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In Play with Craig Mattick: Mark Manning

University of Nebraska

Craig Mattick: Welcome to another edition of In Play. I am Craig Mattick. I truly enjoy the stories of former successful athletes in high school who eventually stay with the sport and then become successful as a coach. Today's guest certainly fits the narrative to a T. He is one of 36 wrestlers in South Dakota high school history to be a three-time state wrestling champion. He led his team to its first state team wrestling title in 1979. He was a two-time Division II national wrestling champ, a three-time All-American, even in the Pan Am games in the late eighties he was a silver medalist. And of course he's been a coach. He's been at North Carolina, Northern Iowa, Oklahoma, and now in his 24th year he is the head wrestling coach at Nebraska. The all time winning his coach for the Huskers the Vermilion, South Dakota native Mark Manning joining us on In Play. And Mark, welcome to In Play.

Mark Manning: Thanks a lot, Craig. Thanks for having me on. And it's a pleasure to be joining you.

Craig Mattick: Wrestling has been a part of your life for well over 40 years. What would you have done if you didn't love wrestling so much, Mark?

Mark Manning: I don't know. I'd probably be a farmer, I guess, huh? I grew up on a farm and a lot of influence of my mom and dad and obviously being in a big family, and my older brother's farm and do a terrific job. So, I don't know. I probably would've followed their path, but not sure. I'm lucky that wrestling was in my life.

Craig Mattick: That house was full of brothers. Was there constant wrestling battles going on? Was Mom and Dad always yelling at you boys to settle down because you all were wrestling?

Mark Manning: Oh yeah. I think my mother was 98. She passed away a little over a year ago and I think she's on a crown right now because she had to put up with us all the time, and she had to be the referee. She's probably the best referee I've ever had,

Craig Mattick: Back in the early seventies, Vermilion had a pretty good wrestling program. The Tanagers finished as runner ups in the team title twice, 1973 and 1975. You had to have been about sixth grade at that time. How involved were you in wrestling at that time when Vermilion was doing pretty well?

Mark Manning: You know what, I was just a young whippersnapper, and I was watching my brother Dan and my brother Tom wrestle. And then my brother Brian, who's three years older than me, he got involved. And so just watching really Dan and my brother Tom wrestle, and really just been influenced by those guys and seeing just their career evolve. And guys like Kevin Cusick and Bill Fuchs and Mike Scherr. And there was a lot of good wrestlers coming out of Vermillion then, and they inspired us younger guys that were really engulfed in the sport and really just waiting to rise up and be like those guys.

Craig Mattick: When did you make the commitment, though, that you were going to be a wrestler. You weren't going to be a basketball. You were going to do something, but when did you make that commitment?

Mark Manning: Well, I don't know when I decided I was going to end up doing it for a lifetime or really for going into college and stuff. I think somewhere in high school I thought, "Hey, you know what? I'd like to do this in college." But maybe more like my sophomore year and junior year in high school, I had really good teammates like Bob Hirsch and Nick Karantinos, and my cousin, Craig Manning. They all went on and wrestled up at Augustana, at Northern State, South Dakota. And we've always been friends, so they really inspired me.

And just one man sharpens another. That analogy and that biblical analogy of really people inspiring other people and how the good vibe that that person has rubs off on you. And I think at that time, Vermillion High School had a really good aroma going around the school. A lot of good wrestlers and we had some good football teams, and it was a fun time to be a part of that. And we had a lot of fun times, just a lot of great memories.

Craig Mattick: You were a sophomore back in 1978. You won your first state wrestling title. What do you remember about that year? I mean, maybe there was a little deer in the headlight look with that first time seeing success and going to the state wrestling tournament.

Mark Manning: Well, it's funny. I wrestled the guy in the state finals who I had wrestled a couple of times the year before, and I was super disappointed. I thought there was a bad call, and I thought I had won the match and I didn't. And I lost by one, so I wasn't really afraid of the moment my sophomore year. It was more like I know I was better than this kid and I took a little chip on my shoulder, and that's how I competed. And I stayed in the moment and just tried to prove to the world that I was going to win. So it worked out for me.

Craig Mattick: Well the next year, you're a junior, you go undefeated, you're 30 and 0, but you had to move up a weight class from 126 to 138. It seemed to be not too difficult since you won every match that year and won another title.

Mark Manning: It was difficult. I broke my clavicle, my shoulder bone in the semifinals that year and had to get taken to the hospital. I had some sickness going on, and so it was not easy. And I had to wrestle an undefeated kid from Huron who was really good in the finals. So I faced some adversity at the state tournament that year. And you go from being the hunter to being the hunted. And so it's a little bit different mentality. And not that I was never in that earlier on in my career, but more on the bigger stage, high school state finals, that type of thing. It's just one of those moments where you're tested as a person, you're tested as a competitor. So it might have seemed easy on paper, but it was nothing but easy.

