CHAMPAIGN — The coaching search process to find Jim Heffernan’s replacement as the leader of the Illinois wrestling program was different this time around for athletic director Josh Whitman.
Whitman had hired eight other coaches — turning over the football job twice — and reorganized the track and field program since he returned to Illinois in 2016.
This time, a leading candidate was already on campus, and assistant coach Mike Poeta’s interview came early in the process.
Poeta left a positive impression through multiple conversations with Whitman and became the coaching candidate the rest were measured against.
Not quite two full weeks after Heffernan announced his retirement, Illinois stayed in house by elevating Poeta to the top job on Wednesday afternoon.
“It gave us a little bit of a different approach than sometimes we’ve taken in other searches because we did have that confidence level in Mike at such an early juncture,” Whitman said Thursday. “It allowed us to have a frame of reference and a point of context from essentially the first day of the search, which was really kind of a comforting place to start from.”
Interest was high in succeeding Heffernan given how he had continued to maintain what Mark Johnson built.
In the nearly three decades those two led the program, Illinois ranked eighth in the country with 11 individual national champions, seventh with 14 top-10 team finishes in the NCAA championships and produced at least one All-American in each of the past 28 seasons, including 23 NCAA finalists.
Poeta’s hire was the next step in continuing to build on that legacy and tradition. Poeta wrestled for Johnson and Heffernan from 2004-08 and just completed his fourth season as an assistant coach after returning to Champaign to work for Heffernan.
“Even throughout the process of interviewing for it, I’ve been driving into work looking at myself, ‘How am I in this position? I can’t believe how lucky I am,’” Poeta said. “Back 17 years ago when Mark Johnson and Heff brought me in, this would have been a dream, but I did not know this would be a reality.
“I’m in a very unique position of inheriting a great, promising, young team. Coach Heff has set the table for me. My goal is to take a great team to an elite team. … When I wrestled here, we won the Big Tens, and that’s a place I expect this program to be at again.”
Count Whitman as on board for providing the support to advance the Illinois wrestling program. Poeta was able to retain longtime assistant coach Jeremy Hunter and director of operations Bryan Medlin, who also runs the regional training center at Illinois. Poeta will also be able to hire another assistant — his replacement, essentially — and Whitman has already started some discussions about facility needs.
Wrestling was one sport theorized as moving to a new all-purpose facility when Illinois was in the planning stages of potentially adding Division I hockey. Plans that took a backseat when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“The multi-sport facility is still very much in the conversation, but we’re looking at some other maybe more immediate and potentially more cost-effective solutions that might be a little more focused specifically on wrestling,” Whitman said.
Poeta is on board with that possibility in the future. A brand new facility is every coach’s dream. For now? Poeta said he has what he needs at Huff Hall.
“I would love to have an elite facility that compares and rivals the best in the country, but at the same time, we have a wrestling room, we have a weight room and we have a training room just like everyone else,” Poeta said. “I think (two-time national champions) Jesse Delgado and Isaiah Martinez and all the All-Americans we’ve had recently have proved it’s not the facility that wins. It definitely helps with recruiting — I think everyone knows that — but right now, we have what we need to be successful in the meantime.”
Poeta’s vision for the program, elevating it from an already strong starting point, is one Whitman shares.
Whitman’s goals for every Illinois program haven’t changed. At the forefront is getting in position to compete for Big Ten and national championships.
“The difference is the starting point,” Whitman said. “We understand that different sports are at different places in their trajectory. Wrestling for us has been a top-10, top-15 program in the United States. We’re not that far from where we would like to be.
“It’s really about being strategic, being thoughtful, looking for places to make changes to try and move the needle even further. I’m a big believer that you do what you always do and you’re going to get what you’ve always gotten. We’re always looking for ways to tweak and to modify and improve. I think we’re closer in wrestling than a lot of people might realize.”