ROCKFORD – Ben Bennett knew from an early age what he wanted his career path to be.
“I always wanted to coach,” the former Rockford High School wrestling standout said. “I think I have wanted to coach since I was in middle school. I wanted to be a college wrestling coach.”
Bennett, 33, is currently living out his dreams of becoming a collegiate coach as a member of the Central Michigan University wrestling program.
Bennett, one of the most decorated wrestlers in CMU history, is in his 10th season on 32-year coach Tom Borrelli’s staff.
“I was getting ready to graduate, and a position opened up,” Bennett said. “I think Coach Borrelli knew that I really wanted to stay involved in wrestling and get into coaching. I was fortunate enough to slide into that position, and he had enough faith in me to let me stay here.”
Before getting the opportunity to coach, Bennett amassed eight years of unbridled success at the high school and collegiate levels.
He was a three-time Individual Finals champion at Rockford and helped lead the Rams to a Division 1 team championship as a junior.
“I had a really good high school experience, and I really enjoyed wrestling for our head coach at the time, Don Rinehart,” Bennett said. “He coached for a long time, and we always had some very competitive teams.
“In 2007, my junior year, we won the team state duals, but every year we were really competitive and had multiple individual state champions. Those were the type of teams I was able to wrestle on, which made it pretty exciting and pretty fun when you have those types of guys around you.”
After excelling through the junior ranks, Bennett made an immediate impact for the Rams and captured the Division 1 championship at 140 pounds as a freshman.
However, the following year, he took third at 152 after losing a semifinal match 2-1.
That defeat was humbling for Bennett but also showed him how to handle adversity.
“At the time, in my eyes, the world was ending,” Bennett said. “You look back and it probably was more of a positive. It's good to have those things happen to you, and you face some adversity.
“And I think that's more relatable to life rather than just when you win all the time. I did a lot of winning, but when things are really important, sometimes it's good to fail, for things not to go your way because it will probably happen for the rest of your life.
“You have to learn how to respond and come back from that and handle it the right way and just get back to work. At the time, I remember how devastated I was, but looking back it probably was a positive thing long term.”
Bennett wound up collecting two more Individual Finals titles, at 160 and 171 pounds, to end his high school career and then was named Mr. Wrestler, receiving the award given to the top senior wrestler by the state coaches association.
“I wasn't even thinking that I might get that,” he said. “There are so many great high school wrestlers that come out every year, and thinking about the guys I wrestled … to be singled out as the one chosen for that award was pretty special.”
After graduation, Bennett took his talents to Mount Pleasant. He could’ve gone anywhere to wrestle, but found the right fit at CMU.
“I knew I wanted to wrestle in college, and it was close to home, which I liked,” Bennett said. “I didn't feel like I had to go across the country to have an opportunity to accomplish my goals. I felt like I could stay here and do that.”
Bennett is the only four-time All-American in CMU history and one of three Chippewas to have earned four individual Mid-American Conference titles.
Bennett twice earned the Chick Sherwood Award as CMU’s most valuable wrestler and was named the MAC Wrestler of the Year in 2012. He also had earned the MAC Freshman of the Year Award in 2010.
Bennett ranks sixth in CMU history with 121 career victories, and his career win percentage of .834 is fourth all-time. In 2013, he finished 31-2 for a .939 win percentage, the second-best in program history. He also won a school-record 30 consecutive matches during that season and finished a personal-best fourth at the national tournament.
“At the time I was disappointed with how my career went, because I was never a national champion,” Bennett said. “But I think looking back on it, I have a lot more appreciation for what I did.
“As a coach, I realize how hard it is to have success at the college level, and every year you see great wrestlers not make the podium. Sometimes I’m shocked when certain guys don’t place, and it makes me appreciate how hard it is to be a four-time All-American, let alone place one time or multiple times.”
The transition to the coaching side was a difficult process for Bennett, but he knew he wanted to mentor other wrestlers the way his former coaches did with him.
“You put so much into the sport and you realize how much time other people invested and how important it was for me to do well, and so I guess for me it was a hard transition to make,” Bennett said. “You’re so competitive and so focused on yourself, but then being able to help these guys improve, get better and hopefully accomplish their goals was something I was looking forward to doing.
“I had so many people help me do that, and then I was able to be in their shoes and give back to these guys.”
Coaching has kept him involved in a sport he loves.
“And I get to continue to learn and grow and develop in different areas, not just wrestling-wise,” he said. “I get to meet a lot of great people through wrestling and coaching. The guys who come through our program are pretty awesome people.