Craig Mattick: So you hurt the shoulder against Randy Steinbrook from Rapid City Central that year.

Mark Manning: Yes.

Craig Mattick: You won that match four to three, but you hurt the shoulder.

Mark Manning: Yeah.

Craig Mattick: And then you have to take on Hobie Richards of Huron in the finals. So how much time was it between going to the hospital and wrestling in the finals?

Mark Manning: I don't know, it seemed like two days, but I don't know. I guess it was maybe a number, maybe six hours or so.

Craig Mattick: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

Mark Manning: So my mom and dad were great at that at those times. My parents always supported us, always came to all our wrestling matches, football games. Some of my brothers played baseball. They really supported us, but they never got involved. Never got involved, never. We might talk to them during a wrestling tournament or something, go up and say hi, but that's it. And I remember when I got taken to the hospital, and I was sick and my shoulder was hurt, it was looking kind of grim there. My mom and dad were there for me and it was really neat to just have the support at the right time, where it's much different now.

Parents react and want to get involved a lot. I just remember my mom and dad set a great example for my family as far as how to parent, how to let the coach and trust the coach. And I was blessed to be around Jerry Schlekeway and Willie Seibel, and Jerry Culver helped out some. And it was really, really just good people around. So I think parents really just trusted the coaches. But my parents were there for me then, and that's something I needed at the time.

Craig Mattick: Yeah, you're wrestling in the state championship with only one shoulder. You're feeling awful, and of course it has to go overtime against Hobie Richards. You had faced him though a number of times during the season.

Mark Manning: Yeah, he was tough. He was tough, and I knew he was pretty confident and seemed really confident. It was a tough match, so it wasn't like I was a shoe in.

Craig Mattick: Well that team in 1979, Vermilion won the state wrestling championship. It was up in Aberdeen, but you only placed two titles. Bob Hirsch won at 126. You won at 138. It kind of rare for a team title to have only two champions, but boy, you had a lot of them that play second or third or fourth to score all those points. You had Craig Manning, he placed second. You had Karantinos was third, and Greg Blanchard was third. And of course Kevin Seibel was fourth at heavyweights. So you scored a lot of points in the semis.

Mark Manning: Yeah, that was the fun part about it, is in wrestling, to win a state title and win a championship like that takes a great team effort. And not everyone's going to be a champion, but it's everyone competing, and not only giving their best, it's fighting to see how far you can go. In wrestling, you get beat. Well, someone can come back and get third, and there's a lot of... All the guys that come back in the wrestle backs have a chance to get third. So, it's usually the tougher man that's going to do that. So, I think as a team and a program, our coaches really did a great job at teaching us, "Hey, you fight back. You score every point you can, and you're not only doing it for yourself, but you're wrestling for bigger, something bigger than just yourself." And that was really instilled in our team, and I think our team really embraced that. We had a great bond and we still do today. It's really neat.

Craig Mattick: What is amazing to me, 1979 for Vermilion, Bob Hirsch won a title. You won a title, and you both go on to coaching. Bob Hirsch, he wrestled at Northern, and then of course he was at Milbank in Watertown. And look where you have gone. How about that? Two Tanagers and what they've done in their wrestling careers? Do you get ahold of Bob once in a while over the years, talk much?

Mark Manning: I talk to him all the time, and his daughter went to school here at Nebraska about eight years ago. And Ian and his daughter live here, and so it's really neat. Bob and I connect all the time. He's always down to a lot of wrestling matches, comes down for football games. And so we're really close today just like we were back then. So we haven't really missed a beat. Guys like Dan Leibolt and obviously my cousin Craig Manning, really close, Nick Karantinos.

So yeah, we've remained not only high school friends, but we remained friends through life. And so I think that's something that, that's the reason why we did win because we loved and cared for each other. You know what I mean? And there was a special bond there. We put a lot of work in together, and it was kind of magical. And it was a really good culture we had going, and you fed off each other. And I'm very grateful to have really brothers that were in front of me that show me the way. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been a three time state champ. Just watch my brother Dan wrestle, and then Tom and then Brian, and then my younger brother Tim was obviously very successful.

Craig Mattick: Three times.

Mark Manning: Three time state champ himself. So you're inspired by other people and that starts at the top with my mom and dad, and just how they raised us. You had to help out in the farm.

Craig Mattick: Yep. You couldn't do it all by yourself, that's for sure.

