After four years as an assistant at Cornell, Jeremy Spates took over the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) head coaching job earlier this summer. After earning All-America honors during his career at Missouri, Spates coached for five seasons at Oklahoma before joining the Big Red staff. SIUE will be entering its second year as a Division I program.
New York Wrestling News recently caught up with Spates as he acclimated to his new position.
New York Wrestling News (NYWN): What have your first few weeks on the job been like?
Jeremy Spates (JS): It’s been a little crazy, but really good. I’ve been trying to get everything ready. I’ve been familarizing myself with the team and the university and working on recruiting.
NYWN: Earlier in the summer, the rumor was that you decided to stay in Ithaca for a few more years. Was that the case?
JS: It was. I talked with [wife] Laura about the Brown and Buffalo openings and we decided we wanted to stay a few more years at Cornell. We were happy – it’s such a great place, we could have stayed forever. But then SIUE called me and asked me to apply and I decided to apply. Then I did a Skype interview. I think once it came to my on campus interview, I realized it was the place I needed to be. It was a change of heart from what we had decided because it just seemed like the right situation. There were a lot of positives and I felt like it was something I couldn’t turn down.
NYWN: What made it the right situation for you?
JS: It was a number of things. The location is great. A lot of people don’t know where we are – we’re only 25 minutes from downtown St. Louis. Laura’s from Oklahoma. The campus is beautiful and there are really good facilities. There are new offices; a new weight room and a chance to expand the wrestling room, which is already really nice. The wrestling is really good in this area with Illinois doing extremely well as a state and Missouri also with really good wrestling. I also really liked the people in the Athletic Department – very friendly with a family environment.
There’s also another big thing that excited me – something that’s always been in me. That’s being part of a building process. When I was wrestling at Missouri, we started as the low man on the totem pole in the Big 12 but by the time I left, we had beaten every Big 12 team. Being part of that was something special. Cornell was a mid-level Ivy team in the 80s and now the team is competing for national titles. That’s what we want to do here with a second year Division I program – build. SIUE has a good wrestling history. In the 80s they won Division II national titles and had a number of All-Americans and national champions at the Division II level. At that time, a Division II champion could compete at the Division I tournament, so SIUE also has 13 Division I All-Americans as well. So there’s been some great wrestling here and we’re looking to forward to building toward that again.
Despite all the positives associated with SIUE, was it a tough decision to leave Cornell?
It was a very difficult decision. I loved my time at Cornell – the coaches, the wrestlers, the alumni, everything. It was really, really tough. What it came down to – there are only so many opportunities to be a Division I head coach and this was a great fit for me. If I passed this by, when would there be another job that’s such a great fit? Laura was a big part of the decision as well. She’s a lot closer to her family and we both love the Midwest, so it all came together.
Looking back at your four years as an assistant for the Big Red, what stands out?
One of the biggest things is bringing home team trophies three of the four years. [The top four teams at NCAAs receive a team trophy]. That’s a big accomplishment. Another huge thing is the relationships I built, especially with the wrestlers. There are a lot of guys I became really close with and leaving them was hard. Cornell wrestling really is a family. Being part of Kyle [Dake]’s ride was also very, very special. We worked together for all of my years there and we’re pretty close.
What does your staff look like? Is anyone from Cornell coming with you?
We have one assistant, Donovan McMahill. This is his third season. He’s been great during the transition. He’s helped me a ton; I’m not sure what I’d do without him. The goal is to have a full coaching staff in the future, but for now it’s the two of us.
I know there was a rumor that Kyle [Dake] was coming with me, but there’s no truth to that. He’s staying in Ithaca. I’d like to bring some guys in the future. When that time comes, I might try to steal some guys from Cornell.
You’ve been around high level wrestling for a long time. With your father being a head coach, was leading your own program something you always wanted to do?
No, not always. I was a business major in college and to be honest, I thought I would go into the business world when I graduated. But when I finished school, I hadn’t quite fulfilled my goals and I had a little bit of a yearning to keep going. I love the sport so much and have been around it my whole life and I just couldn’t picture being without it at the time. I started to get some coaching offers and I went that way. When I made the move to Cornell, I decided that this was probably going to be the avenue I go into for the long term. I always loved coaching. Making the move to Cornell was a big jump for me and I knew it was a good situation for the future. I would say, though, that I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to be a head coach until I got the job.
You have worked under a lot of accomplished head coaches – such as your father Jack Spates, Brian Smith and Rob Koll. What are the biggest things you’ve taken away from them?
I’ve taken so much from all of them. If I had to pick one thing from each, I would say for Coach Smith, it’s the way he runs his program, in terms of day-to-day practices, scheduling and things like that.
From my dad, I learned a lot on the the recruiting side of things. And from [Rob Koll], I learned so much about the fundraising and relationship building that he does so well.
You mentioned your father’s influence in recruiting. How has recruiting been going?
It’s been interesting – a lot of different experiences. I’ve had to explain where SIUE is and that we’re a Division I school to some. But, I’ve also had a lot of people from the area or people who had a coach or a sibling from here, who know a little bit about SIUE. But even a lot of the people who are familiar aren’t sure where we’re coming from, being a new Division I program. The experiences are all over the place.
I think SIUE has a lot to offer. I’m selling recruits on what sold me. We’ll have our first Division I All-American in the new era and our first Division I national champion, something we’ve never had. My first recruiting class as a head coach will be special – I’ll remember those guys for the rest of my life. I think the university sells itself. Edwardsville is a beautiful city and there’s a lot of growth going on at the university, some really neat things. There have been additions to the engineering and science buildings and corporate partnerships and research grant money is coming in.
Another big thing is that it’s a very affordable school, especially considering how good the academics are. It’s the cheapest state school in Illinois. With a lot of people with financial difficulties, we’ll be a very affordable school for a great education.
What do you hope to accomplish in year one?
We have 26 wrestlers on our starting roster. One thing we’d like to do is bring in a big time recruiting class. On the mat, we haven’t had any national qualifiers, although last year was the first year we were eligible. So the first thing we need to do is have a few conference champions in the SoCon and have a few NCAA qualifiers, and then from there, continue to move up where it’s an expectation to be an NCAA qualifier. Our goals are a conference championship and our first All-American and national champion. We’ll keep reassessing and setting new goals.
What about longer term?
The Athletic Department wants a winning program. There are expectations that the kids who come here will graduate and have good careers after graduation. There also is an emphasis on a good student-athletic experience. That’s very important to the university and to me as well. On the mat, my goals are higher than the university’s at this point, I think, but they are behind whatever we’re doing.
I was sad to leave Cornell, but I’m super excited to be here at SIUE. I’m ready for the next chapter.