After four seasons as a wrestler and 19 as the head wrestling coach at Michigan, Joe McFarland is calling it a career and saying goodbye to one of the only places he’s called home in his adult life.
With an expansive wrestling resumé under his belt, McFarland departs Ann Arbor with the third-most wins as both a head coach and wrestler for the Wolverines. He will undoubtedly leave a hole in both the Michigan and collegiate wrestling communities, as he begins to craft a life off the mat.
Ever since he was 18 years old, McFarland has committed everything to the Wolverines.
Stepping on campus for the first time as a small, skinny kid, McFarland knew that Michigan was a special place. He sensed it was a place where one could not only hone athletic skill, but craft relationships that withstand the takedowns of life. Oh, and the academics aren’t that bad either.
“I came up here on my visit,” McFarland said. “I loved the campus, I loved the coaches — I just felt that this was a special place, but as an 18-year-old you’re trying to navigate through all this stuff.”
One of the aspects of college recruiting that McFarland was forced to deal with was his family’s financial situation. Growing up in Cleveland, OH, his family lived humbly. McFarland and his seven brothers lived off his father’s firefighter’s salary and had to keep finances in mind when deciding what tuition to pay.
McFarland was only offered a partial scholarship — the one roadblock to his otherwise surefire commitment to the Wolverines. Then, his mother sat him down and asked him what school he would go to if money was not an option. Without hesitation, McFarland said Michigan. The rest is history.
His partial scholarship would become a full scholarship if he became an All-American — a mark he then reached his freshman year.
“That wasn’t my driving factor,” McFarland said. “I was wired that way. Though for me, the ticket out was if I wanted to go to a school like Michigan, it had to be an athletic scholarship.”
Throughout his career, McFarland amassed an astounding 166 wins, finishing as a four time All-American and two time NCAA runner-up.
After a fruitful international wrestling career, McFarland targeted his talents toward coaching.
Beginning as a head coach at Indiana, McFarland began to learn what it would take to become a great leader — and ultimately ended up back at Michigan to put these lessons to use.
“It’s been my life for 33 years,” McFarland said. “38 years really — I did spend five years down at IU, but I was always rooting for Michigan. Michigan’s a special place.”
The coach the Wolverine faithful have come to know and love is not the same coach who first walked onto the mat in a suit all those years ago.
For one, McFarland’s hair is a lot shinier. He’s also gained patience — a virtue that has allowed him to further connect with his wrestlers — especially the younger generations.
“Oh, I’ve changed over the years,” McFarland said with a smile. “There’s no way you can coach these guys like you could coach back in a different era, they’re being raised completely different. I’ve toned it down a little bit, probably a bit more with age. These guys probably still think I’m pretty intense, but they have no idea how intense I used to be.”
McFarland hasn’t just kept his famed intensity — he has let his fiery demeanor inspire some of the nation’s greatest wrestlers for nearly two decades.
McFarland-led squads have claimed three Big Ten dual-meet championships and 11 top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships. This past season, he capped off a storybook career with a fourth-place finish in the NCAA Championships and five All-American wrestlers.
Now, McFarland is looking forward to a peaceful life after wrestling.
“I’m really looking forward to slowing down a little bit because it is a grind,” McFarland said. “I’m looking forward to slowing down and spending a little more time with my wife and taking some time to figure out what the next chapter’s gonna be.”
No matter what he does, McFarland will leave a legacy of excellence and dedication to a program that has done so much for him.
“I’ve always wanted to make sure that these guys have had the same kind of experience that I’ve had as a student-athlete,” McFarland said. “And make sure that when they come on campus that it’s a challenging and rewarding experience, both academically and with the wrestling, and when they’re done with that — they realize they’re a much better version leaving then when they showed up.”
After 33 years of representing the Wolverines, it’s safe to say McFarland has been molded by Michigan in the same way that he has sought to shape the character of his wrestlers.