Fifteen years ago, Ken Chertow checked off an item on his bucket list with the construction of his brick home in Boalsburg complete with its own wrestling room.
Chertow dedicated his life to the sport, and the specially designed space he calls the Home Training Center allowed him to hold workouts on his property. It features offices and two wrestling rooms, where Chertow trained novice wrestlers in elementary school and worked with PIAA champions and future NCAA All-Americans since 2002.
Chertow even installed a custom gate at his home’s entrance on Linden Hall Road, featuring the silhouette of a wrestler and the Olympic rings as another way for him to promote his sport.
“People know this is the wrestling house,” Chertow said at the Home Training Center in the last week of March.
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But after 15 years, the place he trains won’t be the wrestling house in Centre County anymore — there’s a “For Sale” sign near the gate, and Chertow has plans to live in a six-month rental house in Charlotte, N.C., as he begins his tenure as the head coach of a start-up Division II program at Queens University of Charlotte.
For the past few years, Chertow explored the idea of returning to college coaching. After his career at Penn State, Chertow spent three years as an assistant at Ohio State and two years on the Nittany Lions staff before leaving coaching to make his living running wrestling camps. With both of his children now at Penn State and his financial goals accomplished, Chertow said he could cross another item off his bucket list by leading his own college program.
Queens University of Charlotte was the right fit — Chertow and his wife planned to move south when their kids went to college, and the Queens administration showed its commitment to supporting athletics when Chertow visited the campus.
Now, Chertow is working to create the Queens program from scratch for its first-ever season in 2017-18.
“We know that we can build a successful wrestling program down there,” Chertow said.
Chertow first learned about the head coaching job at Queens as he lounged on the beach in Naples, Fla., with his family during Penn State’s spring break.
He took a phone call from Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, but he wasn’t particularly excited about the opportunity. Moyer called about other programs in the past few years in Kansas, Arkansas and Alabama, but Chertow wasn’t interested.
“That wasn’t on our bucket list,” Chertow said.
But Chertow was intrigued enough — he and his wife would consider moving to North Carolina — to call James Bullock, Queens’ vice president for university advancement. Moyer learned about Queens’ interest in wrestling earlier this year from a coach at the Division II NCAA championships in Birmingham, Ala., and reached out to Bullock.
Bullock’s earlier conversation with Moyer had quickly turned to coaching candidates, and Chertow — an Olympian, NCAA All-American, coach and television analyst — was among the names.
“It’s easy to see why he would be a top choice,” Moyer said.
On the beach in Naples, Chertow spoke with Bullock for an hour and started to seriously consider the job. Coincidentally, he was connecting in Charlotte on his flight home that weekend, so instead of flying to Harrisburg as planned, he and his wife visited Queens. They arrived on campus at the same time as the university’s men’s and women’s swimming teams’ bus pulled in with hundreds of people waiting to greet them after both teams captured their third straight Div. II national championships in Birmingham.
“You just see right away this school values their success in athletics,” Chertow said.
The scene offered a glimpse into Chertow’s vision for his program — and the swimming program’s history shows the potential for success at Queens.
About seven years ago, the swimming program started from scratch with the hiring of a head coach.
At the entrance to the main wrestling room at the Home Training Center, Chertow displays articles and photos highlighting the success of his wrestlers.
There’s an article about State College’s Matt Kocher winning the PIAA title his senior year of high school. There’s a framed photo from Penn State’s Zain Retherford after he won the state title in high school with the note: “Ken, Thanks for helping me reach my goals!” And there are articles about Bald Eagle Area standout Quentin Wright and Clearfield’s Brad Pataky during their Penn State careers.
They all trained under Chertow for years and enjoyed decorated high school and college careers.
“I know I wouldn’t have been the wrestler I ended up being without his help and without his guidance,” said Pataky, who won two PIAA titles in high school and now serves as the wrestling coach at Philipsburg-Osceola.
For the last 15 years, Chertow worked with young wrestlers at his Home Training Center and ran his camps. Chertow started running camps as a freshman in college, with his first drawing 12 kids at his junior high school in West Virginia. In his first year out of Penn State, 100 kids attended his summer camp. Soon, he was making far more money through his camps than he was as an assistant coach at Penn State, so he decided to give up coaching.