Mark Manning: I always say when I speak at all the different speaking engagements I've had the privilege to talk to in the last 40 years, as you normally. My dad was kind of the Vince Lombardi of farming. And so he was at the top of his game, so you had to step up doing chores, helping out in the farm. And so he wanted to be great at his craft, too. So we were all part of that, so.

Craig Mattick: You miss being on the combine?

Mark Manning: Well, you know what, not right away. I was glad to get away to college right away, but just the lessons you learn and the values you learn by the work ethic and the discipline to do something over and over and over, day after day, it gets monotonous for younger people. And I was that young guy, that same way a lot of young kids think now, but that discipline and that work ethic and that ability to focus when you don't really want to provides a lot of good lessons for you later on in life.

Craig Mattick: You won three high school wrestling championships, and then you chose to wrestle at Nebraska but lasted only one year before you transferred to Nebraska Omaha. How come?

Mark Manning: You know what, I've never been asked that too much. As people always say, "Well hey, you transferred." You know what, there again, just I'll give you an answer of how I was raised. When I got to Nebraska, I wasn't really coached the way I thought when I was recruited. People can recruit one way and then when you are actually around them for nine months, they act different. So people didn't believe in me, so I wanted to believe in myself, go somewhere else. And I was lucky enough to be in a program at Nebraska Omaha where I knew Mike Denney and all his staff, they were just servant leaderships. The leadership, when I had at Nebraska, was so much different than when I got to UNO. So, I think-

Craig Mattick: You won two Division II wrestling championships at UNO, and you mentioned Mike Denney. What did he do to make you a better wrestler?

Mark Manning: Well, I think it starts with his staff. He had great people. Coach is just a great people person and someone you could trust and lean on and know that you could always go to him for advice. He was a principled person. That's the difference between Coach Denney and the coach I had at Nebraska at the time. And I learned a lot later on in life of how to coach because I had a bad experience at Nebraska. And when I coach, I want to have my guys have a great experience. I want them to have experience like what they dream of when they're coming out of high school. They want a coach that loves them, cares about them, is there for them, is going to serve them, and provide for their needs. And not make it easy for them, but teach them lessons that they're going to have to not only be successful on the mat, in the classroom, you're going to be successful in life. And that's the principles Mike Denney taught, and he was great. Terrific person, lived by his faith, and just a great man of integrity.

Craig Mattick: You became a coach after your career in wrestling. You became an assistant coach at North Carolina, 1985, an assistant coach at Oklahoma in '93, head coach at Northern Iowa in '99. So how did you grow as a coach during those 15 years and at those three schools?

Mark Manning: Well, after I got done with college, when I went to North Carolina, I was a competitor too, so I wrestled on, tried to make the national team, which I did for a number of years. And I wrestled till I was 31, as I was coaching. So that was a big commitment. I wrestled overseas. I wrestled in Russia and Bulgaria and Turkey and the Pan Am games a couple times. So I was doing that and coaching at the same time and learning how to recruit and how to run a budget, how to deal with people, and how to coach at that level.

Craig Mattick: So Bill Lamb at North Carolina and Jack Space at Oklahoma taught you to do that.

Mark Manning: Yeah, and Bill Lamb, he was so important in my coaching career because one, he gave me an opportunity to coach at a Division I level. I had a couple other opportunities, Penn State and at Arizona State, and I just felt that North Carolina and Bill Lamb was going to be the best place, and it turned out to be a game changer because Bill was really good. He was a longtime coach there, winningest coach in ACC history. He won the ACC, I think, 16 out of the 31 years that he coached at North Carolina. And we had a lot of good success when I was there and that was great, and I've made great relationships with all the oldest guys.

And that just kind of took off, and he taught me a lot of... He just gave me the opportunity to go on the road recruiting, and you make relationships and you build lifetime bonds of not only through who you're coaching, but it just multiplies.

Well, those guys right now, they're in their forties and fifties. And so I have relationships with those young men even today. And so in recruiting Carolina, I can call up someone that I know in New Jersey or Ohio or in Pennsylvania-

Craig Mattick: Uh-huh, sure.

Mark Manning: ... And say, "Hey, you know about this guy?" And they're going to shoot me straight. Those were all kind of fostered when I was at North Carolina. And so Coach Lamb really just took the time to teach me how to do a lot of those things. And recruiting and building relationships was really kind of easy for me, and Bill was really good at it, and so he helped me.

Craig Mattick: You got to be good at it to be a coach for a long time, and that's certainly what you've done, Mark. You're at Northern Iowa, but then the Nebraska job, the coaching job comes up in 2000. Did you get a little excited when you heard that the Husker job was open?