“I’m pretty fortunate, and I've really enjoyed the coaching side of it, being in the wrestling room with these guys. Getting them ready for a match and going over things after a match. There is a lot that goes into it, but I really enjoy it.”
The love of wrestling for Bennett began at 6 years old, when he was coached by his uncle Tom Bennett – a former Division III All-American – and dad Doug.
“My uncle did a ton for me wrestling-wise, and my dad was the conditioning and discipline-type guy,” Bennett said. “Together it was a good mix. For as long as I can remember, I was always in really good shape. I loved wrestling right away.”
Bennett admits that he probably missed out on a lot when he was younger because he was determined to be the best and his life revolved around wrestling and training.
“It can be a tough way to live, but at the time that's what I wanted to do so that's what I did,” Bennett said. “When I was little my dad always told me that I'm not going to take you across the country to these tournaments if we are not training to win the tournament, not going to fill out the brackets, so my whole life the goal was always to be a champion.
“Going into high school my goal was to be a four-time state champion. I wanted to win the senior nationals, the junior nationals, and I won all those things. Going into college, in my mind, the next step was to be a national champion, and I don't think you realize how hard it really is, and I don't think I realized how hard it was to be an All-American.”
Bennett was promoted to CMU associate head coach last June after spending nine seasons as an assistant. He said the biggest difference with his new position is on the administrative side.
“I do a lot of scheduling and budgeting, things I didn’t do as much before in my years as an assistant coach,” he said. “I’ve taken the reins on some of these things, and it’s good for me to learn.”
Bennett is content with his current role at CMU and continuing to evolve as a coach under Borrelli. However, he hopes to one day take that next step as the head coach of a collegiate program.
“That’s my ultimate goal with coaching,” he said. “When that will happen, I don’t know. I guess I’m not in a hurry. When it happens, it will happen. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can right now.
“Coach Borrelli is an unbelievable coach, leader, mentor and role model, so I’m trying to learn as much as I can from him and soak up as much as I can from him until I get an opportunity somewhere to be a head coach. Right now I'm happy with where I'm at, and when that time comes, it will come.”
Bennett, 33, is engaged to former Chippewas field hockey player Erica Garwood. The couple has been dating for seven years and will get married next month.
“We’re excited, and I’m sure life will really change when we start having kids,” Bennett said. “But it’s good right now. We both went to school here, and she has a good job at an elementary school in town. We enjoy it up here.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Rockford’s Ben Bennett stands atop the podium at the 2008 Individual Finals, and now with fiancé Erica Garwood. (Middle) Bennett wrestles Clarkston’s Adam Lauzun for the Division 1 title at 171 pounds that season. (Current photo courtesy of Ben Bennett; 2008 photos from MHSAA Archives.)
Roger Kish has a habit of accomplishing great things in a short amount of time.
He won an MHSAA Individual Wrestling Finals title as a freshman at Lapeer West, his first of four.
He was an NCAA finalist as a sophomore at Minnesota.
He was a Division I head wrestling coach at North Dakota State University at 27.
So, it should come as little surprise that before hitting his 40th birthday, Kish is now in charge of one of the nation’s most storied college wrestling programs.
Kish, 39, was recently named the head coach at Oklahoma, a program that has won seven national titles and produced 67 individual champions in its history.
“It’s something I’m very grateful for, and I’m certainly humbled to walk the same halls of some of the Oklahoma greats,” the 2003 Lapeer West graduate said. “Being able to lead this program is nothing short of a dream come true. The administration is great, and in terms of the support system that’s in place, what they have at Oklahoma is second to none.”
Kish takes over a Sooners program fighting to get back into the conversation as one of the nation’s best. His time at NDSU portends well for that, as he had the Bison as high as No. 12 in the country a year ago, the highest ranking in program history.
NDSU also defeated Oklahoma in a Big 12 dual meet, and finished 24th at the NCAAs, with a program record 25.5 points.
“Roger knows what it takes to build a championship-caliber program, and he’s done just that at North Dakota State, with many of his wrestlers having won conference titles and earning All-American honors,” Oklahoma Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione said in a release. “His coaching philosophy aligns with our approach at Oklahoma, and I know he’ll guide our wrestling program toward achieving the standards we’ve set for ourselves.”
Had you told a teenage Kish this would be his future as he was racking up the second-most wrestling victories in state history, he wouldn’t have believed it. Not because it was too ambitious, but because coaching wasn’t even on his radar.
In fact, it wasn’t something he was considering even as he was becoming a two-time All-American at Minnesota.
“I would be lying to say that I wanted to be a high school or college wrestling coach, career-wise,” Kish said. “I had other plans.”
Those other plans were to either continue wrestling beyond college, explore a career in mixed martial arts, or become a chiropractor.
