Chris Bono changing culture at South Dakota State
South Dakota State coach Chris Bono already is making a big impact in his second season with the Jackrabbits. South Dakota State file photo.
Chris Bono is fired up.
In just his second year at South Dakota State, Bono’s blend of passion, intensity and enthusiasm is changing the culture at a program that is still relatively new to the Division I level.
And his young wrestling team is already starting to achieve the results to prove it.
The Jackrabbits opened their Western Wrestling Conference dual season with impressive wins over Wyoming and Air Force.
South Dakota State is starting to open a few eyes in college wrestling heading into duals against No. 5 Northern Iowa and Ohio this weekend in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“I couldn’t be more excited with what we have going on at South Dakota State right now,” Bono said. “We have really high expectations with this program. We want to bring in kids who have goals of becoming All-Americans and winning NCAA titles. There is no reason why we can’t win here.”
The Jackrabbits are coming off victories over Wyoming (18-17) and Air Force (18-14) in their first two league duals.
“Those were huge wins,” Bono said. “We had never beaten Wyoming ever and we hadn’t beaten Air Force since 2005. It was huge for our program to take those steps. We had more conference wins in eight days than in the previous six years, so those obviously were very important wins for us.”
Bono, an NCAA champion for Iowa State and a three-time U.S. World Team member, took over a program that had made little impact in its first four years at the Division I level. SDSU had been a top program at the NCAA Division II level before moving up to the D1 level.
The Jackrabbits went 5-12 and won just one conference dual in Bono’s first season as head coach during the 2012-13 school year. The team qualified just one wrestler for the 2013 NCAA tournament.
“It was very, very hard last year,” Bono said. “I’ve always been a part of winning programs and I had never dealt with anything like that before. I’m a competitor and we were taking our lumps. But our kids kept working hard and we knew brighter days were ahead.”
So what has changed with the wrestling program at the Brookings, S.D., school?
“There were a lot of challenges when I came in here,” Bono said. “We had to change the culture in all aspects of the program. We had to get our kids to buy into the fact that we are a legitimate Division I wrestling program. We had to get kids to buy into the work ethic it takes to be a good wrestling team. We also had to make sure school was a huge priority for them and we had to make sure they were living the right lifestyle off the mat. We are starting to turn the corner with that.”
Bono brought in two wrestlers he coached, Andrew Sorenson and Israel Silva, as his two assistant coaches at South Dakota State.
“My assistant coaches know me and they know the type of expectations that I have,” Bono said. “They bring different skill sets and personalities to the program that work real well for us. They both bring that work ethic and mentality that we want.”
Bono has extensive experience as a collegiate coach. He won three Southern Conference titles as the head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, in addition to serving two stints as an assistant at Iowa State.
Bono has been very active in promoting his program through social media outlets, trying to create awareness and attention for fans, recruits and media through Facebook, Twitter and in other platforms.
“I’m trying to put our program on the map and let people know we are building something here,” he said. “Our efforts with social media have helped us a lot and helped us connect with a lot of kids we are trying to bring in.”
A prime example of the change Bono has made in the SDSU culture is the emergence this season of 157-pounder Cody Pack, who is now ranked in the top 20 nationally.
Pack is coming off an 8-5 win over NCAA qualifier Josh Kreimier of Air Force. Pack is 18-6 this season after finishing 15-16 last season.
“That was a really big win by Cody in a pressure situation,” Bono said. “That kid from Air Force pinned and teched Cody last year. Cody Pack is a real special story. He was bad last year, in terms of buying in and with his work ethic. We tried to change him and there was a ton of resistance from him. He wasn’t used to doing the kind of work we ask our guys to do.
“This year, there is a 110 percent buy-in with Cody. I’ve never seen a guy in all my years who has made these kinds of changes in wrestling, in school and socially. It’s amazing the positive changes he’s made. It’s paid off for him. He’s having a great year. The sky’s the limit for him. I would take 25 of him on my team now.”
Pack is ranked 19th in the NCAA Division I Coaches Panel Rankings, which are one of the tools used as part of the selection process to determine qualifiers for the NCAA tournament. Pack, a junior, was an NCAA qualifier in 2013.
SDSU’s Alex Kocer (149) and Joe Brewster (165) are each listed at No. 33 in the rankings in their respective weight classes. The NCAA field includes 330 total qualifiers, with 33 qualifiers in each of the 10 weight classes.
Brance Simms (133) and Eric Orozco (141) delivered key wins in the dual’s final two matches when the Jackrabbits rallied past Wyoming. Kocer and Pack won the dual’s final two bouts when SDSU rallied past Air Force.
South Dakota State’s John Nething II (174) and J.J. Everard (285) earned wins in the dual wins over Wyoming and Air Force.
Bono’s impact already has been seen on the recruiting trail.
“We brought in the sixth-best class in the country,” Bono said. “All those kids are redshirting. Those kids have been wrestling in a lot of open tournaments, and a lot of them are placing and having good success. I’m real happy with how they’re progressing, and they’ve been working their tails off. We have 24 freshmen who are seeing us start to have success and that’s obviously real important for us.”
South Dakota State is located in an area with plenty of high school talent nearby, including Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota. The state of South Dakota also has produced an abundance of wrestlers who have excelled in college and internationally.
“We are in a great area to recruit in,” Bono said. “We know we can get it done here and we’re on our way. We want the kids we are recruiting to know that.”
Bono, who turns 40 next month, said he’s received excellent support in his quest to build a top-flight program at SDSU.
“Our fan base is huge, and they’ve been really supportive,” Bono said. “They remember the glory days for South Dakota State at the D2 level where they had guys winning national championships. Our administration has been great. They want wrestling to succeed and we are getting a lot of support. Our athletic director, Justin Sell, has a wrestling background and he loves the sport. His support has been huge for us.”
Bono knows his team faces a tough test on Saturday against a red-hot Northern Iowa team that is coming off wins over top-10 teams Oklahoma and Missouri.
“UNI is a heck of a challenge for us, and so is Ohio,” Bono said. “We are going to go in there and try to beat some ranked guys. We have to go in there with the best attitude and wrestle hard for seven minutes. We have to go in there and fight. We’re excited for the challenge.”