Mark Manning: Yeah. What's funny about that, Craig, is when I was at Northern Iowa, I was a hundred percent at Northern Iowa. And what's ironic is about we had a really good year and we had a national champion in Tony Davis at Northern Iowa, and we placed 11th at the NCAA tournament, which is highest they ever had. And we had a number one recruiting class in the country. So I had a really good group of young men from across the country coming in at UNI, and that was my future.

And then the Nebraska job, coach got fired. There was a little bit of a scandal. So, usually you don't go into it and get a big job like a Nebraska job or Oklahoma State or Iowa unless something really bad happens. So it's not like you're going in and well, everything's rosy. So I was leaving a place where I had gone in and re-energized the place, and we had it really just so much positivity, and when I got the Nebraska job, I thought, "Well, hey, I'm going to go in and do the same thing." But it's a whole different world when you're walking into a place like in Nebraska where people expect not only to win, but you got to do it the right way.

Well, that's the only way I knew how to do it, but there was a lot of challenges when I got here. Probably the first three months, I think, I took over sometime in May, May of that year in 2000, and probably in August 15th, if you would've asked me, "Hey, do you want to go back to Northern Iowa?" I would've said yes.

So, the challenges were fast and furious, and those three or four months were not easy. They were the hardest of all my coaching years, a lot of negativity. But now, oh, it's-

Craig Mattick: 24 years. You've got 70 all-Americans that you've had a chance to coach.

Mark Manning: I've been blessed by some amazing young men in my career here at Nebraska, and we have a family here, Craig. I mean, it's just a wrestling family. We have alumni. We've had alumni weekends for numerous years, and it's built. Over a hundred alumni came back this year from across the country for our very first duel, and we're trying to not only produce great wrestlers, but great men and great fathers, and that's what really our foundation is. We want to make people better men than when they come here, and obviously we're going to teach them a lot of wrestling, too.

Craig Mattick: Speaking of a guy who is an alumnus of Nebraska, it takes me back to 1979. That state wrestling championship in Aberdeen, where you won your second title at 138. Vermilion wins the state title, but you know what? There's a guy who wrestled after you from Mobridge, Bill Scherr, who was in that tournament, as well. He goes to Nebraska, has a great career, and look what he's done with the Olympic Wrestling Program. It's just amazing, the connection.

Mark Manning: Yep. Bill and Jim Scherr were... I roomed with Jim my second semester here at Nebraska, and we remain friends today. And I was just actually texting with Bill today. So yeah, they had great careers here at Nebraska and then obviously on the world Olympic level. Jim was a multiple world medalist and Bill being a world champion in 1986, and then Olympic bronze medalists. So they both had tremendous careers and were great influences for me.

Craig Mattick: How has training changed today in wrestling compared to your days in Vermilion?

Mark Manning: I think, not only technology, but I think there's just more science behind training. I'd say 25 years ago, people ran a lot in wrestling. "Hey, you got to get in great shape. You got to run."

Craig Mattick: With rubber suits.

Mark Manning: You got to wrestle to get in great shape, but a lot of running. Well, I mean it's good, but our team now doesn't run near as much as they did 25 years ago or 20 years ago. And so some of the technology of the nutritional aspect, I think, is just the game changer, of what to eat, drink, and when to feed your body, when to hydrate your body is so, so important. And then the number one thing is sleep. Sleep and rest. Just back. Say 1979, no one ever talked really that much about those things. It was just about, "Hey, make weight, get ready to wrestle."

Craig Mattick: Yep.

Mark Manning: And obviously you trained hard, and you ran, and you did a lot of stuff that might've been detrimental. You did it because you thought, "Hey, the guy before me did it so I got to do it."

Craig Mattick: Sure.

Mark Manning: Rather than there's much science behind it, you just did it because someone else had done it. And the technique is just light years ahead of where we were. There was great wrestlers back, obviously, 20, 25 years ago, but now the technique, and there's just really good athletes out there.

Craig Mattick: I got a couple more for you, Mark. Your brother Tim, he won three state wrestling titles, wrestled at Iowa State and Minnesota, got into some coaching, as well. Big difference in coaching styles between you and your brother, Tim.

Mark Manning: Well, I think Tim, he coached a little bit with Jay Robertson for a year or two, and he's another guy that is a really good people person. And he was very successful in the business world and retired a little over a year ago. And he had an amazing career at CH Robinson, a big Fortune 200 company, and he had the opportunity to travel all across the world. And I think the value of the sport of wrestling, what the lessons and the adversity and all the challenges of training at a high level and trying to be the best at a high level took him to where he was in the business world.