“My full-time job was paying me $20,000 a year and my part-time wrestling camp job was paying me significant income,” Chertow said. “It was a business decision.”
Chertow will continue to run camps throughout the country, including in State College this summer, but he’s ready to replace his days developing youth and high school wrestlers at the Home Training Center with coaching at Queens.
Pataky thinks Chertow will find success in Charlotte with his passion and intensity.
He started training with Chertow in third grade and still recalls seeing three words featured on a mat — family, friends and academics — at one of the first practices. Chertow preached about being a better family member, friend and student in addition to helping them improve as wrestlers. Pataky said Chertow made him want to be the best version of himself.
Chertow did pushups and pullups at workouts, then challenged his wrestlers to do them. Pataky said it was motivating to have him going through workouts alongside them, something he now does as the Mounties’ coach. Chertow also brought intensity to the room, and one moment still sticks with Pataky years later.
After being put on his back during a practice in sixth grade, Pataky heard Chertow scream, “Pataky, get off your back!” at the top of his lungs. At times, Pataky gave up easy points, but after that day, he wrestled with a sense of urgency. It didn’t hit him until after his college career how much that moment affected him.
“I just remember thinking back like, oh wow, I might not be where I am if he wouldn’t have screamed, ‘Get off your back,’” Pataky said.
Whenever Queens wins a national championship, the school lights up the clock tower on campus in blue and gold.
It’s an expectation at the school after the swimming program’s success under coach Jeff Dugdale. And it’s a goal Chertow outlined in an email after being hired, as he wrote he wants to build his team with wrestlers who want to win individual and team national championships “in the next few years.”
Dugdale knows what it takes after leading the swimming program from start-up to national powerhouse in seven years, and so does Notre Dame College (Ohio) wrestling coach Frank Romano. Since the team’s first season in 2006-07, Romano has led Notre Dame to two NAIA national titles and two Division II national titles, including the 2017 championship.
Chertow spoke with Romano about starting a program and what it takes. Romano stressed the importance of recruiting and getting support from the administration to fund everything. Chertow said Queens is creating 8.9 scholarships — the most allowed by the NCAA — for his program.
It’s a crucial factor for success.
“If I’m getting 8.9 and my top competitor is getting four, well I got an advantage — huge advantage because money talks,” Romano said. “So if I’m trying to recruit somebody who’s won three or four state titles and I can give more money than the next guy, that could greatly affect the situation.”
Chertow asked Romano about where and how he recruits, and Romano told Chertow that he shouldn’t limit himself and think a three-time state champion won’t attend a Division II school. Some kids, Romano said, want to attend a smaller school.
Chertow plans to take that approach at Queens.
“I want them to come with me, not the ACC schools,” Chertow said. “That’s definitely my goal is to get the top talent, and then I’ll also be welcoming Pennsylvania wrestlers.”
Once he has a team, Dugdale said he’ll need to implement his plan and build trust with his wrestlers. When Dugdale talked about winning a national championship, his swimmers didn’t have faith in themselves. But Dugdale laid out his plan, telling them that he wanted to finish in the top 10 by the third year and in the top 4 by the fourth year.
The expectation then became winning the national championship.
“For us to have the serious talk in Year 5, to say this: Now we’re no longer dreaming. It’s been very easy to climb the ladder and to move quickly but now you have to understand and want to be here,” Dugdale said. “You’re here now. You’re there. You’re ready to go.”
Queens won both the men’s and women’s championships that year to start its run of three straight.
Chertow started recruiting the day he accepted the job, immediately sending out a mass email and talking to dozens of coaches and prospective wrestlers.
“The first step’s recruiting,” Chertow said. “Really for the next whole six months until the kids get on campus in September, my main goal is recruiting.”
In the first year, Chertow is looking to build a roster of 12-20 wrestlers. That number will grow over time, but for now, he’s emphasizing that he’ll be able to give his wrestlers personal attention to fulfill their goals. He’s pitching the chance to build something special with him, too.
With dreams of his wrestlers winning national championships, Chertow said he’s back in college coaching for the long haul.
“I’m not going down there for just a couple years,” Chertow said. “I’m looking forward to building a powerhouse.”