Tucked away in the far right corner of the Jacobs Fitness Center are two doors that led to the matted wrestling room. On the right side of the room lies an office that houses AU Athletics’ best kept secret: wrestling Head Coach Mark Cody.
In his eight years with AU, Cody has rebuilt a program on the brink of elimination into a powerhouse national competitor. On March 19, AU wrestling fans, alumni and the rest of the nation watched as the team placed fifth in the 2011 NCAA Championships, a new program best.
The story behind this major feat begins and ends with Cody, who personally took center stage at this year’s championships where he received the 2011 National Wrestling Coaches Association National Coach of the Year award.
Cody’s start in the sport can best be described as tardy. After being cut from a youth basketball team two years in a row, he decided to give wrestling a shot.
“I kind of fell in love with wrestling as an eighth grader,” Cody said. “That was a very late start. Most kids start wrestling by the time they are 6 or 7 years old.”
Cody made up for lost time quickly and went on to wrestle in college at the State University of New York at Delhi and later at the University of Missouri. Upon graduation, Cody took up coaching as a source of income while he trained for the Olympics. He has been coaching ever since.
When Cody arrived on campus in 2002, he came with a goal and coaching style he knew would jumpstart AU’s weak wrestling program. The goal for his program was to be No. 1 in the country in academics and wrestling. It was also time to make AU wrestling a 12-month sport.
“I like my wrestlers to be aggressive, in great shape and technically superior to their opponents,” Cody said. “I think to obtain that, wrestling has to be a year-round commitment from your student athletes.”
Cody’s handcrafted recipe for success has had a visible impact on the student athletes who have gone through AU’s wrestling program.
Each season, Cody’s athletes set new records on the mat. Just last month, the program sent a record six student athletes to the 2011 NCAA Championships in Philadelphia, and came away with their highest ever finish. In addition, junior Ryan Flores became AU wrestling’s second NCAA finalist, placing second in the 285 pound weight class.
The team is also receiving recognition for their hard work in the classroom. Cody expects his team to have the highest combined GPA in Division I wrestling this season. For the first time in program history, all six wrestlers who qualified for the NCAA Championship are expected to be named Academic All-Americans, which would also be a record number of Academic All-Americans for AU wrestling.
“We have the highest GPA we have ever had, and I am proud of that,” Cody said. “At American University, it is just as important that your kids are well-rounded as how they compete.”
Arguably the most profound impact of Cody’s coaching style has been on his student athletes post-graduation. Program alumni say that challenges in the real world are easy compared to Cody’s grueling daily practices, lifting and conditioning.
“Alumni attribute a lot of their success to wrestling,” Cody said. “I have two guys that went through this program that are both Navy Seals, and it was tough, in a different way, but it was nothing like what we did here.”
It is this life-long impact that draws program alumni — many who did not wrestle with Cody — back to Bender Arena and on the road with the team each season. Alumni and boosters attended the NCAA Championships last month and shared in celebrating the program’s success and Cody’s award.
“They were so fired-up about what had happened throughout the weekend,” Cody said. “They give their heart and soul to the program.”
One such alumnus is Loren Danielson, who was AU’s first ever NCAA Championship qualifier in 1979.
“To see American University in fifth place on the scoreboard at the Championships was a monumental feat that Cody deserves the credit for,” Danielson said. “He came and took a program that was nothing and built it into a national contender with a lot of hard work.”
Cody is happy with his team’s performance at the championships but not satisfied. He is still in the hunt to be number one is the nation in wrestling and academics, and his goal is to achieve both in the same year.
Currently, Cody’s 2011 NWCA National Coach of Year plaque hangs in his 6-year-old son George’s room. George doesn’t understand that its one of a kind. Lucky for him, his father has everything it takes to bring home a similar one next year.