Imagine starting a sports program from scratch, not having equipment, coaches or a budget. Then imagine winning a national championship within four years and following with two more consecutive countrywide titles.
That is the story of the still emerging Notre Dame College wrestling team under Head Coach Frank Romano.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said.
The secret to the program’s success: Strategy on the mats, support from the College and instructing student-athletes in balance─physical and personal, singular and squad.
With more than 50 years in the sport, Romano himself has finished first at nearly every level of competition, as a high school and college grappler and a high school and college coach. His greatest victory to date, though, is imparting to young adults the intensity and calm that wrestling requires.
“It takes a lot of intangibles to be a wrestler, the overall self-discipline, continual work ethic, discretionary time management,” Romano said. “In wrestling you have to always be composed, to make and maintain weight on your own personal time, as well as meet opponents on the mats with high energy.”
To cultivate passion and control, Romano helps students structure their days─carving out time for classes and homework is as significant as making time for meals, conditioning and practice. He encourages them to stick to their schedules.
And since the wrestling season stretches over two semesters, the challenges carry over, especially to the classroom, all year long.
“It’s more difficult coaching college wrestling because students have a lot of discretionary time,” he said. “You really have to work with them to plan their days to include school and everything else.”
Romano said he knows better than anyone that wrestlers, especially at Notre Dame, are students first and their goal should be getting a degree─their “ticket to ride”─along with becoming established in their sport.
Because academics are as important, Romano takes care in creating the team’s competition schedule, too.
“We try to make the student-athletes miss as little class time as possible,” Romano said. “Very seldom do we have a weekday meet.”
While success as a whole personis the ultimate aim for Notre Dame student-athletes, Romano has a responsibility to win wrestling meets, too. And he has, with a mat strategy that involves an equilibrium all its own: a balance between take downs and escapes.
And a sense of centering brought on by team prayer before the fury of each meet.
“Every team I’ve ever coached since 1970, we have said a prayer before each competition. Whether the students are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, that’s just what we do,” he said.
While the reflection has been ritual, Romano said Notre Dame is distinguished among his institutional wrestling experiences─andnot just because he started the program himself. Romano, who wrestled as a student at Ohio State University and previously coached at Kent State University, appreciates how students, faculty and staff get to know each other better at a smaller college.
The close-knit Notre Dame campus reinforces the intimate connections he teaches his teams, too.
“We are creating a specific culture and looking for recruits who buy into it, building camaraderie that is very involved,” Romano said. “With our team you listen and talk about things as an individual and together as a unit. We’re a very tight group. We live, work and even eat together. It becomes very personal, very involved.
“You need to practice personal structure and win individual matches, but your team competes on a meet level, too,” he added.
His continued passion for the self-control, solidarity and clash of competition inspired Romano to come out of retirement to take the head coaching position at Notre Dame when the College called on him in 2006.
The Falcons won their first National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship in 2009-2010 and a second in 2010-2011. In 2010 and 2011, the team also won the national dual meet championship sponsored by the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
Notre Dame added a National Collegiate Wrestling Association title in 2011-2012.
In its first year transitioning to NCAA Division II, the wrestling team finished third─just four points out of first place─in the 2012-2013 national championship tournament. Also, in 2013, the team was runner-up, by one point, in the coaches’ association Division II national dual meet.
In six seasons, 11 of the Notre Dame wrestlers he has coached have won individual national titles. A total of 43 students have received All-American honors, finishing among the top 8 in their weight class in the country, since the inception of the program.
“I never thought we’d be where we are today. We are so fortunate, especially for all the support we have received from the administration at the College. And all my coaches are on the same page,” he said. “It makes a big difference.”
Romano, who earned his bachelor’s degree in education from Ohio State and a master’s in education from Kent State, has a long history in wrestling, starting as a student-athlete himself.
He first took to the mat in 1961 and was a two-time state champion at Maple Heights, Ohio, High School.
From there, Romano wrestled at Ohio State University, where he was a three-time NCAA national qualifier and a two-time Big Ten place-winner, along with being a U.S. East-West All Star. He captained the Ohio State squad his junior and senior years.
In 1976 Romano tried out for the Olympics. He also was the youngest wrestler to be inducted into the Ohio Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1988.
Romano has coached at several Cleveland-area high schools, including St. Edward, Kenston, Elyria and Maple Heights. He was an assistant and then head coach at Kent State University for a total of 22 years before arriving at Notre Dame.
“I always knew I wanted to be a coach after wrestling. It was a natural thing for me because wrestling is a developmental sport,” he said. “Students come to our program with certain wrestling skills. We try to improve on that─and to increase their knowledge and abilities in all areas.”