Coaching wrestling while still competing in wrestling

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In 2008, Chris Bono, who was serving as head wrestling coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, received a surprising request.

After Nate Gallick, one of Bono’s assistant coaches at the time, was forced to withdraw from the Midlands Championships at Northwestern University shortly before the prestigious holiday wrestling event, Midlands founder and director Ken Kraft called the UTC head wrestling coach. Kraft was upset about Gallick not being able to compete in his event.

“I said, ‘Ken, how can we make it right?'” recalled Bono. “He said, ‘Well, you enter it.’ I said, ‘I’m in.’ I love the Midlands. Ken Kraft has always taken care of me. They’ve always been great.”

Bono, who was still competing on the senior level in freestyle at the time, not only entered the Midlands while serving as UTC’s head wrestling coach, but he went 6-0 en route to winning the title at 157 pounds, outscoring his opponents 49-18.

“I had a very, very young team,” said Bono, who now serves as the head wrestling coach at South Dakota State. “We were going up there to get some experience. It was one of those things where I wanted to show my wrestlers how to make weight twice, how to compete, how to go win a tournament. They had their eyes on me the whole time. They saw the training process, what it took to show up each match and win the tournament.”

Bono’s Midlands title in 2008 also helped the Chattanooga wrestling program gain national attention.

“It was big for recruiting,” said Bono. “It was shown on the Big Ten Network. I was wearing the Chattanooga singlet. Dan Gable was announcing it. It was a big-time thing for us to get the Chattanooga name out there at the time.”

Bono juggled coaching and competing at the same time first at his alma mater, Iowa State, and then at Chattanooga.

“For me, I didn’t feel it was really that hard,” said Bono of coaching and competing at the same time. “What became hard was my family life. Coaching and competing was easy because those were my priorities. My family life suffered. It was just very early mornings and very late nights.”

The obvious question one might ask: Did competing and coaching at the same time take away from the program he was leading?

“When I look back on it, yeah, it probably did,” said Bono. “But at the time I didn’t think it did. I didn’t work out with the team. They were completely separate. When I’d run and lift, it was before the team would have their morning workouts. I want to say it benefited the team a little bit because these guys saw how I worked out and they joined me. They weren’t mandatory workouts. They were optional, but guys were starting to show up and get work done. I was tired. I was worn out. I would say it affected me more mentally than actually physically getting the work done. I would get the work done, but mentally it was exhausting.”

Bono, a three-time U.S. World Team member, says that the administration at Chattanooga was “one-hundred percent” behind him competing at the same time he was serving as the program’s head coach. The bulk of his training and competition schedule occurred outside of the college wrestling season.

Bono was traveling the world and bringing in the best training partners in the country that his wrestlers at UTC were able to utilize. He admits there are pros and cons to coaching and competing at the same time, but believes many people focus on the cons.

“Really, I think the fans, message boards and the media blow it up to make it a con, make it like a really, really negative thing. When you have a great athletic director and a great support system, it can be done. I think only a select few can do it. I felt like I was one of those guys.”

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