IU Head Coach Angel Escobedo has two goals for his wrestling program.
The first is the challenge facing any coach taking over a struggling college team — to generate excitement and energy around the athletic product. Last Sunday’s 36-3 home win against Maryland, IU’s first Big Ten Conference wrestling victory since February 2017 and the debut event for Wilkinson Hall, satisfied that requirement.
Secondly, Escobedo has made it his goal for IU, his alma mater, to produce not only great wrestlers, but great men as well.
“When people think of Indiana wrestling, I want them to think, ‘They produce great men,’” Escobedo said. “I think from 18 to 23 is some of the most important time in your life, as you’re shaping to become a man. So that’s a great opportunity for me to be that influence.”
Escobedo’s time as a wrestling coach has been brief, spending three seasons as an assistant coach at Iowa State University from 2015-17 and just one year as IU’s associate head coach last season, before being named IU head coach in April 2018.
But that lone year working under former IU Head Coach Duane Goldman, who coached Escobedo during his IU wrestling career from 2005-2010, left a lasting mark on the way Escobedo approaches his profession.
“He was a great mentor,” Escobedo said. “His work ethic, his mental toughness, what he was able to bring to the table. I learned those things. That one year underneath him, I asked a lot of questions.”
A native of Gary, Indiana, who graduated from nearby Griffith High School in Griffith, Indiana, Escobedo arrived in Bloomington after being a four-time high school state champion. He said his goal as a college wrestler was to be a four-time national champion, lofty ambitions that he fell short of, despite being a national champion in the 125-pound weight class in 2008.
But Escobedo remains the only four-time All-American in IU wrestling history, as well as second on IU’s all-time list in wins with 137 and third in pins with 42.
In terms of team success though, the Hoosiers haven’t had a winning record in Big Ten matches since the 2009-10 season, Escobedo’s last as a college athlete.
For a program with little overall success, and even more limited conference triumphs, for the better part of the last decade, a crucial part of Escobedo’s early time as head coach has been to sell recruits on the program’s potential.
“As far as my success, I can tell them that it can be done here at Indiana,” Escobedo said. “I was able to do it, you can come here and excel at a very high level. So the pitch now is why not? Why not it be you, the next guy to hang the banner? Be a national champ? Be the next four-time All-American?”
That pitch to recruits is made easier with the opening of Wilkinson Hall, IU’s new multi-purpose arena that is the home of IU’s wrestling and volleyball teams. Among the upgrades the new facility has in comparison to the two teams’ former home, University Gym, is moving IU home events from an off-campus to an on-campus location.
Escobedo said being a part of the opening of a new arena like Wilkinson Hall is something most coaches probably only achieve once in a lifetime, and having on-campus meets will benefit both fans and athletes.
Last weekend’s win against the Terrapins was indicative of the kind of results Escobedo wants from his program, but it wasn’t the first significant victory of the season for the Hoosiers.
IU’s 4-7 overall record is reflective of a difficult stretch from Dec. 9, 2018, to Jan. 11 in which IU had six consecutive matches against top-20 ranked teams. The Hoosiers went 1-5 in that period, but their victory against then-No. 12 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was a clear sign of progression.
“Our seniors who have been competing for four years have never seen a win like that in their whole career,” Escobedo said.
The 19-16 upset win as part of the South Beach Duals in Fort Lauderdale, Florida was IU’s first top-15 win since February 2008, when Escobedo contributed on the mat to a win against then-No. 10 Northwestern.
But the Maryland victory was symbolic of IU wrestling's new era.
Flames shot into the air from machines placed around the mat as IU emerged from its locker room. A total of 30 IU wrestling alums made it to Wilkinson Hall for the opening match, met by a sharply dressed Escobedo, wearing a suit complete with a floral tie.
For the first time, the IU wrestling program was able to display a team introduction video on the new Wilkinson Hall video boards.
“Moving forward with Wilkinson Hall, now my pitch to other athletes is, ‘We’re trying to put Indiana on top of the map as far as nationally,’” Escobedo said. “We’re going to bring in the recruits and the wrestling is going to kind of take care of itself.”
It’s a personal mission for Escobedo to try and return IU wrestling to a competitive place in the Big Ten landscape, not only because of his relationship to the sport, but also his ties to the state and its flagship university.
“For me, it’s like, there’s no other place I’d rather become legendary than Indiana University,” Escobedo said. “My passion is going to be there every single day, my work ethic, because I do want to be the greatest coach ever. I wouldn’t want to do it any other place.”