Joe Russell enjoyed a few passing moments in his office Monday with his wife Sadie and their 8-month-old son, Taft.
He knows those moments in Minnesota are fleeting as he enters a liminal stage in his coaching career.
Russell announced two weeks ago that he would step down as head assistant wrestling coach for the Gophers to accept a head coaching position at George Mason University.
With boxes strewn about his office and Taft playing with toys in a corner of the disheveled room, Russell acknowledged the change will be bittersweet.
On one hand, he will be leaving a team that he helped build into a perennial powerhouse under head coach J Robinson. On the other, he’s taking over one of only 78 remaining Division I wrestling programs in the country and will get to put his stamp on a new building effort.
“I think you always want to look forward. As tough as it is to leave Minnesota, I’m definitely looking forward to the challenge and am excited about the opportunity,” Russell said.
“Division I wrestling head coach jobs are precious and few. To be chosen is an honor but kind of scary, too.”
The day before George Mason announced the hiring; Russell gathered whatever wrestlers were around campus for an informal team meeting. It was with melancholy that he told them he would be moving on to a new challenge but rooting for them from afar.
Others learned while working at Robinson’s camps with Russell this summer.
Mike Thorn captained the team and worked one-on-one last season with Russell. When he found out one of his mentors would be taking over as a head coach elsewhere, he was happy for him.
“I’m excited for him. I think it’s a neat opportunity to be a head coach in any Division I program,” Thorn said.
“We’ll be missing Joe Russell the person. He’s a good person and a great family man; he’s the kind of person you want in your program.”
Thorn is the last in a line of successful Gophers seniors to get to work alongside Russell as the coach’s project for the season. Others before him included national champion Jayson Ness, Tyler Safratowich and Manny Rivera.
Zach Sanders will be a senior captain on next year’s team, the first in 16 years without Russell on the bench. He said it was a strange and sad atmosphere as Russell told his former team he wouldn’t be coming back.
“He told us he wished us luck and all that but you could tell he was hurting a little bit,” Sanders said.
Sanders has apparently learned to read his coach pretty well over the last few years because Russell later admitted that the meeting was “by far the hardest thing I had to do.”
Added Sanders: “Everyone was really quiet, it was kind of a little shock and, to tell you the truth, it was sad.”
Aside from lengthy chats about the finer points of wrestling and his counseling advice in wrestlers’ personal matters, Sanders said he will miss the motivational story Russell frequently shared — one that came straight from his own experiences.
When Russell was 16 he was an elite wrestler. He wrestled against top competition and was a double champion at the Junior Nationals as a junior in high school.
Then his life changed.
Russell was riding on the back of a friend’s motorcycle to go workout. Tragically, the pair never made it to the gym that day in 1985.
A truck pulled out in front of the bike, which his friend laid down to avoid a crash.
The bike’s kickstand punctured Russell’ s skull and the crash put him in a drug-induced coma for three weeks following the accident. His left side was paralyzed.
He recovered enough to wrestle collegiately for Minnesota under Robinson, though only as a backup.
“I think it’s one of those big moments in life that kind of changes you. You never want to say something like that was a blessing, but I tell you what, that did teach me a lot about life and it changes your perspective when you’re faced with something like that,” Russell said.
Russell recovered physically and coaches his wrestlers on the mat. Without knowing the story, it’s hard to tell he was once paralyzed on his left side and had doctors thinking he might not survive.
He was given the Medal of Courage honor from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007.
He contends that the accident and subsequent recovery has made him the person and the coach he is today, and he imparts some of this wisdom to the kids he coaches at each opportunity he gets.
“I tell them the story because I think some of the lessons I learned can help the kids. It teaches them not to fear failure and to just go after their goals,” Russell said.
Sanders was working at a youth wrestling camp in Edinboro, Pa., earlier this summer. He knew Russell would be giving the designated motivational speech one evening to the campers.
“I went in early just to listen to it. I’ve heard it probably 10 times from when I was a little kid but it’s still just unbelievable. Every chance I get I listen to it.
“Whatever life throws at you, you’ve just got to go through it and keep on going. It’s a great story, and it’s not like it’s a sad story. He tells it like it’s a happy story,” Sanders said.
He said he was glad he got to hear it one more time before Russell departs.
He’ll be leaving Aug. 1 for Virginia so he can start recruiting for the Patriots. He said he and his wife have roughly a day to find a place to live before he has to fly back across the country to help with one of Robinson’s camps in Oregon.
He’ll begin working full time for George Mason on Aug. 15. Russell and the Patriot athletic office showed mutual commitment in signing a three-year contract, which Russell said shows both sides are serious and invested in long-term results.
The building effort will not be easy. It’s a partially-funded wrestling program, meaning one of the initial hurdles will be getting boosters and alumni on board financially.
“Otherwise it’ll be an uphill battle from the get-go,” Russell said.
Minnesota allots the maximum amount of scholarships allowed by the NCAA each year — 9.9.
George Mason, because of its limited budget, has only 3.5 for out-of-state student-athletes and two for in-state recruits.
On top of that, while the Gophers are the only Division I wrestling program in the state, George Mason shares Virginia with four others — Virginia, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion and the Virginia Military Institute.
While Minnesota is rich with wrestling tradition and national title winners, and many kids grow up dreaming of wrestling in the Big Ten, George Mason can’t match up in age or prestige.
The team didn’t win a single dual meet last year and has never had a national title winner.
Some of the positives are the school’s proximity to the Washington, D.C., area and wrestling hotbed states Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“I still think it’s a program that can be successful. I just have to get in there and put my nose to the grindstone and work hard,” Russell said. “It’s got a ways to go.”
He’ll try to balance working hard to erect a strong program with a stop-and-smell-the-roses approach.
He’s worked to rebuild everything that was taken from him almost instantaneously in the bike crash. Patriots wrestling, then, may be only the second most difficult rebuilding project he’s been asked to lead.
J Robinson hasn’t yet confirmed the future of the coaching staff, but the speculation from a few with connections to the team is that he’s content with his group and will not search outside the program to replace Russell.
The decision hasn’t been announced, but Brandon Eggum stands to move to head assistant coach in Russell’s absence and Luke Becker would likely move from volunteer assistant to assistant coach.
Former Gophers national champion Jayson Ness is the most likely candidate to take over as volunteer assistant.
Russell spent a few moments in his office Monday contemplating what his legacy in Minnesota might be.
“I hope 20 or 30 years down the road I see guys doing good things and being successful in life and they look back and say, ‘You know, Joe Russell was a guy that helped me become a leader.’ That’s what I want it to be. As much as I live and die wrestling, I think that’s more important.”
“I do hope they thought I taught them a good double-leg, as well,” he said, trying in vain to hide a smirk.
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