A decade of grit: How Greg Williams built UVU wrestling

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Photos by Brigham Berthold

OREM—The UVU wrestling room is a well-hidden but distinct location on campus. Forest green and canary yellow mats cover the wide floor beneath a low ceiling. Infrequently spaced windows and dark walls punctuate a feeling of closeness as the scent of years of sweat and effort fill your nose. Wrestlers practice technique in far corners of the room, either between one another, or with the help of an assistant coach. Centered against the east wall is the office of head coach Greg Williams.

Now in his 11th season, signs of Williams’ years as head coach fill the office. Seasons of heartbreaking failure are on display beside stories of immense success. Neither are forgotten and both are visible along the walls and within the eyes of the man leading UVU wrestlers.

Williams’ athletic successes speak for themselves. During his tenure, he has led six conference champions, 19 NCAA national qualifiers and two All-Americans. Athletics aside, Williams’ effect on the wrestlers he coaches extends well beyond winning on the mat.

As a wrestler at Utah State University, Williams earned both a degree in marketing education and All-American honors. In 1993 he opened Elite Wrestling Club and spent the next 13 years coaching young wrestlers who hoped to compete at the collegiate level. While Williams wanted to help young wrestlers compete in college, his long-term vision was that some would return to coach in Utah.

“The first year I picked 10 kids,” said Williams. “Each year it grew, and we had 80 kids when I moved down here. We started with junior high age and eventually went down to fourth grade.”

UVU wrestler and redshirt freshman Kimball Bastian (174 pounds) is a product of Williams’ Elite Wrestling Club. In January, Bastian was named on the first of four NCAA Coaches’ Panel Rankings–the poll is a tool used to select qualifiers for the 2017 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

“I was about fifth grade when I started attending Elite Wrestling club,” said Bastian. “When I was little, [Williams’] expectations for technique were high. He expected us to show a high-level wrestling even at that age.”

As current president of USA Wrestling Utah, Craig LaMont attributes a great deal of his perspective to Williams, including the vision for how he runs his club. LaMont first met Williams at the age of 14 and spent seven years working under Williams through junior high and high school. LaMont described Williams’ philosophy as beautiful to him, even in his youth.

“[Williams] would find my toughest opponents and give them tips,” said LaMont. “He would talk to them before my matches and tell them about my weaknesses. His whole thing was, ‘Until you get beat, you’re not going to get better.’”

Williams explained to LaMont that, in order to get to the next level, he needed to be facing tougher wrestlers.

“He taught me not to fear losing,” said LaMont. “To embrace the top competition and to always be seeking those better than me, rather than just trying to win matches.”

With an emphasis on athletes as individuals and a vision for a statewide tradition of wrestling excellence, Williams has brought Wolverine wrestling out of obscurity and into one of the most challenging wrestling conferences in the nation. Despite the recent move into the Big XII, UVU continues to win. Williams attributes this success to his support and the Utah wrestling community.

“When I took the job here this was a Utah job,” said Williams. “It was a Utah program and the majority of what would build the strength of this program was Utah wrestlers. Right away when I stepped in… we had a bunch of kids who were from my club that agreed to come [to UVSC]. That’s why we ended up being competitive right off the bat. That takes a huge effort and not one person.”

Despite entering the program with a set idea of how he wanted to run things, Williams has changed some of his coaching philosophy and he believes adapting different philosophies has helped bring the team success. Two philosophies which have not changed are ties to Utah and the ability to succeed.

“Erkin is from the Russian style,” said Williams. “His training is a lot more off the mat. Not as much conditioning and more technique. It was really hard for me to decide to incorporate the different philosophy, but each of our coaches brings in more information.”

Ethen Lofthouse and Greg Williams yell at the referee for failing to award a UVU wrestler with the two points earned for a takedown during UVU’s meet against Oregon State, in the Lockhart Arena, Dec. 15, 2016.

Williams has incorporated that diversity in perspective with the addition of Ethen and Luke Lofthouse. Assistant coach Ethen Lofthouse was a University of Iowa two-time NCAA all-american and four-time Utah state champion. Volunteer assistant Luke Lofthouse was also a University of Iowa all-american, a three year strength and conditioning coach at Iowa and a three-time Utah state champion.

Athletes, past and present, uniformly agree on Williams’ greatest leadership quality.

“Greg always cared about you as an individual,” said Jeff Newby. “He cared about you as a person.”

Redshirt freshman Tanner Orndorff—also listed in the Jan. 2017 NCAA Coaches’ Panel Rankings—described William’s concern for the well being of his athletes.

“Not just with wrestling but with my family, my schooling, my work, everything I want to accomplish. He knows what my goals are and he genuinely cares about that,” he said.

Orndorff is a computer science major at UVU. Though he does not believe he will wrestle after college, he knows he still has the support of his head coach.

“My philosophy is that they graduate ready for the world,” said Williams. “Ready for a career. Ready to take care of a family. Ready to make good decisions.”

Taking care of his wrestlers one step further, Williams has partnered with Sean Warren, Director of IT Operation at Domo, Inc., in establishing a mentoring program for his athletes.

Warren’s online biography describes the mentor program in greater depth.

“Each athlete on the team is paired with a pillar in our community,” wrote Warren. “Many of these C level executives are with the athlete before and after the season. The mentor helps prepare the athlete for a professional life after college. Our mentors are many of the finest in the valley. They range from Surgeons, FBI agents, Goldman Sachs, Domo, Adobe and many more.”

“Sean Warren brought in most of the mentors we work with,” said Williams. “So when these guys graduate they aren’t saying, ‘now what?’ The mentors provide career opportunities and knowledge, and we have had guys change majors because of what the mentors have taught the wrestlers.”

Williams’ influence doesn’t stop there. Along with everything else, his expectations for classroom performance are not taken lightly.

“We were at a 2.68 GPA five years ago,” said Williams. “We want our wrestlers to represent Utah Valley the way the university would want them to. We [now] have a 3.34 cumulative team GPA. Some guys are now above a 3.5, where they were below a 3.0 and red flagged when we were recruiting them.”

When Williams was hired in 2006, he said he wanted to build UVU wrestling into a top-20 program or better.

“I think the key is getting the best Utah kids to stay here,” said Williams, “while also being able to recruit some of the best talent throughout the country.”

Currently, the 28-man roster is split in half, with 13 coming from Utah and the other 15 recruited from outside the state. During the 2015-2016 season, Williams and the Wolverines entered the Big XII conference and received their first-ever votes for placement in the top-25 polls.

LaMont emphasized the need for more funding, either from donors or from the university’s athletic department. He pointed out that some high school—and even junior high school—wrestling facilities are more up-to-date than those at UVU. Yet the program Williams has built is the draw.

“He has a shoe-string budget and he is working toward building a top-five or top-ten program,” said LaMont. “Greg can get us there. Some of the best coaches in the country want to work for him but UVU can’t afford it.”