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Joel Greenlee (right) cheers after the Bobcats defeat the Kent State Golden Flashes during their meet on Jan 24. 2014. 

Wrestling: Coach Joel Greenlee celebrates his 20th season at Ohio

Wearing a dress shirt and slacks, coach Joel Greenlee is red in the face, his famous mustache curled over his lip. 

He’s having a heated discussion with an official in Ohio’s last home dual against American. This isn’t the first time it’s happened in the span of his 20 years at the helm of the Bobcats nor will it be his last. 

The reason for the confrontation, however, was to protect his one and only senior, KeVon Powell, wrestling in what would be his last match of his career.

Throughout the years at Ohio, Greenlee's wrestlers have been his second family.

And to him, family is everything.

Before Ohio

While he’s been in Athens for twenty years, Greenlee established his roots in the small town of Waverly, Iowa. As a child, he and his brother, Justin, would roughhouse around like most brothers typically do. Little did he know, that roughhousing would turn into something more than just child's play.

In the ending winter months of 1985 in his senior season as a Go-Hawk wrestler at Waverly-Shell Rock High School, Joel cemented his legacy by winning the Iowa state championship at 185 lbs.

20 minutes south of Waverly lies Cedar Falls, Iowa, home of the University of Northern Iowa. At Waverly-Shell Rock Joel was the big fish in a small pond, but he found himself as the little fish in a much bigger pond at UNI.

“When I first got there they were good, not great,” Greenlee said. “I wanted to make them great.”

In the few years prior to Joel's arrival at Northern Iowa, the school saw success as they finished as the 1980 Division II team runner-up. From there, the Panthers began to see a decline in notoriety as a program, but with a local talent making his way down US-218 S, change was on the horizon.

In the 1986-87 season, Greenlee, a freshman, went an astounding 20-0 in dual meets to start off his collegiate career. His record still stands today. The heavyweight never lost a match in a dual meet and compiled a record of 58-0-3. 58 wins is still the record for dual meet wins in school history.

Greenlee was a two-time All-American, and thanks to a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Tournament in 1988 and the runner-up spot in 1989, he also took first place at two historic tournaments, the Midlands and Midwest Championship. Greenlee compiled an overall record of 127-16-4 in his collegiate career. 

His .878 winning percentage holds the highest winning percentage of any Northern Iowa wrestler.

While short lived, Greenlee had an international career where he wrestled in Cuba twice — once in 1992 and again in 1993 where he won the Cuban All-Star Tournament and the Cerra Pelado Tournament. He also found himself as a training partner for the United States Olympic Team in ‘92.

All the knowledge gained as a wrestler had to be turned into teaching as Greenlee’s career in coaching began in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Beginning in 1989-1990, he went from teammate to coach for a vast majority of people involved with Northern Iowa wrestling at the time. He had a 70-58 record in his 10-year tenure. 

But one of the personal highlights of his time as a coach at UNI was coaching his younger brother, Justin.

“(The dynamic) I think it worked pretty well. I won’t say we never had our points of conflict at times, but overall it was a lot of fun.”

Justin ended up being a three-time All-American for the Panthers finishing eighth in 1993 and twice runner-up in 1994 and 1995.


The state of Iowa was home for Greenlee. It was comfortable, it wasn’t new.

It was announced that starting in the 1997-98 season, he would leave Iowa and all its memories behind, to build up and create his own wrestling program here, at Ohio.

The rookie coach almost immediately noticed the differences between the former and the latter of the two programs.

“Northern Iowa wrestling was pretty dang important to students, the school, the whole town," Greenlee said. “Here it was, ‘hey we have a wrestling team and some other sports.’ ”

With the challenge of making Ohio into more than just a university with a program, he looked into his past.

“I came here where there were some tough and talented kids but it wasn’t a year-round thing,” Greenlee said.

The first thing he changed was the culture.

It was evident in his first season.

The amount of success that came the Bobcats way under Greenlee's first year was unprecedented.

They won the Mid-American Conference regular season title with a 5-0 record. Joel also coached the Bobcats' first individual national champion in 10 years, Dwight Gardner (158 lbs). The team finished ninth in the National Championships.

From that first season, it was known that the program was on its way back to the national stage it was once on back in the '70s.

That success, however, would be put on hold for the next few years as Ohio began to rebuild itself into what it is now.

It wasn’t until the 2000-01 season when team success struck again in Athens. In just his fourth year at the helm, Greenlee's squad went on to win the MAC Tournament, the program’s 15th overall and first since the year before he arrived at Ohio.

While team success has been up and down, Greenlee has seen many wrestlers succeed. With Gardner winning a national championship in Greenlee's first year, the bar was set high and for the most part, it has been reached.

In 20 years, Greenlee has led four wrestlers to nine individual MAC Championships, most recently sophomore Shakur Laney. Along with these MAC Champions, he has had over 20 NCAA qualifiers and multiple reach All-American status, with the most recent being Cody Walters in 2015.

While it’s safe to say that Joel has changed the Bobcats program for the better, Athens has also seen change and it has changed Joel. too.

“When I first moved here there was no Wal-Mart, there was no Lowe’s, no Texas Roadhouse and now it’s all here,” Greenlee said.

Athens has seen a large commercialization as its notoriety in being a college town has exponentially increased, more and more students means more and more money into the city itself.

With Athens’ changes, comes Greenlee's, too.

In the earlier years, when it came choosing between taking one of his kids on a play-date or talking to recruits on the phone, he said he chose the latter.

“There’s a time for work and there’s a time for family, it’s all about finding that balance,” Greenlee said.

After 20 full years, Greenlee said he’s found that balance in his life.

As he sits at his desk, the once jet-black hair that came to Athens 20 years ago shines a glistening gray. 20 years is a long time for anything. But to Greenlee, it’s gone faster than the blink of an eye.

Not even Greenlee knows what his future will be like. Another 20 years? More MAC and NCAA Champions? For a career as epic as it’s been, there is still more of the mountain to climb.

But what he does know is that at least for the time being, he is here to stay.

“I love Athens and Ohio University,” he said.


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