It was all on the table for him as his collegiate career came to a close, but an injury and the long recovery process that followed opened up a new avenue for Kish.
“When I had my surgery, I was off the mats for a lot of time, but I was still able to be on the mats, not as a competitor, but in a way that I could help some of my younger teammates,” he said. “I wanted to be able to give back to those guys that had helped me. That’s where it all began.”
He had been accepted into the chiropractic program at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, Minn. But he chose to put that off to continue his recovery for a possible mat return, and to serve as a graduate assistant for the Gophers.
The following year, he was asked to join Bucky Maughan’s coaching staff at North Dakota State, and his career as a coach took off.
“Throughout that year (at Minnesota), I really enjoyed helping out those young guys,” Kish said. “I took an opportunity from Bucky Maughan, because he needed a bigger guy to train with those bigger guys. It seemed like the best route in the moment, so I took it and never looked back. I was an assistant for two seasons, and built really good relationships with stakeholders in the athletic department. Following two seasons under Bucky Maughan, he retired after 46 seasons, and the position opened up. They did a national search, and I think the relationships I had built with stakeholders, and the immediate success of the program in the two seasons I was part of it, led to a great opportunity for me to take over at North Dakota State.”
Kish built a strong program in his 12 seasons at the helm, compiling a 108-70 record. During his time, the Bison moved from the Western Wrestling Conference to the Big 12 and didn’t skip a beat. NDSU is 33-26 in its time in the Big 12, including a 6-2 mark this past season, which was good enough for fourth place during the regular season.
NDSU has sent 21 wrestlers to the NCAA Championships over the past four seasons, with nine becoming All-Americans.
While it’s now in the corner and not in the center of the mat, Kish and wrestling success have long been synonymous.
Kish was 117-27 at Minnesota, placing second in the nation as a sophomore and third as a junior. He also won a Big Ten title at 184 pounds as a sophomore.
He was 252-2 in his high school career, with both losses coming during his freshman season. The 252 wins are second in MHSAA history only to 260 won by Justin Zeerip of Hesperia. Kish was unbeaten in his last 223 matches, placing him third all-time for consecutive wins behind Zeerip and Brent Metcalf of Davison (228).
In 2003, Kish became the 11th wrestler in MHSAA history to win four individual titles. At the time, nobody had won them at higher weights, as Kish won at 160, 171, 189 and 189.
“For me, it probably didn’t feel as big in the moment as it probably did for other people,” Kish said. “For me, it was the expectation to win it as a freshman. My own father said, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to get out of the Regional.’ I took it very personal and serious. But I didn’t think of how hard it was to do in the moment. I’m in awe of how talented these (more recent four-timers) are. Doing it today is seemingly a lot more challenging.”
Wrestling has long been a family experience for Kish, as his father, Roger Kish Sr., coached alongside Hall of Famer John Virnich at Lapeer West.
Kish’s older brother James was a two-time Finals champion who wrestled at North Carolina and amassed 215 career high school victories.
“I was fortunate enough to have a father who gave a tremendous amount of care to the sport and was always trying to keep my brother and I busy throughout our youth,” Kish said. “He always had us in some sort of activity. It probably also stemmed from having an older brother that was a couple years older than myself. I was always a little bit bigger, and he was a little more agile. We were always competitors – call it a brother thing. That allowed each of us to excel in sports, having one another to compete with.”
Kish also played football at Lapeer West and was a starting varsity linebacker as a freshman.
“Wrestling was my passion,” Kish said. “I loved playing football, but it was what I did to take a break from wrestling. It allowed some different facets to cultivate in terms of building relationships and recognizing different factors that helped motivate individuals. … Understanding being on a team, and relying on and trusting other people to help you succeed, whether that’s your teammates or your coaches.”
As someone who made the most of his time in high school athletics, and now remains close to them in a recruiting aspect, Kish is fully aware of how important they are for students.
“Having an outlet for young kids to be active and learn the traits that will help them later in life – the discipline and the humility of wins and losses, the work ethic that’s necessary, understanding what goals are and how to achieve those goals, dreaming a little bigger than what’s realistic – is good for kids,” Kish said. “Athletics is a great platform to do that. Wrestling is a great platform to do that. To help them grow as young men and women, that’s extremely important.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Roger Kish stands atop the MHSAA champions podium in 2003, and was hired as Oklahoma’s head coach in May. (Middle) Kish helps Lapeer West to the Division 2 team runner-up finish with this match against Mason as a senior. (Lapeer West photos from MHSAA archives; Oklahoma photo courtesy of University of Oklahoma athletic department.)