Andrew Hipps, InterMat Senior Editor
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Manny Rivera is in his first season as head wrestling coach at CSU Bakersfield. Prior to taking over at CSU Bakersfield, Rivera spent five seasons at North Dakota State as an assistant coach. He also coached at Virginia for one season.
Rivera, a California native, wrestled collegiately at the University of Minnesota where he was a three-time NCAA qualifier and 2008 All-American.
InterMat recently caught up with Rivera.
You were hired as CSU Bakersfield’s head wrestling coach in July. What was enticing to you about the position?
Rivera: A few different things. It’s close to home. I’m a California native. I have always been proud of being from California. Really, the other part is I know how rich the wrestling is in California. It’s a program with a ton of history. There have always been great wrestlers to come out of here.
You grew up in El Monte, California, which is close to Los Angeles. Bakersfield is over a 100 miles north of where you grew up. How familiar were you with CSU Bakersfield and its wrestling program growing up?
Rivera: I was always very familiar with the wrestling program. There have been so many great wrestlers that have come out of here. I grew up hearing about all these legendary guys … Stephen Neal, John Azevedo, Joe Gonzalez, Cuestas brothers, and so on and so forth.
When did you envision being a Division I head wrestling coach?
Rivera: The more I kept coaching, I realized it was something I wanted to do and set a goal for myself. I knew it was something I wanted to do, and also back in California if the opportunity ever came.
We’re less than a month from the Pac-12 Championships. How has your first season gone from your perspective?
Rivera: It has gone OK. Obviously, as a coach you can never win enough. I’ve been pretty happy with the guys I have and the work they’ve been putting in. It’s always hard to analyze myself. I’m a tough critic. I’m happy with the group that I have and what they’ve been able to do so far. I see a lot of potential moving forward.
What has been the biggest surprise to you in your first season as head coach?
Rivera: I wouldn’t say there have been a ton of surprises. There is just a little more investment on my end as the head coach. Everything is going to be on you at the end of the day, win or lose. Any decisions made come back on you. Not that it’s surprising, but it’s new. It’s not normally something you feel as an assistant.
Oregon State has kind of had a stranglehold on the Pac-12 Conference, winning the conference championships in each of the last five seasons. Stanford and Arizona State are both in the top 25 this season. What’s your take on the current state of the Pac-12 Conference for wrestling?
Rivera: I think it’s a tough conference. A lot of programs have made recent changes with their coaching staff, and I think it’s only elevating the conference and everyone is making everyone else better. Obviously, like you said, Oregon State has been pretty tough over the last few years. Arizona State is on the way up. Stanford is tough as nails this year. We’re not only trying to keep up, but we’re trying to beat those teams.
Every single wrestler on your roster is a California native. Will you be looking to recruit more out-of-state wrestlers?
Rivera: Yeah, it’s not something we don’t do or say we’re not going to do. We just always seem to find guys that can compete and guys we believe in, and guys that can do well in California. If that ever happens to not be the case, of course we would look elsewhere. There’s not necessarily a conscious decision not to do it or to do it. I think naturally you recruit what’s close to you, and then go a little bit further out if you have to.
You have four wrestlers ranked in the top 33 in the coaches’ panel rankings. What are your expectations for number of NCAA qualifiers your program will have this season?
Rivera: Those four guys have obviously positioned themselves well. I think we have a couple other guys who can get there too. Our 125-pounder Sean Nickell started off pretty hot and maybe hit a little bit of a slump and is not in those rankings. But I believe he has the ability to make it to the NCAA tournament and do well there. I think our 184-pounder has the potential to get there too. I think we can get maybe over half our team to the NCAA tournament.
Your team recently competed against North Dakota State, where you spent five seasons as an assistant coach. You have relationships with coaches and wrestlers on the team. What was it like for you personally coaching against NDSU?
Rivera: Mixed emotions. There are kids I enjoyed working with there, and I enjoyed working with the coaching staff. But at the end of the day we’re all competitors, and we’re all trying to win. That doesn’t change. Once the whistle blows you put all the friendliness on hold and you’re there to win.
Stephen Neal is listed on your staff as the program’s alumni relations coordinator. What does that mean? How involved is he with your program?
Rivera: He helps us out with all of our events, any fundraising and events like that he’s always there to lend a hand. He’s obviously one of our greats on the mat and someone who went on to have a great career in the NFL. He’s just a very recognizable name for us and someone who is well known not only to our alumni, but in the community. He’s someone who can reach out to a wide group of people.
Minnesota recently celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the 2007 national championship team. You were a member of that team. When you reflect back on that season and team, what memory stands out the most?
Rivera: I don’t know if there is one thing. I just remember being around a great group of guys, a group of guys who were all committed to winning a national title as a team. I just remember going and competing all over the place, and being confident that we were always going to win.
Your college wrestling coach J Robinson was fired as Minnesota’s head wrestling coach before the season after wrestlers on the team were involved in a drug scandal. As a former Gopher wrestler, what was it like for you following that story and seeing your former coach lose his job?
Rivera: The tough thing is just seeing J go out that way. He’s a great man, a great coach. You would like to see him go out on his own terms. That’s probably the hardest thing. I just always hope they’re doing well over there.
Brandon Eggum was officially named the program’s head coach recently. Is that a move you expected to happen?
Rivera: Yeah, it’s not surprising. Brandon does a great job. He worked with me and I always thought he was a phenomenal coach. He’s a guy who is more than ready to take over there and do a great job.
What’s your vision for the CSU Bakersfield wrestling program?
Rivera: I really believe we can be a contender as far as bringing trophies back here to California. From what I understand we’re the only Division I program in California to have brought back a trophy from the NCAA tournament. They were third in ’96. I think that’s something that can be replicated here.
This story also appears in the Feb. 10 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels — from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling.