Bill Zadick returns to Iowa as head coach of defending freestyle world champions

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The yellow wall inside the Dan Gable wrestling complex is where Iowa’s Big Ten Conference Champions and NCAA All-Americans are honored. Each nameplate represents a story of strength and success, of opportunity seized and glory realized.

National Freestyle Coach Bill Zadick takes questions during a media availability at the Hawkeye wrestling room in Iowa City Tuesday, April 3, 2018.

Bill Zadick’s name is up there twice, and on Tuesday afternoon, he stood 15 feet away. He wore a navy USA Wrestling jacket and told a story. A few days ago, he walked into the local Best Buy and was stopped by the greeter who asked him about the upcoming UWW Freestyle World Cup.

“They were like, ‘Hey, you’re here for the World Cup, aren’t ya? How’s the team? How’s training?’ It’s really fun and exciting and inspiring and humbling at the same time,” he says. “It’s culturally significant and important here. That makes it great.”

Zadick, of all people, understands. A former Iowa wrestler, he won 87 matches and was a two-time All-American under legendary coach Dan Gable. In 1996, he won both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. He returned soon after to serve as an assistant coach from 2003-04.

This week, Zadick returns to Carver-Hawkeye Arena again, only this time as the head coach of the United States’ men’s freestyle wrestling team, the defending world champions and favorites at this weekend’s World Cup. He’s traveled to Iowa City periodically over the years, mostly for wrestling events, but this trip back means more.

“It means a lot,” Zadick says. “Obviously, I have history here, as part of the Gable legacy and in the house that he built, so to speak. That adds a lot to it. It’s exciting to be part of that.”

Team USA has won 13 World Cup titles, second-most all-time to Russia’s 15, but hasn’t won the event since 2003. This year’s team is one of the best ever assembled, featuring three past world and Olympic champions, four other world and Olympic medalists, as well as some of the country’s most-talented freestyle wrestlers.

Zadick, a world champion himself in 2006, has been key in USA Wrestling’s rise back into a world power. Since 2009, he’s coached U.S. wrestlers to international success at all age levels, and has been instrumental in the overall development of freestyle wrestlers across the country. He was hired as the National Freestyle Coach in June 2016, and began after the Rio Olympics.

Bill Zadick leads campers through warm-up drills at the beginning of the Zadick Brothers Wrestling Camp in his hometown of Great Falls, Montana.

His first year at the helm was a successful one. Zadick guided Team USA to its first world team title since 1995 last August, edging out Russia by a single point thanks to six total medalists. Now, he has USA Wrestling in line for a run of unprecedented success.

This weekend’s competition will be another opportunity to showcase that talent. Back inside the Iowa practice room, Zadick talks confidently about his team’s ability. He says the team can’t wait to “put on a show and live up to people’s expectations.”

A few feet away, Jordan Burroughs, a five-time world and Olympic champion at 74 kilograms (roughly 163 pounds), cracks a smile. 

“I don’t know if you guys know this, but today is Bill Zadick’s 45th birthday,” he says. “I told him we’d bring him a present on Sunday night.”

'Chew gum like a world champion'

Bill Zadick’s wrestling introduction included rug burns. Growing up in Great Falls, Montana, he and his father, Bob, wrestled in the living room. Bob loved the sport, and coached many years at the North Montana Wrestling Club, where his two boys began their competitive careers.

Montana is not a wrestling hotbed like Iowa. It didn’t help, either, that both the University of Montana and Montana State both had their programs axed when the Big Sky Conference cut wrestling in 1987. 

That did not deter Bob, who was determined to help Zadick and his younger brother, Mike, get whatever they needed to be successful. He drove them all over the country for camps and tournaments alike. He didn’t believe in doing things halfway.

“My dad always told us, ‘If you’re going to chew gum, chew gum like a world champion,’” says Mike Zadick, a three-time All-American at Iowa who is now the associate head coach at Iowa State. “He always said things like that that we laughed at as kids, but it was for everything.

“He was a high-energy, intense man. But that philosophy — when you work, optimize it and do the best you can every time — that was instilled in Bill.”

This included things other than wrestling. Bill Zadick was a big reader and animal enthusiast growing up. He researched so much that, during hunting trips, Mike says his older brother could tell him what kind birds were in the air just by the sounds they made.

When it came to wrestling, Zadick considered it the ultimate test of the body and mind. The sport does not allow you to hide from your opponent, and one wrestler must exert control over the other in order to win. He found that success can be both rewarding and, at times, intoxicating.

Zadick soaked up knowledge from every camp he attended, every coach he talked to and every partner with which he practiced. He won four state titles at Great Falls High School. He wrestled tactically and efficiently. Mike described him as a “holy terror” on the mat.

Bill Zadick had an all-American career at Iowa in the 1990s.

The same hunger for learning led Zadick to an NCAA title in 1996. He studied Gable’s coaching habits, how he talked and coached different athletes like Mike Mena, Mark Ironside, Joe Williams and Daryl Weber. Gable celebrated their accomplishments, and his heart broke with their defeats.

“It was an experience to be around (Gable) during that time,” Zadick says. “I enjoy learning, and the intrigues and puzzles and problem solving and figuring things out have kept me going. In wrestling, there’s infinite opportunity and possibility.”

Zadick jumped into coaching as an assistant at Iowa from 2003-04. He then moved to Colorado Springs to resume his competitive career at the Olympic Training Center. He won a world title in 2006, then finished as the runner-up at the 2008 Olympic Trials in Las Vegas. The next year, Zadick joined USA Wrestling’s coaching staff.

Under his guidance, U.S. wrestlers won a combined 27 world medals at the Cadet, Junior and University levels over four years. He coached as many as nine wrestlers to age-level world titles, including Spencer Lee, Mark Hall and Aaron Pico, using many of the same methods he learned from the many coaches who helped him.

With Zadick at the helm, a promising future for USA Wrestling emerged. He shared that vision with the governing body’s executive directors in 2016 during an interview to be the National Freestyle Coaching job. He pointed to the developmental program he had implemented. The results spoke for themselves.

He was hired on June 1. Fourteen months later, Team USA brought home just the third world team title in U.S. history, and Zadick was named the United States Olympic Committee’s National Olympic Coach of the Year.

“Team USA is really good right now, and our Juniors and Cadets are also really good,” says Logan Stieber, the U.S. starter at 65 kilograms (roughly 143 pounds) and a 2016 world champion. “With the coaching that we have, the regional training centers around the country and the system in the place, we’re set up to be pretty good for a while.

“We obviously have to do it and perform, but I believe the future is really bright for Team USA.”

'I can't wait to get to Carver'

Zadick and the rest of the 2017 United States world team stood on the staged mat inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland during the finals of the NCAA Championships last month. They were honored for their world title last August. They received rings, and the announced 19,776 stood in applause.

But in that moment, Zadick couldn’t help but think of Carver. He remembers, in 2001, Iowa’s home arena hosted the NCAA tournament. That year, Mike Zadick upset top-seeded Reggie Wright of Oklahoma State in the second round, and the crowd nearly blew the roof off. He smiled at the thought of those same fans cheering for Team USA this weekend.

“All I was thinking was, ‘Man, I can’t wait to get to Carver and hear this,’” he says now. “Carver was dug out of a hill. It’s a hole in the ground that was designed to be the ultimate wrestling venue. It’s one of the ultimate wrestling venues with a great fanbase and a great crowd.

“The other countries, they’ll have fans there, but once they start getting loud, I can’t wait to hear the Iowa fans and the USA crowd drown them out. I’m looking forward to it.”

Bill Zadick, left, and Terry Brands, right, yell for support for Zadick's brother, Mike, during a 2012 wrestling trials match with Logan Strieber.

Zadick was last in Iowa City for the 2016 Olympic Trials, when 44,254 packed Carver over two days to watch the country’s best battle for a trip to Rio. He is often surprised when he returns, always noticing something new and different as the surrounding community continues to grow.

But not much has changed about Zadick, except for his job title. The same habits that helped him identify birds by their sounds and become a holy terror on the mat are apparent in his coaching style as well. He and Mike talk often, sometimes about life, but mostly about wrestling.

“Every time, I’m distracting him from watching film,” Mike Zadick says. “He’s breaking down Team USA’s wrestlers, but also watching film on Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Cuba, everybody and every single weight — and not just the top one, but five deep. He knows their ins and outs.”

This does not surprise Mike at all. After all these years, Bill Zadick maintains that same intensity Bob displayed when they first began wrestling in Montana all those years ago. Both of them don't believe in doing things halfway.

Bill Zadick hopes to instill that same passion in his wrestlers, and believes last year’s world team title can serve as an example of what's possible when they buy in. Back inside Carver, Zadick smiles at the wall. He loves where he’s been, and is excited to see where he goes from here.

“It’s really about passion and loving what you do,” Bill Zadick says. “That’s what’s going to fuel you and get you through the hard times. You have to love the thing more than the difficult of doing it.

“If you choose to do something, do it as hard as you can. Give all of yourself to what you’re doing and follow your passion. Whatever you love to do, do it to the best of your ability.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.