“The sky's the limit.” How freshman Adam Coon posted Michigan's best start in program history

James Coller/Daily
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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 7, 2014

Freshman wrestler Adam Coon tightened his grip. His muscles tensed, Coon shifted his weight to improve his leverage, but to no avail. Seconds later, Coon released his grip, admitting defeat.

The young wrestler doesn’t interact with defeat often, but after helping demonstrate the suctioning power and weight of the Earth’s atmosphere by trying to pull a glass plate off a suctioning tube in his physics class, Coon accepted the rare loss. The attentive front-row student knew the experiment was impossible to beat from the start.

“(My professor) uses me for examples whenever he needs a big tough guy to prove a point,” Coon said. “He also just wants to embarrass me; for the most part it works.”

The physics professor is one of the select few to beat Coon lately. Since the 6-foot-5, 255-pound heavyweight wrestler won his collegiate debut in double-overtime over Northern Illinois’s Jared Torrence on Nov. 16, no one else has beaten him on the mat.

With a 20-0 record, Coon is not only the best wrestler on No. 14 Michigan’s team right now, but also one of the best in the country, recently ranked as the No. 2 heavyweight wrestler in recent polls. He’s also off to the best start to a career in the program’s 88-year history, besting the 18-0 start by eventual three-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion Kellen Russell in 2007-08.

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The streak began in November, but anyone around Coon knows the success was years in the making. The son of a former Division III wrestler, who now coaches high school wrestling in addition to serving as director of the Michigan branch of USA Wrestling, Coon was pushed into wrestling not long after he could walk, competing as early as four years old.

“We first noticed him when he was in grade school at some point in time,” said Michigan coach Joe McFarland. “He’s always excelled on the wrestling mat, but when kids are that young you just don’t know what the future holds for them in the sport. But he’s always excelled on the mat; he’s very driven.”

Growing up in Fowlerville — a mid-Michigan town of under 3,000 — Coon soon became the pride of his community. In addition to winning four straight state titles and compiling a 212-3 record, Coon was a four-year letter winner in football and track, earning all-state honors at linebacker and placing runner-up in discus and shot-put. With a high school career worthy of the Detroit Athletic Club’s Michigan High School Athlete of the Year in 2013, Coon had athletic opportunities all over the country. But after deciding to wrestle, Coon felt most comfortable just 45 minutes from home.

“Above anything else was the academics,” Coon said. “I want to go into aerospace engineering, and not many schools have that program, and if they do, it isn’t the top-notch program Michigan’s is. Outside of the classroom, this coaching staff is definitely one of the best in the country and that was a huge factor for choosing the right school.”

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Upon arriving to Ann Arbor, Coon didn’t take long to make waves. With four-year starter Ben Apland graduating the previous spring, Michigan’s depth was thin at the heavyweight class. But after just a couple of practices, McFarland and his staff knew they had a worthy replacement.

“We wanted to see how he was doing in practice and in the classroom first,” McFarland said. “He was making incredible strides right away. He comes in and he’s just completely focused on them. No goofing around, no talking about other things, he comes into the practice room and he starts getting himself ready.”

When Coon was officially named the starter, McFarland knew immediately that he had made the right decision.

“When we sat him down and told him we were planning on wrestling him, I wanted to see what kind of reaction we would get from him. I could tell by the look on his face right away that he was excited to be wrestling, and it’s been all good stuff since.”

The “good stuff” includes heavyweight championships at the Cliff Keen Invitational in Las Vegas and the Midlands Championships in Evanston. In the latter, Coon took down the nation’s then-No. 3 heavyweight Bobby Telford of Iowa to claim the first Wolverine title at the tournament since 2002. Often wrestling opponents 20 pounds heavier than him, McFarland feels Coon’s greatest strength is his mind.

“The key to his success has been his mindset,” McFarland said. “He doesn’t look at a guy’s reputation, he doesn’t look at a guy’s record or ranking, he just goes out and wrestles the body in front of him.

“He’s ready to go to war every time he steps on a mat. He doesn’t ease himself into these matches. You can see when the ref blows the whistle he’s right across the mat into that guy’s face. He doesn’t take a backseat to anybody.”

With 20 wins under his belt and now the No. 2 heavyweight wrestler in the country, Coon knows a target has developed on his back.

“My mindset’s changed in that now instead of being the underdog, I’m level with my opponent,” Coon said. “No matter who they are, I know they’re going to bring their best, so I have to increase my intensity.”

Based on recent practices, McFarland doesn’t think Coon will have a problem doing that. With the early success, Coon and his coaches have increased the energy at practices in preparation for Big Ten play. Taking it all in stride, Coon has quickly transformed from a wide-eyed freshman into one of the team’s leaders.

“I still have to remind myself that he’s a freshman,” McFarland said. “His approach to everything has been a great thing for the program, I think the energy he brings to our line-up has been nothing short of great. Now there are all these other young guys looking at him and saying, ‘He’s a true freshman who can go out there and beat all these top ranked guys, why can’t I?’ ”

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As the season wears on, Michigan’s optimism grows with each of Coon’s matches. As the daunting Big Ten season approaches, the Wolverines have cautious confidence that Coon can be the program’s first Big Ten heavyweight champion since Airron Richardson in 1998.

With eight of the country’s top 12 heavyweight wrestlers hailing from the conference, Coon knows it won’t be easy. But with four years of conference and national tournaments ahead of him, the long-term goal is clear.

“I want a ring before I graduate,” Coon said. “The whole team does. From here on out we all have to be leaders and keep pushing towards that goal that everyone wants.

“We have a great freshman class, and I know each and every one of them is putting in the extra time to make sure that we are going to be the elite ones down the road. I’ve put my trust into this team and the coaching staff, and if it doesn’t come this year it will come in the future.”

Beyond Michigan, Coon’s goals remain lofty. In addition to an NCAA championship, Coon will make an effort to represent his country in the 2016 Olympics his junior year. After graduating, the former all-state linebacker hopes to earn a spot on an NFL team.

“He’s a great role model and a great representative of the University of Michigan, and our athletic program and wrestling department,” McFarland said. “I’m excited that he sets the bar high for himself, and if he just keeps pushing himself and stays focused, the sky’s the limit for him.”

Well, not quite. In addition to athletic aspirations, Coon hopes to use his aerospace engineering degree to achieve one final goal of his: to go into space. While NASA vehicles only allow a maximum height of 6-foot-3 in their crafts, Coon hopes to someday change that. Given what he’s accomplished so far, what’s to stop him?

Coon once again tightened his grip. As his muscles tensed, Coon shifted his weight to improve his leverage. This time it worked, and Coon was able to duck under Iowa’s Telford, coming around top to score two points and clinch the Midlands Championships.

Coon may not be able to lift the atmosphere, but that won’t stop him from making his mark on his opponents and Michigan history.