The University of Virginia has earned the reputation of being one of the top academic institutions in the country and head coach Steve Garland wants his athletes to make the most of their time on Grounds.
Coach Garland has designed the program around six pillars: Mind, Body, Relationships, Compete in Such a Way, Servanthood and Academics. However, at a school like UVA, academics are always at the forefront and Garland has high expectations in the classroom and on the mat. “As a program, we want our wrestlers to have the opportunity to not just graduate from the University of Virginia with one degree, but also to finish their Master’s degree at some of the top grad schools in the nation.” As a UVA grad, Garland has a unique perspective of the requirements of his wrestlers. Because UVA requires that students complete their degree in four years, those that choose to wrestle their fifth year have the opportunity to complete a graduate program. Garland credits his experience as a student-athlete with his focus as a coach. “When I was in my fifth year, I was in the continuing education program and didn’t complete my masters–it is one of my biggest regrets from my time competing. I don’t want them to make that same mistake”. That focus has led to multiple wrestlers leaving Grounds with a Master’s Degree since Garland took over in 2006.
Louie Hayes, a redshirt senior from Illinois, earned All-American honors this season, finishing in eighth place in St. Louis. Louie will be the first to tell you that he wasn’t the best student before coming to Charlottesville. Coach Garland took a chance because he saw both the academic and athletic potential in Hayes. “During the recruiting process, Coach worked with me to lay out a five-year plan; I knew when I got to Charlottesville that I would be leaving with my master’s.” Hayes finished his Bachelor’s last year and is now completing his master’s in Commerce with a track in Marketing and Management from the McIntire School of Commerce, one of the top-rated business schools in the country. Hayes credits the coaching staff with helping him work around a demanding academic schedule. “The coaches have been very supportive of my academic goals. They were always willing to come in early or squeeze in a practice during their lunch breaks to accommodate my schedule”. After graduation, he plans to return to the Chicago area and is in the process of interviewing with different firms to find the best fit.
Hayes followed a similar educational path as former Hoo, Nick Nelson.
Nick Nelson was a member of Coach Garland’s first recruiting class after taking the helm at UVA; he finished as an ACC champion and a 3x NCAA qualifier. “From day one, Coach pushed the importance of excellence in everything we do on the mat and in the classroom,” Nelson stated. The academic support both within the program and the athletic department was incredible, and that he wouldn’t have been able to complete his grad program without the tools they have in place. “I knew I wasn’t going to be the smartest guy to attend UVA, but I knew if I worked hard enough and used the tools they gave me, I would finish with my grad degree in five years.” Nelson said it was a big recruiting boost for him that there was an expectation that he would finish both an undergrad and graduate degree from a top-ranked school in the five years he would be wrestling. Though Nelson wasn’t initially accepted into the undergrad business program, he earned an invitation to complete the fifth year program at the McIntire School of Commerce. He said initially that the Dean didn’t think he would be successful in the program if he was an active student-athlete, but Nelson was determined to show him that wrestlers have the self-determination and grit to be elite athletically and academically. “Coach Garland was incredibly proud and supportive….he was willing to work with me to balance the demands of school, wrestling, and cutting weight and I wouldn’t have been successful without that support”. Nelson is now a successful trader in Chicago working on the CBOE and is serving as an assistant coach for Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Nick Sulzer is one of the most accomplished wrestlers in UVA history. Sulzer was a three-time All-American at 165 pounds for the Cavaliers. He was also named to the NWCA All-Academic Team twice and was named UVA’s Top Athletic Scholar Award. Sulzer completed his Bachelor’s in Psychology and finished his master’s in Higher Education Administration at the Curry School of Education–one of the top-rated education schools in the country. Sulzer stated that during his recruiting, they laid out a five-year plan for him to finish with a master’s, even though he wasn’t sure what path he wanted to pursue at the time. “Thinking back on my time at UVA, Coach really prioritized academics. When we came in as a freshman, our expectations were pretty clear – strive to get over a 3.0, attend study hall and academic meetings, and go to all of your classes. But it wasn’t just talk. He held you to those standards and you didn’t want to let him down”. Sulzer reiterated that the support and flexibility in scheduling workouts around a difficult academic schedule was a major factor in his success. He also credits Coach Garland and his high school coach, Greg Urbas at St. Eds, with emphasizing the importance of education and using athletics as a tool to help advance your education. “They made sure we knew our effort in school was more important than wrestling, and someday wrestling would end. When you have coaches you look up to prioritizing academics, you can’t help but follow suit”. Sulzer is currently employed by a prominent government agency.
Garland estimates that nearly 75% of wrestlers who compete through five years have left the program with a master’s degree. Of the returning wrestlers who will be back for their 5th year (Brian Courtney, Michael Battista, Quinn Miller and Denton Spencer), three have already been accepted to a grad program and the fourth is awaiting notification. Jay Aiello will also be completing his program at the McIntire School of Commerce next season. Garland recognizes that their time wrestling at UVA may be short, but it is a major step on the path to success. “I really want them to get the most out of their time here and be set up for the rest of their lives”.