Banners, record-listing plaques and the names of many state wrestling champions adorn the walls of Auburn High School’s practice gym, symbolizing a proud, storied program, reflecting the nature of a hard-working, blue-collar city.
Matt Hoover knows as much.
Born and raised in small-town Iowa, Hoover understood the value of commitment and hard work. Burning with passion to be the best, he blossomed into a two-time, state high school champion and All-American, who went on to capture a national freestyle championship and compete internationally.
Recruited to the University of Iowa, Hoover was part of four NCAA Division I national championship teams and a 2016 inductee to the Dan Gable National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Gable, one of the country’s most decorated wrestlers and a 1972 U.S. Olympic gold medalist, won 15 national champions as the Hawkeyes’ coach before his retirement.
At 177 pounds, Hoover honed his craft under the legendary Gable, an intense coach who demanded, and got, the very best from his wrestlers. The standard of excellence at Iowa was incredibly high.
Hoover wants the same from his kids at Auburn, on the practice mat and in the classroom.
“I want my kids to believe that the toughest people they’re ever going to wrestle are right in this room … then they’re prepared for whoever comes at them,” said Hoover, the Trojans’ new man in charge, who follows a long list of champion-making coaches at the school.
“We kinda brought a new philosophy, a new spirit and expectations, and the kids are buying into it,” Hoover said. “To be successful on the mat, you have to be successful off the mat, too. … We’re trying to build a solid group of good kids, and they’re coming along.”
Hoover is familiar with the Auburn program, having manned the Trojans’ A-Team Junior program for a couple of years. In that time, he doubled the number of participants by creating a network of coaches and parents who wanted to build a lasting program.
When Dennis Herren decided last January to leave the program after six seasons with the Trojans, Hoover stepped in.
“It’s been a journey, but I’ve always loved wrestling,” said Hoover, whose coaching resumé includes stints at Cornell College (Iowa) and Washington High in Parkland. “This was the only place I wanted to coach. … I love this town, these kids and the work ethic here.”
Flags of a different color
Practices are tough, unpredictable – and dictated by flags.
Hoover brought with him a Gable-ism, posting a different colored flag in the gym to signal the type of workout his wrestlers could expect that day. Under Gabble’s watch, red-flag days warned wrestlers that a particularly difficult practice was in store. Green, yellow and black flags meant varying degrees of intensity, drills and lessons – each challenging in their own way.
“With practice, we didn’t know what was going to happen next. And that’s wrestling on the mat: you don’t know what’s going to happen next, so you have to adapt immediately,” Hoover said of his experiences with Gable. “… You live wrestle one minute, then one minute you’re doing buddy-carries in (Carver-)Hawkeye Arena.
“You didn’t say, ‘Gabe, we don’t feel like that,’ or ‘I’m not sure I want to do that.’ ”
Hoover’s approach has grabbed the attention of his wrestlers, experienced or not.
“He’s straightforward,” said senior Cole Washburn, who took third place at state in the 182-pound class last season. “It’s get to work … (it’s) hard work pays off … (it’s) get the work done, and results will happen.
“I feel like I’m going to be way better than I was before,” said Washburn, who dropped only one match last season – 8-7 to Mead’s Trevor Senn, the eventual state champion, in the semifinals at Mat Classic XXIX
Added Aron Faasse, a 113-pound sophomore who has lofty goals this season:
“He knows what he is doing and works well with everyone. He’s an all-around good coach, knows a lot of good technique and conditions us really well.”
Given an already good program, Hoover and his staff are trying new things to stir more interest and excitement.
Plans are in the works to have a meet under the lights of the Performing Arts Center stage next season.
Aside from wrestling, Hoover has met and done some extreme things in his lifetime.
He earned nationwide acclaim 10 years ago by losing more than 150 pounds to win the second season of the popular NBC show “The Biggest Loser.”
Hoover said he weighed more than 350 pounds before he started his emotional, driven quest on “The Biggest Loser,” where he won the competition after dropping all the way down to 182 pounds. He earned $250,000 for his win on the show. He also appeared in People magazine, in addition to a number of other national publications and TV shows.
He worked briefly as a motivational speaker.
He completed the Kona Ironman course in October 2009.
But wrestling is his calling.
A driven man, Hoover likes his new challenge, teaching teens at Auburn.
“I want us to produce state champions every year and make a run at a state title. As a coach, you have to have those expectations for your team or you’re selling them short,” Hoover said. “We have a group of kids who don’t just want to be in the top 10; we want to be in the top spot. It will take a little while, but we’re putting in a process now where we’ll eventually get there.”
Like Gable, Hoover wants to do things the right way.
“It doesn’t do us any good if you’re a good wrestler but you’re not eligible, you’re not doing things right or you’re getting in trouble,” he said. “To be successful, you have to do everything right all the time, and it makes things easier. … For me, the biggest thing you take away from that is, ‘(It’s not just) how do we work in this (wrestling) room, but how we do work outside the room?’ ”