First-year Little Rock (LR) Athletics wrestling coach Neil Erisman is building a legacy of excellence in wrestling. A champion wrestler in high school and college, Erisman has worked on two college coaching staffs and lead a high school wrestling program. His career has taught him valuable lessons in success, and he wouldn’t change that journey for anything. After all, it has led him to the opportunity of a lifetime: the privilege of building a program from scratch.
Hired as LR Athletics wrestling coach in June, Erisman has had very little time to reminisce. In eight months, LR has gone from announcing the addition of wrestling and hiring Erisman as the head coach to finalizing plans for a wrestling-specific training facility on campus and welcoming the program’s first athlete to campus. Erisman believes the program, the first Division I wrestling team in Arkansas, means more.
“I saw that there was more than just a program starting, it was something special,” Erisman said. “It’s something the city and the state can rally around.”
Wrestling has been a significant part of Erisman’s life. Growing up in DeSoto, Kan., Erisman wrestled in high school, going 150-5 and winning a state championship. His successful high school wrestling career led him to one of the country’s top college wrestling programs, Oklahoma State (OSU), a school with 34 NCAA wrestling championships.
At OSU, Erisman was a three-year captain and finished third place in the Big 12 Championship in 2009, placed second in 2010, and earned the first-place title in 2011.
Erisman’s first coaching job came after his collegiate career ended, working as a graduate assistant at OSU from 2011 to 2013. Working at a top program like OSU allowed him to experience the national standard for collegiate wrestling.
“I know what it’s like to compete at the highest level,” Erisman said. “I know what it’s like to be around All-Americans, NCAA champions, World Champions, and Olympic Champions. You get to see the best.”
Following his time at OSU, Erisman spent a year on the coaching staff of Stillwater High School in Oklahoma. Coaching at the high school level taught Erisman the value of versatility. He credits Stillwater High School as his most valuable experience in coaching.
“You have to learn to wear a lot of hats,” Erisman said. “You’re the strength trainer, the coach, the psychologist; you do everything.”
Leaving Stillwater, Erisman returned to collegiate wrestling as an assistant coach at the University of North Carolina (UNC), his last stop before LR. His time at UNC taught Erisman how to build a team.
“Working at a school like North Carolina, you have to figure out the kind of kid you want to recruit and how to recruit,” Erisman said.
All Erisman’s coaching stops have shaped the program he’s building at LR now.
“It all comes full-circle,” Erisman said. “We’re trying to make sure we’re building a solid foundation of kids with high-quality character.”
To build that foundation, Erisman will have to rely on the recruiting skills he mastered at UNC to become known as one of the nation’s top recruiters. However, trying to recruit prospects to a “power-five” school with a history like UNC is a different sell than trying to recruit athletes to a new program like LR’s. Erisman believes it’s important to emphasize the advantages of being part of a new program.
“We can offer recruits the opportunity to be the first,” Erisman said. “They can be the cornerstone of a foundation that could be something really special.”
To help on the recruiting trail, Erisman will have the allure of a wrestling-specific facility, the Greg Hatcher Wrestling Center.
“If you look at the facility we’re going to have, there’s hardly any school in the country that can match it,” Erisman said. “Kids like nice gear and nice facilities and they’re going to be really drawn to that.”
While recruiting for the 2019 season is ongoing, to date, Erisman has one athlete on campus, Conner Ward of Shawnee, Kan. According to Erisman, Ward is precisely the kind of wrestler he wants to build his program on.
“There’s really no one like Conner,” Erisman said. “His character speaks for itself; he’s a high-quality person. If you’re looking for the first person you’re going to bring in and have a part of your program, that’s the kid that you want. You want a well-rounded kid that wants to win national titles and has aspirations that are as high as they can be. He’s the total package.”
Erisman, accustomed to success, isn’t limiting his expectations for the new program.
“All great things take time,” Erisman said. “But, I have high expectations from the beginning. I don’t want the standard [to be] being competitive. Our standard is to win a national title as a team.”
How realistic is that goal for a new program? Erisman thinks it’s about control.
“I absolutely believe that if your [recruits] can come in and buy in, we can do some really special things,” Erisman said. “It’s going to be about believing and focusing on the process and the things that are important, celebrating the little things, and being tough in the end.”
While success on the mat is essential to Erisman, he also wants to build on the foundation of wrestling in the state and expand its culture.
“We’re going to provide training opportunities for high school kids,” Erisman said. “We want to give them an identity.”
Further, Erisman plans to champion women’s wrestling.
“There are some people who don’t think women should be in wrestling,” Erisman said. “But, we think it’s a great opportunity for women, our sport, and our program to embrace them.”
Putting together his wrestling knowledge, the financial backing of the university, and his plans to engage the community, Erisman summarized the program he’s building for the campus and the city.
“We’re looking to change lives,” Erisman said. “We want to put Little Rock on the map for wrestling and be a destination for the best wrestling, not just in the country, but the world.”