The name Kerry McCoy is one of the most recognizable when it comes to Penn State wrestling.
The two-time national champ (1994, 1997) went 131-1 in his sophomore through senior seasons with the Nittany Lions — and went onto represent the U.S. in the Olympics in 2000 and 2004.
As the current head coach of the Maryland Terrapins, McCoy said he has to balance his roles as a Penn State alum and the head coach of Big Ten competition. But he always enjoys coming back to State College.
McCoy took a bit of time to talk to the Centre Daily Times about Penn State’s chances for another Hodge Trophy, how fan support has followed him throughout his career, and more:
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Q: You were Penn State’s first Hodge Trophy winner — what do you think the chances are Penn State hauls in its fifth this year? Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal have all been in early Hodge speculation talks this season. What are your thoughts on them?
A: I think their chances are pretty good. I mean, they’ve got some pretty good guys out there who are doing OK, so I think there’s a pretty good chance the trophy’s going to stay around and make a few appearances in State College over the next few years.
It’s always interesting when I get to talk about Penn State because as an alum, it’s all very exciting, but as the competition, it’s not so much fun, so you always got to tow that line. Without a doubt, they’re three of the most exciting wrestlers — Zain, without question for me, is one of the most dominant wrestlers in college wrestling right now. Kyle Snyder — who’s splitting his time with international competition — would be the next person. Zain has done a great job and is really exciting. Jason is a similar situation. In the past couple years, he’s proven to be one of the better guys to come along at that weight class — or at any weight class. Bo’s had a couple of tough matches here and there, but ultimately, he’s still putting up a lot of points. So, yeah, those three guys are doing a great job for the Nittany Lions — and for the sport in general. I mean, you got to be up for it. If you’re competing against them, you got to be up for a battle. And all the other guys in the country can look and see what those guys are doing and try to emulate it.
Q: What was your favorite memory from your time at Penn State?
A: The people. It’s awesome. We went back last season for our dual, and a lot of the faces that were there when I was competing are still around, and it’s just awesome to see. You know, I didn’t have a great start my freshman year. I was up and down, but the people — at least from what I saw — were always supportive of me. Even when I got knocked out of the NCAA tournament, they were patting me on the back and encouraging me. So, win, lose or draw, the fans and supporters, the support staff and coaches, they all made the experience all that much more rewarding. Fortunately, I won a bit more than I lost, so it was a little bit easier, but it really was all about the fans and the boosters.
And it’s continued throughout the years, no matter where I was. Even when I was at Lehigh and we were big rivals, I still got support from Penn Staters. And a few of them had come to watch me when I wrestled competitively in New York City and when I wrestled at the Olympics in Athens. After being away from State College for a couple years, I still had a bunch of supporters who were Penn Staters.
A few years ago, it was really interesting when Jimmy Sheptock was wrestling Ed Ruth in the NCAA finals, and I still had a lot of Penn State fans. Obviously they needed Ed to win for them to have a chance at the team title, and at the same time they wanted me to be successful and coach my first national champion. So I had a lot of people come up to me and say, “Hey, we’re really torn right now. We want you to get a national champ.” And that meant a lot to me. The fact that they said they were torn because of the situation made me feel good that I still had a lot of support.
Q: Switching back to the current team for a moment, there are a few guys on Penn State’s roster — Retherford and Nolf in particular — who haven’t lost a match in a while. Zain’s working on his third undefeated season, and Jason his second. As a guy who’s familiar with that himself, what does it take to have an undefeated season? And if you do lose, as you did once, how do you pick yourself up and move on from that?
A: My freshman year, I lost a lot — 17 matches. But I was fortunate to have great coaches and workout partners. I lost a lot. In practice every day, I was losing. We had situations in practice where I’d wrestle two or three guys at once and they’d switch off me just to get me to the point where I was exhausted and had to push through it.