And that's what people don't understand, is what we always teach here in our program is, "Hey, you want to be successful in life, you're successful on the mat." And you might not be the varsity guy. You might be a backup. You might be third string, but if you're giving your best all the time, 10 years from now, that's going to pay off because you're going to know how to be elite. You're going to know how to compete because a lot of people want the easy way. Show me the easy way to be wealthy or to be the CEO of... Well, it's never easy. And so I think our sport is... One, it's a one-on-one sport, but two, just takes a lot of commitment and a lot of training to take yourself to that next level, both physically and mentally.

Craig Mattick: Girls wrestling in South Dakota has seen huge growth, Mark, over the past three years. Girls wrestling now in college, as well. It's on the rise. How is girls wrestling going on in Nebraska?

Mark Manning: Oh man, it's reached amazing heights. Here at Nebraska, I think they're going to have their own state tournament this year. So I think girls wrestling nationwide has just reached new levels the last couple years. And obviously in the Olympics there's six Olympic Greco weights, there's six freestyle weight classes, and then there's six girl weights. So they get equal opportunity to maximize their ability at the Olympic level, world level each year, and those young ladies are just as committed as the men. And so the sport of women's wrestling is just off the charts right now. It's really growing at a crazy level, and rightly so. And I know a lot of Division III and NEI schools and Division II, enrollment driven schools that want to have women's wrestling. It's really smart because there's a lot of committed girls out there that, they love the sport, they want to compete, and there's a lot of good opportunities, just not as many on the Division I level.

Craig Mattick: South Dakota has produced so many great wrestlers over the years, Woolman, Storley, Lamer, McIlravy, Kocer, Schunke, even a Hutmacher, who I think you might see him once in a while there on the wrestling mat at Nebraska. Smith, Walraven, the Scherrs, the Mannings. In fact, I told you before the very opening, there are 34 3 time champions in South Dakota Class A wrestling, 34. 5 of those are from Vermillion. Did you know that? You got Lucus Anglin and Hazen and Regan Bye, Tim and Mark Manning. Wow. Five out of 34. That's a pretty good percentage from one school there, Mark, with that success.

Mark Manning: Yeah, that is. I did not know that, Craig, but that's great. That's outstanding.

Craig Mattick: Now, I wanted to find out about Willie Seibel and your coaches at Vermilion, what they meant to you going through high school.

Mark Manning: Well, he met a lot. One, all his kids were obviously Kevin and then Kurt and Kent and Kyle, they were all involved in football as well as wrestling. Well, Kurt, not so much. He was more of a basketball player, but those guys were just around us all the time. They were very engulfed in sports and loved the sports and really coaching football and wrestling. It was great because one, Willie was very passionate, instilled a lot of confidence in you, and he was an intense guy, but just a super person. I just really enjoyed Willie.

I think Jerry Schlekeway was really that way too, just a different kind of leader, but a really great leader. The way he got people to believe and honest and fair, and I think those two guys were really very impactful for me. And I know for my brother Tim, we've talked about it many times with Craig Manning and Bob Hirsch, Nick Karantinos. We were lucky to have those guys. They might not have known every wrestling move out there, but that's not what coaching's all about sometimes. It's about how you handle people and the principles you teach, and just the belief you get from them and really inspired you and challenged you to be your best. And man, I think he just had a way to get you going and challenge you in a way that brought out your best.

Craig Mattick: This is the last one for you, Mark. What is so rewarding about being the coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers?

Mark Manning: Well, I'm just happy that I'm privileged to be here at Nebraska. The biggest thing for me is to have my guys. My team is just an extension of my family, and I love all the guys on my team. And I have basically 35 guys on my team, and they all come through at 18 to 23 years old. It's a big responsibility because I tell parents, "Hey, your son comes to Nebraska, I'm going to take care of him just like my son." And I give them my word that I'm going to treat them all fair.

Not all the same because God didn't make them all the same. Some he blessed with better talent, better strength, better ability, but they're all going to be treated with love and fairness. They're going to be better people when they graduate from here and go on. They're going to have great lives because we're going to really invest in them. That's probably the best thing about coaching here, is I've had great young men and great coaches with me to really guide these guys to be their best. The Jordan Burroughs and James Green and Craig Brester and Brandon Brown and all these guys, whether they came in on scholarship or walk-ons, they all reached an amazing level and just really proud to be their coach, and I'm just inspired to serve them.

Craig Mattick: In Play with Craig Mattick is made possible by Horton in Britton, where smiling at work happens all the time. Apply now at If you like what you're hearing, please give us a five star review wherever you get your podcasts. It helps us gain new listeners. This has been In Play with me, Craig Mattick. This is a production of South Dakota Public Broadcasting.