Monday, August 24, 2009

An interview with Jeff McGinness

I first saw Jeff McGinness wrestle on television. That’s an advantage to living in Iowa - all state high school finals matches are shown on split screen. I can’t remember if it was Jeff’s sophomore or junior year. I just remember – wow!

I recently contacted Jeff and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions. Jeff was one of the most dominant high school in Iowa history – a four-time undefeated state champion and a US Cadet and Junior National freestyle champion. Wrestling got into Jeff’s blood early.

“I would venture to say that I was exposed to wrestling, and specifically Iowa wrestling, from the moment I was born. My father has been the treasurer of the H.A.W.K. fan group nearly since its inception in 1975. Thus, I pretty much grew up going to wrestling meets, Big 10s, NCAAs, and frequented the Iowa room as a youngster. While I didn't really get started wrestling competitively until later in grade school, I think it was this exposure and opportunity that really drove my interest level.

As far as who influenced me the most growing up, I started out going to the Iowa evening camps held in the top floor of the old Field House with clinicians like Barry Davis, the Banachs, Zaleskys, and Kistler brothers to name a few. Upon getting to junior high I began working individually with Keith Mourlam who by far played the biggest role in my development technically. Beyond that, having supportive but not overbearing parents helped foster my growth not only on the mat, but off it as well.”

There have been 18 four-time state champions in Iowa high school wrestling history. So far only three – Joe Gibbons, Jeff and Eric Juergens have gone on to win at least one NCAA title. I asked Jeff just how big the leap is from high school to college.

“You often hear NFL or NBA commentators talking about the biggest difference from the college to the pro ranks being the "speed of the game." I think that statement applies equally to the leap from high school to college wrestling. Everyone is faster, stronger and more technically sound.”

This was borne out in one of Jeff’s very first college matches. I used to make the annual trek to Madison for the old Northern Open because it was always one of the first chances in the year to watch wrestling. It also afforded the opportunity to see the incoming freshmen who would be redshirting. Jeff’s freshman year he drew 1992 Greco-Roman Olympian, Dennis Hall, in an early round. In the first period Jeff and Hall locked up upper body holds and Hall threw Jeff to his back for a five point move. I don’t remember the final score, but Jeff mounted a furious comeback in the final two periods to almost pull out the win. I couldn’t resist asking about that match.

“That match sort of serves as an example as to the type of wrestler I was from time to time. If a wrestler was a known upper body specialist, like Dennis Hall, I would want to prove to myself that I could beat him at his game. If someone was known to be a good leg rider, I would take down to prove I could get out of anyone. Getting thrown to my back for 5 understandably caused me to rethink that strategy a bit.”

Jeff’s college career took off from there. He went on to become a three-time All American and two-time NCAA champ and an exciting wrestler to watch. He also wrestled on some of the most impressive teams in Hawkeye history. I was curious about which of his teammates he most liked to watch.

“Practice room match-up: Joe Williams vs. Lincoln McIlravy. Easily some of the best wrestling never to be seen by the public. Beyond that, there were a number of teammates who had amazing skills but because of injuries or other bad luck only wrestled briefly or never cracked the starting line-up. Casey Gillis, Corey Christensen, and Justin Stanley come to mind. All three were some of my toughest competitors in the room and had some great stuff. Gillis could throw from almost anywhere and I saw him put plenty of big names on their head in the room. Christensen was an amazing athlete and nearly impossible to finish on. Stanley was a very well rounded technical wrestler who could pick up and perfect a technique from having seen it once.”

Inevitably, I had to ask what it was like to wrestle for Gable.

“For me it was obviously a dream come true having grown up in Iowa City, in the room, and literally sitting on the bench as a kid. Beyond that general statement, I think what captures my experience the best is my belief that Coach Gable never coached two persons the same - including the numerous twins he had come through the program. His ability to read and motivate wrestlers from very different backgrounds and having distinct personalities was, in my mind, one of the biggest reasons for his success.”

Jeff’s Hawkeye career was not without its hiccups. I asked him about his favorite memories.

“I would say my entire senior year. Unlike my previous years, and after having taken a year off to redshirt following my train wreck junior year, I was back having fun wrestling by only having to worry about wrestling. While the season had some ups and downs, including a partially torn MCL, the ability to not to worry about cutting weight got me back to wrestling for myself and without concern of the outcome - the way I wrestled in high school.”

After receiving his undergraduate degree, Jeff enrolled in the University of Iowa Law School and received his JD in 2001.

“I moved back to Iowa about 2 years ago after having gotten sick of the long hours and long commute working for a large Chicago firm. I was recruited by and joined Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman where I know specialize in general litigation.”

Jeff remains active in wrestling and still follows the Hawks closely.

“I continue to help out with camps and clinics from time to time. I was also placed on the H.A.W.K. fan board this last year to oversee the creation of the clubs first website. Even when I lived in Chicago I continued to follow the team and have only missed 1 NCAA tournament (Buffalo) for as far back as I can remember. My parents have always had season tickets and we typically go to every home meet.”

Does he have any thoughts on the upcoming season?

“It's hard to say exactly how the season is going to shape up this early in the year. I know the Iowa team has some pretty big holes to fill and has a number of people competing to step into, or back into, the lineup. One of my biggest expectations for the season will be to see whether Caldwell red shirts to pursue his football interests.”

Finally, I asked Jeff for his thoughts on what we, as fans, can do to keep the sport healthy.

“I think having knowledgeable and respectful fans is one of the biggest things we can do to help maintain and grow the sport. One of my biggest frustrations as someone who is proud of the sport is the many anonymous forum posters who hide behind a screen name while they make direct attacks on current wrestlers or spread rumors and innuendo. Myself and other former wrestlers used to post, under our own name, a great deal on sites like and attempt to give our own insight or personal opinions on topics. The negativity that now infests those boards I feel has driven a number of people away.”

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