Catching Up with Mark Churella
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Twenty-five years ago, every wrestling aficionado knew of that great Michigan wrestler named Churella. They knew of his grit and tenacity. They knew of his infamous cross-body ride and that equally infamous mean streak he displayed on top. The most decorated competitor in U-M program history, Mark Churella was a three-time NCAA champion (150, 167 pounds) and four-time All-American (1976-79). His 132-13 career record and 41 career falls still rank among Michigan's all-time leaders in the categories. But his legacy at the school has evolved and incorporated, and now wrestling aficionados know Mark Churella as the elder among one of collegiate wrestling's greatest families.

Churella did not allow his sons to wrestle competitively until the seventh grade, believing he could quickly teach them the necessary fundamentals to put them on par with other wrestlers of their age group. The boys -- Mark Jr., Ryan and Josh -- proved fast learners and all took the inevitable road to Michigan and the Wolverine wrestling room. To date, the sons have combined for four NCAA All-America plaques, four Big Ten trophies and a 236-54 career mark. Beyond his own competitive wrestling career, the senior Churella served as an assistant coach at his alma mater (1984-86) and as the head coach at UNLV, where he established the prestigious Cliff Keen Invitational, an annual early-season tournament that he continues to oversee. In 1999 he was inducted to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in recognition of his accomplishments as a successful competitor, coach and wrestling promoter.

With the Wolverine wrestlers preparing for an NCAA Championships in their back yard, Mark took a moment to chat about the required mentality to succeed at the annual event, life lessons learned from wrestling, and his sons' contribution to the Churella legacy.

On the requirements to perform well at the NCAA Championships ...
"To succeed at the national championships takes a combination of hard work during the course of the year, staying healthy and going in with the right attitude. At the national tournament, you'll have wrestlers seeded first that will win it, and wrestlers seeded first that won't place. It happens almost every year. It's the mental aspect of wrestling that takes first place at the tournament and the physical aspect of it that takes second place. Everyone comes in physically prepared. It's how well they mentally prepare that makes the difference."

On the wrestling climate in Michigan ...
"I think that the state of Michigan will have a good showing from Michigan State, Central Michigan and the University of Michigan programs. I think there has been a lot of success from all of those programs just recently with of the higher-profile wrestlers, like the Simmons brothers. We've had good coverage in regards to what Josh (Churella) and Eric (Tannenbaum) have done. I think that's a plus. Overall, The Palace is going to be like every other national tournament. There are going to be a lot of people, and it's going to be sold out. Most of them will come from outside of Michigan."

On his most memorable collegiate matches ...
"Probably the semifinal match that I had at the national tournament my senior year. It was a very, very close, hard-fought match. I felt fortunate to get to the finals because of that. The three championship matches were memorable. But then again, some of the ones that were memorable didn't turn out to be wins either."

On how wrestling prepared him for future success ...
"Wrestling in general is kind of a microcosm of life. It teaches you that hard work pays rewards, working smart pays rewards, that there's no entitlement -- you have to go out and earn it every time. Because whatever you did yesterday doesn't have any bearing -- and no one has any respect for it on the mat -- on the matches you're going to have in the future. It teaches you a lot of fundamental practices and principles that I think carry on in life. Another part of it, it teaches you a great deal of discipline. You have to be disciplined to be a success in this sport, and you have to be disciplined to take on the rigors of the academics at the University of Michigan, as well as the athletics here. It's a combination of all of that where wrestling has paid great dividends in my life."

On what it takes to be tough on top ...
"I think the top position is a combination of learning the basic principles and techniques of what's going to be successful, and then having the confidence to apply them. A lot of wrestlers, they understand the basic principles, but they don't work to perfect them, and consequently they never develop the confidence to stay on top and to really believe that what they're doing is going to provide them with an excellent opportunity to score a lot of points and win matches. The vast majority of wrestlers that you see don't really focus on that aspect of wrestling and they don't score many points on top because of that."

