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Dave Hickman: ‘Bulldog’ brings fire to WVU wrestling

MORGANTOWN — Sammie Henson probably has a few things to learn before he really becomes a part of West Virginia University’s athletic staff.

Some of it would seem imperative. For instance, learning the name of the guy who ultimately hired him, Oliver Luck, might be a good start.

“I accidentally called him Oliver Andrew [during the interview process],’’ Henson laughed, confusing WVU’s athletic director with his now-more-famous quarterback/son. “I thought I was done. My wife was kicking me under the table.’’

Then there’s the name of the school. Henson seems to have gotten over the wont of most newbies to refer to the institution as the University of West Virginia, stumbling over it only for a fraction of a second during his introductory press conference Monday before getting it right.

So that’s a good start.

Here’s something about the school that Henson doesn’t seem terribly interested in delving into, however: his predecessor and the way he exited the school. And that’s probably for the best.

“I don’t know what happened,’’ West Virginia’s new wrestling coach said Monday morning after the formal part of his introductory press conference had ended. “It’s just a great opportunity for me now and that’s how I look at it.’’

As a refresher, Henson’s predecessor was Craig Turnbull, who for nearly four decades was the face of West Virginia wrestling, first as an assistant and then for 36 years as the head coach. He was fired at the end of last season, in essence because Luck felt that the program he led could be more than what it was. It was a move that didn’t sit well in some quarters, primarily with those who felt that after all that time Turnbull deserved to make a more gracious exit, if he were to exit at all.

Henson knows Turnbull. Everyone in wrestling knows everyone else.

“He’s always been great to me,’’ Henson said. “It is what it is. Things happen.’’

And in truth, Henson is grateful to Turnbull. While the former coach’s results on the mat tended to have peaks and valleys, he accomplished a lot during his time at the university. Not the least of those accomplishments was the fund-raising necessary for the wrestling facilities that Henson now inherits. Henson has seen a lot of college facilities and says that WVU’s are a lot closer to the top of the heap than the bottom.

“He had a great legacy here in the facility he left,’’ Henson said of Turnbull and the $1.4 million wrestling facility that was built in 2006. “The facility he left — he raised money for that and that’s good for us. I appreciate that.

“It’s something we can definitely use in recruiting and it’s something we can function in. Anytime you have your own building in wrestling it’s a special thing.’’

Make no mistake, though, Henson brings a certain fire to the wrestling program that had probably been absent for a while. His nickname is Bulldog and it seems to fit. The guy was barely tall enough to see over the podium behind which he stood Monday morning, which is not all that unusual for former wrestlers. Nor is his tenacity or the cauliflower ears he sports after years as a world-class competitor.

That’s pretty much what Luck had in mind when he made the decision to replace Turnbull.

Henson seems likely to ruffle a few feathers of his own to start with because his first move could very well be more housecleaning. Turnbull’s right-hand assistant, Greg Jones, doesn’t seem likely to be retained when Henson begins filling his staff because Henson admittedly wants and feels more comfortable with the people he’s known and who have coached with him. That’s certainly his right.

What Henson can accomplish with the program remains to be seen. He seems positioned, at least geographically, to make a splash and he knows it. He knows the quality of wrestling in what now amounts to his own backyard, particularly Pennsylvania and Ohio. Like other sports at the school, he’s not going to draw a ton of talent from West Virginia because the state simply lacks numbers, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try.

But nor will he limit himself to just that backyard.

“Wherever he’s at,’’ Henson said of the best recruits, “I want him.’’

Now we’ll see if he can get them.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.


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