NC State Recruits Popolizio Again
June 11, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. -
Way back in 1996, highly-sought prep wrestler Pat Popolizio popped in for a brief recruiting visit at NC State.
Finally, sixteen years later, the Wolfpack signed him. This spring, on April 9, he officially became the university’s new wrestling coach.
Between trips to Raleigh, Popolizio put his mark on the collegiate mat. He helped powerhouse Oklahoma State achieve four top-five finishes in NCAA tournaments and earned a No. 1 national ranking in the 184-pound class his senior year.
Then, as a coach the last six years at Binghamton (N.Y), he built a Colonial Athletic Conference championship program that placed 14th nationally one season and 21st another time. But here’s the kicker. That was achieved with less than half of the maximum 9.9 scholarships.
At NC State he has a full allotment of grant-in-aids, attractive facilities, solid administrative backing, a past wrestling tradition -- and the challenge to meet great expectations.
“He will lead Wolfpack wrestling to compete for ACC titles, and eventually, the national championship," GoPack.com quoted athletics director Debbie Yow as predicting when Popolizio was hired.
So eager was Coach Pop to get started, he left most all his belongings in Binghamton, plus his girlfriend, Donna Crossman, who plans to move to Raleigh after completing work on her Ph.d in psychology.
Popolizio, currently living in an apartment now, will house hunt later and do some interior decorating in his office that is surrounded by mostly blank walls.
Most prominent picture is one of a Lion hovering above the caption: “Essence of Survival” and an accompanying message that reads:
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed...every morning a lion wakes up, It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle...when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
“I love that quote,” said Popolizio, who has kept it close since high school. “It’s motivational. It’s about work in general, applies to the coaching staff, too.”
Popolizio plans to be up early and running, but not running from the challenge or lofty expectations Yow laid out.
“We want to be in a position to compete for a national title," he said. “Long term, I think it is a realistic goal. Obviously, it is a work in progress. We’ve got a history and tradition to get built back up.
“With time, we will be back. Once you get up there, I don’t see why we can’t be in the mix of things.”
Popolizio has picked the brain of retired Pack coach Bob Guzzo, who elevated State to national prominence before scholarships were reduced.
Popolizio’s likely to follow a pattern similar to Guzzo’s. That’s recruiting aggressively in wrestling hotbeds of the northeast and midwest, plus in-state, and develop relationships with prep coaches. Also teach effectively in the wrestling room.
In addition to winning, his goals include turning out solid community citizens and good students. At Binghamton, his Bearcat wrestlers ranked high nationally in academics.
“You set a standard," Popolizio said. “Do those two things right (academics and citizenship), you have a better chance to do well on the mat.
“We will run a very disciplined program with a lot of structure. Division I is hard work. It’s what you are willing to sacrifice outside the wrestling room to get ahead of the competition. That’s what makes a kid a national champ, an All-America ... You’ve got to cut out distractions. The challenge is to keep kids focused and not buy into negative stuff.”
While not a yell- and-scream coach, Popolizio brings intensity and says he and his staff will push players to the limit. That means countless repetitions until everybody is doing it right, he stressed.
At 35 and about 16 pounds above his 184-class weight in college, the Pack coach is pumped with passion and still has the glint of a guy who can pin you.
He’s hands-on, a teacher who grapples with his athletes on the mat, and can demonstrate take down techniques and escape methods. In short, show’em the winning way.
“He’s in shape, dedicated, doesn’t take it easy on anybody, smaller or bigger guys," said Justin Lister, who placed 4th in the nationals one season under Popolizio at Binghamton.
Lister, who calls his former coach the “Complete Package,” saw Popolizio’s compassion as well as his competitiveness.
When struggling to make the transition from high school to college as a freshman, a homesick Lister remembers how Popolizio allowed him to breakaway and visit his parents several times.
“He kept my spirits up," Lister said. “He treated me as an individual. He understands.”
Indeed, Popolizio understands wrestlers and wrestling. He grew up on a mat his father put in the basement of their Schenectady, N.Y., home, and by age 5, was competing.
The sport was an all-in-the-Italian-family thing, as much a part of life as pasta. An older brother, Frank, helped coach him through middle and high school. Another sibling, Anthony, wrestled at North Carolina, which Pat also visited before choosing Oklahoma State.
Overall, he figures “17-to-20” Popolizios -- including relatives -- wrestled.
Pat polarized into a state high school champ and national runner up under legendary coach Joe Bena and also played football, but still worked on refining his wrestling skills year-round. Later he flourished at Oklahoma State, winning more than 90 matches and twice earning All-Academic honors.
Popolizio was like the Lion, who has no fear of anything he meets (Proverbs 30:30).
As for diversions, Popolizio enjoys hunting and fishing. But those activities pale in comparison to his real sports passion.
“Give me a wrestling mat ... This is my hobby. I enjoy every aspect of the job,” said Popolizio, who took a circuitous 16-year route back to NC State, liked what he saw and discovered it’s not too late to still help the Pack.
By A.J. Carr