Its Ahrar Time was the one of the unofficial slogans adopted by the St. Olaf wrestling team this fall. The catchphrase was displayed in the wrestling room, locker room, even in the Tostrud weight room.
Ahrar (pronounced AH-RAH), only stands 54 tall, but his impact on the Ole wrestling program promises to be enormous. The Iranian native and former National Collegiate Olympic Weightlifting Champion was hired in May as St. Olafs head wrestling coach.
He inherited a program that has struggled in recent seasons, both qualitatively and quantitatively; only about a dozen grapplers took to the mats last year for the Oles, and, as a result, the team rarely posed a serious threat to competitors.
At first glance, Ahrars decision to come to the Hill may seem like an odd one. The former Division II varsity wrestler enjoyed a highly successful 2004-2005 season as the head coach at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., qualifying six wrestlers for the NAIA National Championships and producing a Northwestern Regional Champion.
But for Ahrar, the decision to leave was a relatively easy one.
My wife was never able to get a job in South Dakota, so we were never able to sell our house in Burnsville, Ahrar said. So, I was making a four-and-a-half hour commute every weekend and paying rent in Mitchell. It just became impractical, even though I had a successful program and was teaching full-time [as a professor of sports management].
Since graduating from Minnesota State University-Mankato in 1992, Ahrars love of the sport has taken him throughout the Midwest and even overseas. He has coached wrestling and taught English at several different Minnesota and Iowa high schools, spent a year in Iran as national wrestling instructor, and served for two seasons as the head wrestling coach at Carleton (until the school cut the sport in 2003) in addition to his time at Wesleyan.
It was Ahrars time across town that originally piqued his interest in the St. Olaf job.
Im no stranger to the Northfield area, Ahrar said. I knew coming in that the St. Olaf program had a good chance to be successful, if they could just beef up their numbers.
For Ahrar and the rest of his Oles, the numbers game is really the only one that matters right now. Both the coach and his players are aware that the rebuilding process is often a lengthy one, and the first step towards competitiveness is increasing the overall size of the team.
In order for this program to be successful, numbers are the key. Thats my first goal here, Ahrar said. The dozen or so guys that I have on the mat right now know their wrestling, but when you have more than just one guy in each weight class, they compete for that spot and make each other better. If youre wrestling the same guy [in practice] every day, your skill level stays about the same.
Thus far, it appears Ahrars significant recruiting efforts have begun to pay off. He has already procured over 21 campus visits from recruits this past summer and fall, including 11 overnight stays.
Its going to take a lot of effort, and its going to take a few years, Ahrar said about his goal to revamp the St. Olaf program. For me to increase our overall numbers to about 30 or 40, its probably going to take four to five years.
Ahrar is confident that St. Olaf will someday reach the level of the other regional powers. When you look at successful programs like Augsburg, St. Johns or Wartburg (Iowa), theyve all got 40 guys on their rosters, meaning theyre about four or five guys deep in each weight class, Ahrar said.
Theres not some secret formula numbers are the key.
As it turns out, Ahrar is not the only St. Olaf wrestling import from Dakota Wesleyan this season. Following his college coach from South Dakota is Minnesota-native Steven Wood 07. Wood, a two-time NAIA Division II national qualifier and 2005 Northwestern Regional Champion, gives the Oles an immediate air of legitimacy.
I expect great things from Steven this year, Ahrar said about his 197-pound star. His ability makes him an excellent Division III wrestler and he should be very competitive against some of the bigger schools that we go against.
Wood, who also played outside linebacker for the St. Olaf football team this fall, said his decision to transfer was based on a number of factors.
I really was looking for a change, somewhere with a more positive atmosphere, Wood said. Coach Ahrar was the reason I looked into St. Olaf in the first place, but I also wanted to find a better option for myself, especially in terms of an education.
Wood knows from experience that, in addition to his wealth of wrestling knowledge and years of coaching expertise, Ahrar also brings a unique blend of tough love to his teams.
Coach Ahrar is really able to read his wrestlers, Wood said. Last year, I had some problems on the mat and it probably cost us a couple matches. But instead of chewing me out, [Ahrar] sat down with me and helped me figure it out. He really cares about his wrestlers. The teams returning grapplers have also embraced Ahrars coaching style. The structure of practice this season has been a lot different than last year, and there is a lot more team unity, said Mike Peabody 07, who wrestles at 157 pounds. Practices are a lot more regimented and intense, but you really get the feeling of being on a team ... [Ahrar] forces guys to pull their own weight.
No one is expecting the Ole grapplers to suddenly contend with Auggies or Johnnies overnight, but that doesnt bother Ahrar or his team.
Time, after all, is on their side.