The head wrestling coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga typically arrives on campus by 7:30 in the morning and leaves around 7:30 that night.
One minute he’s on the phone pitching his program to one of the nation’s top recruits. The next minute he’s heading off to run a two-hour practice. In between, he’s also an administrator who is doing everything from managing the team’s budget to monitoring his team’s academic progress.
There is no such thing as a lunch hour for Bono, who just completed his first season as head coach at UTC. He typically brings his lunch with him to work and eats in the office while working.
But there’s much more to the 33-year-old Bono’s day than that. He still manages to find time to be a World class athlete. He fits in a couple workouts a day and it paid off when he won the U.S. Nationals freestyle title at 66 kg/145.5 lbs. on April 7 in Las Vegas. Bono, who competes for the Sunkist Kids, now stands just two wins from making his fourth U.S. World Team.
“My No. 1 priority is Tennessee-Chattanooga and being a head coach,” Bono said. “I think that has helped my wrestling because I’m as fresh and as hungry as I’ve ever been. I don’t just think about competing all the time and I’m enjoying working with these kids as well. I’m more excited than ever about wrestling. I’m fired up about coaching and fired up about competing.”
Doing what Bono is doing – being a Division I head coach and competing at a top level internationally – is virtually unheard of in the sport of wrestling. The time demands simply don’t allow it to be possible.
The last person to do the coaching/competing double was freestyle heavyweight Bruce Baumgartner, who won three World titles and two Olympic gold medals. Baumgartner was still competing when he was the head coach at Edinboro in the 1990s.
Bono also has to find time for his family. He and his wife, Niki, have two daughters, Josie, 6, and Ellie, 3.
“I’m real lucky because I have the best wife – she’s just great,” Bono said. “She understands my wrestling career is winding down and she’s been there from the very beginning. This kind of hectic schedule won’t be there forever. She definitely goes above and beyond what a spouse would do.”
The support of his bosses at Tennessee-Chattanooga also has enabled Bono to coach and compete.
“I am thankful for our athletic director,” he said. “He knows what is going on and he is supportive of what I’m doing. My A.D. and my Chancellor are very fired up that I have a chance to win a spot on the World Team.”
Bono’s win at the U.S. Nationals landed him a spot in the best-of-3 finals for the U.S. World Team Trials on June 10 in Las Vegas. The rest of the qualifiers at 145.5 lbs. will compete in a Challenge Tournament with the winner advancing to meet Bono in a best-of-3 series later in the day.
Bono earned a spot in the best-of-3 finals by virtue of meeting the criteria of winning the U.S. Nationals and being a multiple Senior-level World Team member.
“Our weight class is very tough,” Bono said. “Some guy will have to wrestle three or four matches before he gets to me later in the day. That’s a huge advantage for me. I only have to wrestle two matches to be on the World Team. I’ll let those other guys beat each other up before they get to me.”
The wrestler Bono could meet in the finals of the World Team Trials is 2006 World champion Bill Zadick, who has been slowed by an assortment of injuries and ailments. Zadick missed the U.S. Nationals after being sidelined with an infection, but is expected back for the World Team Trials. Zadick, 34, has not competed since winning the World title last September.
“Bill Zadick has always had the talent and skill to win a World title,” Bono said. “He’s a very tough wrestler.”
Bono said he does not consider being in his early 30s any kind of disadvantage.
“My body feels like it did at 22 years old,” he said. “The age thing has nothing to do with it for me. I’m real healthy right now.”
Bono, a past NCAA champion for Iowa State, has not competed much internationally this season. He wrestled at the Sunkist Kids International Open in October, but that was his last competition before the U.S. Nationals. His commitment as the head coach at UTC prevented him from going overseas or wrestling in events like the Dave Schultz Memorial International in February.
“I’ve done it one way the last 10 years and never won a medal,” Bono said. “I competed seven, eight, nine times a year and went overseas a couple times. My job has forced me to compete only a couple times this year, but I feel a lot fresher now.”
Bono is competing less, but training just as hard.
“That hasn’t stopped, the work ethic,” he said. “I still work as hard or harder than I ever have.”
Bono had plenty to deal with during the three years he made the World Team.
The 2001 World Championships were postponed and moved from New York City to Sofia, Bulgaria, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In 2002, the U.S. did not compete at the World meet in Iran due to a threat of violence against the American team. When he made the team in 2005, Bono was making the move as an assistant coach from Iowa State to Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Bono did not place at the 2001 and 2005 World Championships.
“I’m not making any excuses for what happened in any of those years,” Bono said. “The two times I wrestled in the World Championships, I just haven’t wrestled up to my ability.”
Bono said managing his time can be a challenge.
“This is a lot different than when I was wrestling and also was an assistant coach,” he said. “There is so much more you have to do on a daily basis as a head coach. When I was an assistant coach there was always time for rest and other things. It’s a lot different when you’re running a program and trying to find time to get your training done.”
Bono brought seven of his wrestlers from Tennessee-Chattanooga to the U.S. Nationals to compete.
“Absolutely, I am an example to our guys,” Bono said. “They see the work I do when I’m running, when I’m lifting, when I’m wrestling. They see what it takes by watching me train. I think it gives me more credibility with them because they see what I’m going through. I hope it inspires them. Our guys work so hard at Chattanooga that they are an example to me as well.”
Bono’s first UTC team won the Southern Conference title and qualified nine wrestlers for the NCAA Championships. The Mocs placed 21st in the NCAA meet, the best finish in the school’s 30 seasons at the Division I level. Bono also has landed a top class of recruits.
“I’m real excited about what’s going on at Tennessee-Chattanooga,” he said. “I’ve got great kids, great administrators and great booster support. It’s just a matter of going out and getting kids to come here. We’re going to do some great things.”
Bono said his plan is to make one more run at the Olympics next year.
“I know I can still do it,” he said. “I feel great and I feel awesome. I know I can still wrestle with anybody. I need to build on that win (at U.S. Nationals). I need to get better over the next seven weeks so I can make this World Team.”