CHAMPAIGN — Illinois didn’t waste any time setting the course for the future of its wrestling program.
The Illini elevated assistant coach Mike Poeta to the top job on Wednesday afternoon, less than two weeks after longtime coach Jim Heffernan announced his retirement. Poeta becomes the 15th head coach in Illinois wrestling history since the program started in 1910.
“We are thrilled to welcome Mike Poeta to our Fighting Illini head coaching family,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said in a statement shortly after he tweeted out the news with a photo of he and Poeta together. “Mike is a native of our great state, is a proud University of Illinois alumnus and is one of the most decorated wrestlers in our program’s rich history. From our first conversations about this position, Mike impressed us with his leadership skills, energy and vision for the future of the Fighting Illini wrestling program. He has unrivaled passion for Illinois wrestling, and we are confident that enthusiasm will carry forward into his recruiting and coaching.”
Poeta and Whitman are scheduled to have a press conference via Zoom on Thursday morning to discuss the coaching change.
Poeta’s hire keeps the job in the Illinois “family.” The 35-year-old Highwood native wrestled at Illinois at 157 pounds from 2004-08 and was one of the most successful wrestlers in program history. Poeta finished his career as a three-time All-American, two-time Big Ten champion and helped lead the Illini to the 2005 Big Ten title.
Poeta just completed his fourth season as an assistant for Heffernan and is considered one of the top recruiting and development coaches in the country.
“I am honored and excited to be the next head wrestling coach at the University of Illinois,” Poeta said in a statement. “It was an absolute dream come true to be part of this institution as a wrestler, assistant coach and now head coach. I have so much love for the wrestlers on the team, this program, this school and this state. We have a great young team that can do great things. I want to thank Coach Heff, who I have learned so much from over the last four years. He’s a class act and represented this university how it should be. He left some big shoes to fill but my goal is to lift this program from great to elite.
Poeta will receive a four-year contract starting at $160,000 annually, with his appointment subject to University of Illinois Board of Trustees approval.
“I’m so happy for Mike, and the program,” Heffernan said in a statement. “It’s been fun watching this process come full circle from Mike’s days as an Illini student-athlete, to running a successful club, coming back to campus as an assistant coach and now leading the program. I love the fact that we will have an alum as our new head coach. I’ve always been a big fan of Mike’s coaching and look forward to watching his impact on the Illini wrestling program.”
Poeta has a varied background in wrestling. Before returning to Illinois to coach with Heffernan, he spent the previous five years as owner and head coach of the Poeta Training Center in Lake Forest, with the roster growing from 40 wrestlers in year one to 200.
Poeta also wrestled professionally for three years. He represented the United States at the 2010 World Cup in Moscow and also competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials following his successful Illinois and prep wrestling careers.
“Mike Poeta is one of the truly special people and athletes who I’ve had a chance to work with during my career,” said Mark Johnson, the former Illinois coach from 1992 to 2009 who recruited and coached Poeta with the Illini. “He is one of the all-time best wrestlers to compete for Illinois. Personally, he is one of the guys I remain in close contact with and I am excited to see this position stay in the Illini family that we started in 1992. I look forward to the continuation of great things from the Fighting Illini wrestling program for many years under Mike.”