On seeing a similar wrestling style in his sons ...
"I see a little bit of it. Like all things in athletics, you get exposed to certain things, and, obviously, they've seen a lot of the techniques that worked for me. But what they do is they change them a bit in order to best fit their wrestling style and their wrestling strategy. There were many things that Ryan did in the top position that I did as well, and there are several things that he did that I wasn't any good at. The same thing with Josh. Josh's technique on his feet is far more effective than mine was. But, on the mat, I think that in Josh's case there are certain things on the mat that he's comfortable with and other things that he's not, and that's what we're trying to improve with him. We're trying to expand his confidence in the top position."

On the Cliff Keen Invitational ...
"The Cliff Keen Invitational actually started out as the Caesar's Palace Las Vegas Invitational. Even prior to that, we had the Western Open and we had another tournament that was just the UNLV Open. When we started it 25 years ago as the Caesar's Palace Invitational, the idea was to attract Midwestern and Eastern schools to come to the West to wrestle because the operating budgets and travel budgets of the Western universities were so low that they couldn't afford to come to the Midwest and East. What really allowed the tournament to grow so rapidly -- and we had in excess of 37 teams the very first year we did the tournament -- is we offered any of the top-10 teams in the country that wanted to come free accommodations. That was a real incentive for them to come out and do it. Another incentive was that it was going to be the first time a fledgling network called ESPN -- which didn't really have a lot of content 25 years ago -- was covering the event and it was going to be on television. Other than ABC's Wide World of Sports' seven minutes of highlights during the NCAA Championships, wrestling was never shown. That allowed the tournament to have instant recognition and to grow very, very rapidly. From there, we had a great deal of success, and this will be the 26th year of the Cliff Keen Invitational."

On wrestling's growth over the last several years ...
"I think with the CSTVs and the ESPNUs and the ESPN2s and the FSNs, they have so much content that they have to fill now. Consequently, they air sports that I would have never seen myself. Wrestling has been a beneficiary of that. I had met (U-M softball coach) Carol Hutchins after her team had won (the NCAA title in 2005), and I admitted to her that I had never seen a women's softball game before that. But I watched all the games in the NCAA Championship that they played. I thought it was just awesome. It's really allowed a sport like wrestling to grab the attention and to get the publicity that it never has had before. I think that's one of the biggest factors of how wrestling has grown in that respect. One of the things that has hurt wrestling is the reduction of the number of programs, especially through the 1980s. But at the same time, the number of wrestling participants has increased at high schools, so what you end up with is a more popular sport that has fewer opportunities. But those opportunities are being grabbed by more talented athletes, and you end up with a conference like the Big Ten, which is as tough as you could ever image a wrestling conference to be."

On his best wrestling advice ...
"I think the best advice that I could give is, 'Be physically prepared, but more importantly, be mentally prepared.' The way you get mentally prepared is to gain the greatest deal of confidence you could possibly have. That's what you have to take out on the mat. It's true that once you actually believe that you have earned the right to win -- and you're committed to all the physical and mental training that it takes to do that -- chances are you have a pretty good opportunity to win. What I try to do, especially at this point in the season, is explain to them that they are all prepared. It's just a matter of being willing to execute and not be in a position where they're going to start second-guessing themselves. They need to be in a mental position where they're not going to be anything less than very optimistic. All the time, eveything needs to be positive and looking forward."

On the Churella family legacy ...
"I never really focused that much on the accomplishments I had at the University. It was a great time in my life while I was here. I really enjoyed participating in the sport of wrestling, and I couldn't have picked a better university. All I wanted for my sons was to experience the same thing. Frankly, I think they've been able to do that, and it's great for them. I think that if anybody thinks that there's been additional pressure put on them because of the name that they carry ... they knew that going in, and I don't think it affected either one of them. With Josh now getting ready for the NCAA tournament, Josh wants to win not because of what his name is or because of any legacy, he wants to win because Josh likes to win and hates losing. It didn't matter what sport he chose to participate in. It happened to be wrestling. So, I really think it's more of a family thing than it was ever was just one individual."

Note: "Catching Up" runs in The Riding Times, an inside look at U-M wrestling.


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