Sometimes you don’t have to sit down long with someone to tell what they are all about. For the University of Wisconsin’s new Wrestling Head Coach Chris Bono, it’s winning.
Since being announced as the replacement for legendary Coach Barry Davis in late March, Bono hasn’t been short of things to do. Promotional work, recruiting and working with the athletes and others involved within the program have all been major parts of his first offseason at the helm of UW Wrestling.
With the start of the season looming, he doesn’t mince words when it comes to his aspirations for the wrestling program under his guidance.
“We gotta win, we gotta win at the highest level — that’s how we’re going to make our mark,” said Bono. “I’m not afraid to say that we are here to win.”
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You don’t have to dig very deep to unearth where his winning attitude comes from. During his collegiate wrestling career at Iowa State, Bono compiled an impressive resume that included being an NCAA champion at the 150-pound class as a junior. Bono was also a three-time All-American and his 130 career wins rank No. 5 in Iowa State school history.
His career as a wrestler didn’t stop there either. After college, he would go on to be a two-time United States National Champion and a three-time World Team Member.
As his numerous achievements display, Bono is no stranger to the rigors of being a college wrestler. Having gone through what athletes under his tutelage are going through helps him greatly now in his position as head coach.
“I’ll always tell these guys, as hard as it may seem I’ll never ask you to do something either I never did or never will do,” Bono said.
Bono’s goals for the program are clear. Win — especially in the big tournaments.
To give an idea of just how much importance Bono places on the Big Ten Tournament and the national championship, he proclaims that everything before those tournaments is practice.
“We wrestle all year to get to the Big Ten Championships and to get to the NCAA tournament; everything before that is the preseason,” Bono said.
For a Wisconsin wrestling squad that finished ranked No. 22 last season, these goals are lofty, but not unrealistic.
This type of success can’t be achieved without tremendous amounts of hard work from everyone involved, something Bono is well aware of.
“I think we’ve got a bunch of great guys on the team. They’ve been working their tails off, they’ve been doing everything we’ve asked of them,” Bono said. “We’re looking to make sure that we’re the best shape team in the country.”
Bono also stressed the need for a constant message throughout the program, whether it’s coming from him, one of his assistants or right down to the nutritionist.
Bono comes to UW after six years as the head coach of the South Dakota State wrestling program, where he compiled an overall record of 64–41. He also coached one national champion and five All Americans. Just last season, he guided the team to 12th place in the NCAA tournament — the best finish of any of the Big 12 teams.
When it comes to what attracted him to Wisconsin, he cites the combination of high-quality wrestling and the great community atmosphere in Madison.
“It’s a great institution and a great city, it’s very attractive in many different ways to kids and families,” Bono said. “To be in the best conference for wrestling — you can’t ask for anything more.”
From his time wrestling as a five-year-old in Philadelphia to now being the head coach of a major program like Wisconsin, Bono has seen progression in the sport.
Aside from changes to the rules, the sport’s growth is something that stands out to him.
“We’re growing, the sport of wrestling at the NCAA level is as popular as it has ever been, we’re putting many people in the stands,” Bono said.
Through his time in coaching Bono has also noticed a change in the role of the coach.
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In today’s hyper-competitive Division I climate, wrestling coaches are asked to do a lot more than just manage the team on the mat.
“Now we’re trying to market, we’re trying to promote, we’re trying to recruit — we’re trying to do it all to make sure our kids have the best experience possible,” Bono said.
Bono has only been at the head of the program for a matter of months, but the wrestling and wider communities have already been struck by tragedy.
A notable object sits proudly on Bono’s desk in what’s otherwise a plainly decorated office. That object is a hat — a hat which he leaves there to remind him of the late Eli Stickley, a highly respected member of the team who tragically passed away this summer.
Bono says that Stickley was “the ultimate teammate” and his presence will be with the team throughout the season.
“When times get tough and we start feeling sorry for ourselves, I think that Eli Stickley would have been right there next to us with a big smile on his face asking us for more work and how to get better,” Bono said. “He’ll never be forgotten in this program.”
The Badgers kick off their season against Buffalo at the UW Field House on Nov. 1, and Bono is eager to get his Wisconsin career underway and see what this team can achieve.