By Monty Franks
The Joplin Globe
Not often in athletics does a head coach go from being in the national spotlight one day to completely rebuilding a program from the ground up the next.
But Northeastern A&M Golden Norsemen head wrestling coach Joe Renfro is just over three weeks into that very scenario.
Under the guidance of Renfro, the Labette Community College Cardinals of Parsons won a second straight NJCAA wrestling championship on Feb. 23, the third overall for the school. Actually, the No. 2 ranked Cardinals finished in a tie with No. 1-rated Northern Idaho for the 2013 title in Des Moines, Iowa.
“Having already accepted the job at NEO, I felt a little pressure going into the national tournament, but I tried not to let the guys see it,” Renfro said. “But I tried to keep my composure and focus and it paid off for us.”
“We have 350 days left to win a national title at NEO, so I’ve got to get the ball rolling,” Renfro said. “As soon as I start talking about that, my body language changes and I’m chompin’ at the bit to get the job done.”
Renfro faced his biggest challenge of getting acclimated to his new surroundings on the NEO campus.
“Here I came right out of Des Moines, Iowa to trying to figure out how to program my voice mail on my campus phone and not knowing how things are done,” Renfro said. “If it’s one thing that wrestling coaches do, it’s that they can figure things out.”
While Renfro would like to be deeply engrossed in the recruiting process, he been dealing with a lot of other things that have given him a full plate in his first month.
“Usually, at this time of the year I would be out on the road and going to wrestling tournaments,” Renfro said. “But there is still time for that just as soon as I get things squared away.
“We’ve had young men come in on a regular basis since I got here. I plan on loading up my schedule for the next four or five months trying to recruit every day if possible. Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve got to take care of some other things before I get the ball rolling on that.”
Generally, the national signing date is between April 6-8, but Renfro isn’t overly concerned about those dates.
“With only 16 scholarships to sign on letters of intent, in the past my teams have been filled with a lot of walk-ons,” Renfro said. “Just because if you look at the numbers, you have 16 scholarships and you have to have 10 starters, so typically there’s going to be one or two guys in the lineup at multiple times that are not going to be (on) scholarship.
“That’s just the way it is for everybody because the NJCAA national office governs that and sets the stipulations for what you can and cannot do. Generally, we’ll start the season next fall with anywhere from 30 to 40 guys on our team.
“Sometimes you don’t even fill up all your scholarships because you’re not for sure if all your kids are going to be academically eligible. That way, you rely on 20 or so walk-ons to fill spaces and at the same time you can scholarship a kid for the second semester if you need to.”
Last season at Labette, Renfro had 19 true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen on his 37-man roster.
“If a wrestler wants to come to school at NEO, he’s going to come here,” Renfro said. “If he doesn’t, he won’t. We’ll take whoever we got and turn them into champions, which has been my approach throughout my coaching career.”
With the competitiveness among wrestling coaches, recruiting can be strenuous.
“You’ve got to be running on all cylinders all the time,” Renfro said. “I’ve already been to several high school classics in Kansas and Missouri. We’re definitely not overlooking the Oklahoma kids, but I anticipate we’re going to be getting a lot of those since we’re the only junior college in the state offering wrestling.
“Unless a kid is recruited by the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University or the University of Central Oklahoma, NEO is a great place for them to come. Not only are we going to get some quality wrestlers that won’t qualify academically for the four-year level, but we’re looking for the wrestlers that say to themselves ‘I want to wrestle at the college level, but I may not want to go into a four or a five-year commitment.’”
Renfro is also looking for wrestlers from small towns who aren’t used to competing at schools the size of a Tulsa Union or Broken Arrow.
“Sometimes kids who wrestle in smaller programs are just as competitive as kids that come from schools that graduate 1,200 to 1,400 students a year,” Renfro said. “NEO gives them a chance to start at a school where it’s a little bit smaller and a little easier to adapt.”