University of Illinois Head Coach Jim Heffernan

Jim Heffernan

Jim Heffernan

You’ve had the privilege of wrestling for two wrestling legends in Howard Ferguson and Dan Gable. How would you describe what they were like?

They were two guys that knew how to push kids, who knew how to build relationships with kids and who were driven by success. Both of them were extremely driven people. With that being said, both of them also had personal sides to the relationships they had with kids. They were both were big reasons why I wanted to continue on with coaching. My goal was to hopefully provide the same type of experience for kids as a coach at the college level when I got there.

Aside from your success as a competitor and coach how did having them as coaches help form who you are as a man?

I came from a family of nine kids. My father was a Marine, very disciplined and basically told me to go to practice and do everything I was told to do and if not, I would have to deal with him. I was lucky enough to have two very good programs where I listened well and was in a fortunate position to have two very good people who were willing to guide us and do the right things. So, I was in the right place at the right time and just did what I was told to do. I had great guidance and leadership and a lot of knowledge between those two guys.

You mentioned that you were smart enough to do what they told you to do and that brings up an interesting point. How important is it for an athlete to be able to listen, to be “coachable” so to speak?

I think it’s critical and there were times when I was probably bull-headed just like everyone else, but the bottom line is that wrestlers in general are very competitive people and sometimes they act like they’re not listening, but they hear every word you say. I was probably a little bit like that too, where you think you know more than you do, but again, I was in high school and won four state championships and when I was in college we won three national championships. It’s pretty easy to understand that those guys (his coaches) know what they’re talking about.

How do you know when you are or are not getting through to a kid? Is it based on the success, solely on the results they have on that mat?

It’s the results, but also, maybe the next time they’re in a similar position, they’ll come up and ask you for advice instead of you having to go to them all the time. They’ll come up and ask, ‘hey, what do you think?’

How do you deal with the hardheaded ones that don’t listen?

You know what? I was one of them and it’s more of an act than anything. And as a coach, if you know you’re right, its’ not hard to kind of keep beating them over the head with what you know is right.

Coach Heffernan making a point.

Coach Heffernan making a point.

You were an assistant coach at University of Illinois for a number of years when there were surely plenty of head coaching positions available to you. What kept you with that program as an assistant coach for so long?

First of all, I liked my job. I liked the kids we attracted; I like what the school stands for. The athletic director at the time was Ron Guenther and the better we did, the more support he gave us.  It wasn’t a very good program at the time so he gave us the support initially to get us started and the better we did the more we earned. Just being in a Big Ten conference is a huge deal. The state of Illinois has very good wrestling. At the time I came back to Champaign and my parents had moved from Ohio back to the Chicago area so there are a lot of factors. Truthfully, I took a lot of pride in what we did here in building it and getting it to where it was and I wasn’t in a hurry to leave.

You said you liked what the Illinois program stands for. To your mind, what is that?

In a school this size, sometimes it’s unusual to have students come first. The student comes first here and to me that says something about the approach of the university, not just as an athletic department, but also as a coaching university. The student comes first and that’s the way it should be. We’re here for them. That’s why we have jobs. That’s why we’re all here as an athletic department; to make sure we take care of these kids’ needs and to make sure they’re on the right track, doing the right things and becoming productive people.

Is that the most important part of your job in the final analysis?

It’s the bottom line.

How do you go about attracting talent to a big program like yours, especially in the days you were trying to turn it around?

When we first got here, we would call a kid and we would literally have to explain that yes, we are in a Big Ten town and this is where we’re located, those types of things, and it was like you were running your head into a wall every time you picked up the phone. But Illinois is a good state and we built a foundation for this program with Illinois kids. So having the advantage of a lot of good kids in the state we showed them our vision of keeping together a lot of the kids who had been wrestling together in youth clubs.

Even people who are not familiar with wrestlers know how mentally tough wrestlers are and how much mental toughness the sport requires. Do you think it’s inborn or can it be developed?

It can be developed for sure but I think certain guys are born with a higher level of it. A guy like Dan Gable, I don’t think you can teach what he has. You can’t teach it. I think you can teach somebody a certain level of how to deal with situations and how to deal with pressure and adversity and you can talk about it and put guys in those situations in practice.  I think you can enhance their mental toughness but with a guy like Coach Gable, for example, it’s inherent. Maybe I’m a little biased but I don’t know that there are many people in any walk of life that are that tough.

The Legend Dan Gable

The Legend Dan Gable

How do you teach a kid mental focus?

The best thing about wrestling is that it’s really as simple as you want to make it. There’s always a new situation to learn and a new chance to win. The match starts and the first situation to win is the first points. You can  keep them focused on the immediate as opposed to the long-term.  You get into their heads about what’s immediate instead of all the options of what could happen. Good things will happen if you’re always trying to win the next situation.

Has access to the techniques and basic technical knowledge of wrestling through  webpages and video on the Internet changed the job of a coach?

I don’t know if it’s changed the job of the coach. Everybody gets a little too freaked out about it. You can watch videos for days on end but you still have to go out on the mat and beat your opponent. With all this technology and everything that’s on the websites, you can call up video on anyone at any time and sit down and watch for hours to come up with a strategy but the bottom line is that you still have go on the mat and physically do it.

You talk about the physicality of wrestling. Are their any secrets to producing a top-conditioned athlete or is it just a factor of time and effort?

For us, it’s really nothing different than I learned back in high school and college. You try to build a good base of shape when they come in and just always add a little more conditioning, strength, power, explosion and technique.

What advice would you have for a youth wrestling coach who’s trying to prepare his wrestlers to one day compete at the college level?

You know it’s amazing. I look back on it and the very first thing my grade school coaches taught me was the very thing I did in the NCAA finals, the most basic single leg there is. So I would say hammer the basics home, make sure you teach them how to do things the right way and why you do them that way. Make a good stance; make a good shot, very simple things.

What’s the one thing it takes to win?

A fighting spirit.

Thanks Coach.

Illinois 2-2

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