Aaron Gottlieb: Take me back to the CAA tournament when Cody Reed was caught off guard and taken down after a false whistle. He had control of the match and was poised to win, but the ensuing events may have cost you guys the tourney. Would you say you guys got screwed a little bit?
Pat Popolizio: I don’t think you ever get screwed in sports, but do you get a call you don’t like? Yeah. It definitely was our mistake so I can’t say we got screwed, we’re the ones that caused it. So I think it was a great learning experience that cost us a team title from one mistake. If he wins that match, we win the CAAs because it was a two-and-a-half-point difference and we lost by two.
AG: How has that influenced your team, how do they feel about the fact that they came so close?
PP: They’re definitely disappointed, I think this weekend will have a lot to do with how we really feel at the end of the year because if we go in and have a great national performance, the CAAs won’t mean anything and I’m hoping that’s really the big picture. For us, winning it would have been a big deal. Hofstra’s been doing it for so many years, it’s really not that big of a deal so I think they feel a little cheated because they worked so hard. This is by far the hardest-working team I’ve been around.
AG: You came to Binghamton six years ago to a less-than-stellar program. Why?
PP: The challenge that was here. Looking into it, a lot of people were like ‘You’re crazy, you can’t win there.” I know a bunch of people who are coaches now and that was their take on it, it was like “There’s no way you can win at Binghamton,” and I wouldn’t accept that. I wanted to become a head coach, it was in New York and I’m originally from New York so I knew a lot of coaches over here. The academic standard here is very good so having that, we just needed the support through the school, the state and the community. And we’ve gotten that so it’s kind of like a perfect storm coming together. Any time someone tells you you can’t do something, you want to do it that much more.
AG: The numbers now speak for themselves, how have you been able to establish winning ways so quickly?
PP: Everybody asks that question and there’s really no secret to it, it’s just a lot of hard work. It’s a standard of excellence that you can’t compromise anything, whether it’s school, in the workout room or with your personal life. And that’s what we’ve got now with these guys. We’ve mapped it out so well for them on their visits when we recruit them that when a kid commits here, I know they’re going to put 110 percent into not just wrestling, but school and taking pride in the community and just being an asset for this university. That’s the biggest thing, it’s the attitude of the kid that comes here. You run this like a company and you want guys working for you that are going to go above and beyond the average person.
AG: Pretend I’m someone like Justin Lister who’s going into his last set of matches as a Binghamton wrestler, what can you possibly say to me?
PP: That you’ve done everything you can possibly do to put yourself into a situation to win. I work these guys so hard that they have no doubt in their mind when they step on that mat. This sport is such a mental challenge so it’s great to be able to have a kid like Lister who responds to everything you tell him. There’s really not much you can say to a kid right before he wrestles other than what we’ve talked about over the last couple of weeks.
AG: Especially considering the lack of success Binghamton has had as an athletic department this year, how does it feel to be — by a long shot — the success story of the year?
PP: When you talk about the teams on campus I think there’s a lot of ability, it’s just going to take some time for coaches to find what works for them and what doesn’t here. But we take a lot of pride in the success that we’re having and I know the guys love what’s happening — not just the results but the people that are getting on board now. The president has come down here to a bunch of matches, the new athletic director for the first time is involved with wrestling, Billy Baldwin’s been to some events here on campus. There are some really high-profile people around and even the local community that comes around. I remember the first duals we had here there were 20 or 30 people and now we’re getting 1,300 or 1,400 people. So these guys see that and they know they’re the reason.
AG: When you look back and see that type of attention given to this team, how does it feel to know that you were such a big part of it?
PP: It’s exciting and rewarding, it feels good. We put so much time and energy into building this program so that’s our reward of success, just having people come out and supporting it. It means a lot, it’s kind of a special thing to know that the coaches and the guys that are a part of this are the ones building it from the ground up.
AG: Obviously you’ve had a huge season, any plans on relaxing a little bit in the offseason?
PP: It’s hard, one thing with college athletics is that it’s full time all the time, and even as a coach it’s hard to put something on the back burner. If you take a week off, there’s another program out there that’s doing something during that week you’re off. But it’ll be a well-needed week of vacation coming up after this season to relax and take some down time.
AG: If you had to put your entire Binghamton experience into one word, what would it be?
PP: I would say “exciting.” It’s been a roller coaster, but overall it’s been extremely exciting with the kind of things that I’ve encountered as a coach, just in general. Dealing with the crazy 18-21-year-old kids, nothing surprises me anymore. It’s a joy working with these guys and we’ve created a culture here now where they motivate each other, which is extremely important to the success we’re having.