he hopes will leave its mark on the school. Kish described what he believes NDSU’s wrestling tradition is.
“It’s pride. It’s a heritage built on pride and success and community that has supported it for so long,” he said. “The same thing that we preach to the guys we bring in, the guys that have come before them have built the program because they were proud, Midwestern, North Dakotans and they all come together for a common goal. That hasn’t changed. If I was to try and sum it up, it would be pride.”
Part of that legacy for Kish will surely be the fact that he has successfully guided the program to a Power Five conference. Wrestling is still NDSU’s only athletic program to be a part of a Power Five league. “You look at transitions, from Division II to the Western Wrestling Conference to the top of WWC to the Big 12. We’re starting to make that next jump up to establishing ourselves in that upper echelon of the Big 12,” he said. “You see over the course of the last five, six, seven years, North Dakota State has made this national exposure and you can go anywhere in the country and say North Dakota State wrestling and people are going to know who you are. We’ve had some great individuals to help us do that over the years. All of that goes back to Bucky’s early groups too.”
Only the fourth coach in NDSU wrestling history, Roger Kish will be around for a while. He has proven himself successful as both a wrestler and a coach. Both of which lead into how the man is wired. Kish is first and foremost, a competitor. His intensity and passion for the sport of wrestling only attributes to his competitive nature.
Kish is not Bucky Maughan, he will be the first to readily admit that too. However, North Dakota State wrestling is in incredible hands for the foreseeable future thanks to Roger Kish’s commitment to excellence, tradition and competition.