So my sophomore year I went undefeated, then my junior year, the one match I lost was in the NCAA semifinals, so there was really no time to dwell on it. I had to be able to bounce back and finish third. Then the next year, I took off competitively to train for the Olympic team in 1996. So I didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on not winning in ’95 when I was trying to make the Olympic team in ’96. I didn’t make the team in ’96, but the experience of training and preparation — four years of training and preparation — and went into my last year like, “Hey, I’m just going to go out there and enjoy my last year, have fun and wrestle my best.” And I think it’s kind of the same with those guys. They just want to go out there and wrestle as hard as they can for as long as they can and try to score points. And I think if you’re focusing on that, you don’t worry about the wins and the losses because you’re just going out there and scoring points. So if you give up a takedown or give up a score, you say, “Hey, I’m just going to keep scoring points,” and you tend to bounce back. So I think the same philosophy of bouncing back after a loss is the same as after a win. If you just go out there and wrestle your best and score points, that’s all you focus on. Instead of the result, you focus on the process.
Q: When Penn State wrestled Lehigh in December, the dual came down to the last bout — which Nick Nevills won with a third-period rideout. I’m sure that as a heavyweight, you’ve been in that sort of situation plenty of times, where the match comes down to you. How does one stay calm under pressure in that situation?
A: My coaches always said to take care of yourself first. Go out there and wrestle to the best of your ability and then, as you’re starting to wrestle and you get the opportunity to put a guy on his back or score some extra points, then take care of that, but don’t go out there thinking “Hey, I have to pin this guy,” because then you’re not focusing on your wrestling. I think that’s really what it was for me in those circumstances — just go out there and wrestle to the best of my ability and wrestle as hard as I can. If we’re down by two, and the team needs me to win, if I go out there and wrestle, it’s going to happen. If we’re down by 4 or 5, and I have to go out there and score points, I just have to continue focusing on myself. So I think the nervous part of it was just the excitement of being able to go out there and perform when the match is on the line.
It’s really funny because you say it comes down to the last match, but it really comes down to the nine previous matches. I remember we had a match, I think it was my sophomore year, against North Carolina at Hershey Arena, and we had a guy on our team — Mikey Brennan — who I don’t think ever placed in the state tournament in Pennsylvania. He was a walk-on guy who just came in and worked hard. I think he was second or third string, our starter was hurt or another guy was out, but Mikey ended up getting the start against a kid — Ty Moore — who was a four-time Pennsylvania state champ, and Mikey Brennan ended up beating this kid. It was his first match, and he goes out there and beats a kid he had no business, on paper, being competitive with. He wins that match, and then the match before me, we had a guy who was again a walk-on kid from Virginia, and he was wrestling a guy who was ranked in the top 10 in the country, and in a scramble situation, he caught the guy on his back and ended up getting a pin. So going into my match, I think we were up one or two points and I had to wrestle someone — I was ranked 1 or 2 in the country — who was ranked in the top 10, so it was a big match. So I just tried to go out there and get the win, but if it weren’t for those other guys stepping up and performing, I wouldn’t have even been put in that situation.
I remember that match as much as I remember some of the other matches that I won — national championships and Big Ten championships — because that dual meet was a complete and total team effort. The thing we’re always talking about as athletes is coming together for your teammates, and coaches and rising to the occasion, and that’s a match that always sticks out. I actually showed it a couple years ago to my team here — didn’t show my match, but I showed the other matches — these guys who had no business winning, how they stepped up and made it happen for the team. When everybody does their job, whether it’s a guy who gets an upset or somebody who doesn’t give up bonus points, everybody plays a part and that’s one of the best things about a dual meet because all those things matter, and that’s what makes it more exciting.
Q: What do you want to do after you’re done coaching? What’s your next move?
A: Right now my passion is with coaching. I love it. I love being in the room. I love teaching, helping guys develop, seeing the growth of guys. If you’re really good coming out of high school, seeing that guy develop and continue to achieve success — if you didn’t have the most success in high school but you were able to come in and develop, and have some success in college, that’s what it’s all about. Ultimately, the goal is to get the degree and make sure these guys are positive members of society, so I really enjoy that.
After coaching, I see myself in kind of an administrative role, in college athletics or something close to sports, working with USA Wrestling or USOC, someplace where I can stay involved with athletics. That’s what really brings people together. When you see how crazy things are in the world, you can always rely on sports — even though they sometimes get a little bit crazy, too — ... (and it’s) something I’m truly passionate about. I’m coaching right now, and hopefully will continue for the rest of my life to be able to contribute to the world of sport.