WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Brandon Eggum has reached the pinnacle of wrestling -- multiple times.
Everywhere he's been, the Sidney native has experienced success. He won three high school state championships in the 1990s, including back-to-back undefeated seasons, and graduated from Sidney as Montana's career leader in all-time wins.
Eggum then became a three-time All-American while wrestling at the University of Minnesota. He won a Big Ten championship as a junior and finished second at the NCAA Championships, losing to the legendary Cael Sanderson in the final. Eggum added another Big Ten title as a senior but finished third at the NCAA Championships after meeting Sanderson in the semifinal round.
Internationally, Eggum tasted even more success, earning silver medals at the 2001 World Freestyle Championships and the 2002 Pan American Freestyle Championships and a bronze medal at the 2003 U.S. National Freestyle Championships.
He joined the Minnesota wrestling staff as a strength and conditioning coordinator in 2001, helping the Gophers to the ’01 and ’02 national championships, the first in program history. Eggum was promoted to assistant head coach in 2004 and head coach in 2017.
Eggum recently sat down with MTN Sports for this week's Sunday Conversation, reflecting on his competition and coaching careers and how Montana helped mold him into the man he is today.
MTN Sports: First, let’s talk about your career as a coach. Three, four years as a head coach now, how’s that adjustment been going for you, being the man in charge now?
Brandon Eggum: “It’s always been a dream of mine. When I wrestled at the University of Minnesota and after I graduated and got into coaching, the long-term goal of being a head coach at the University of Minnesota, my alma mater, was like a dream come true. It’s something, obviously, I’ve loved since I was a kid, the sport of wrestling. There’s a lot of different aspects of coaching beyond just going out on the mats and working technique and sitting in a guy’s corner, but it’s one of the best jobs in the world. I get to watch these young men that come in that are extremely motivated in one of the toughest sports in the world, and I get to sit in their corner and watch guys go out there and do something and dream of winning a national title, and the highs and lows of that are pretty cool in the development of these young men.”
MTN Sports: How hard is it for you to be on the sideline and not out there doing it yourself?
Eggum: “It’s different. You watch coaches, most of them are really animated. In wrestling, I think it's great, because you see guys that are actually on the side and their bodies are distorting and they’re bending over and changing positions, and they think they’re out there wrestling half the time, which is kind of comical. But it's fun. You’re on the outside, but you can still remember what it was like to be out in the center of that mat. I know it’s a lot easier on the outside looking in than it is the guy in the middle of the tornado in the center of that mat. But it’s pretty amazing. We try to remind our guys all the time that one day you’ll be that guy that’s on the outside, whether you’re a fan watching it or a coach on the outside. And don’t ever take for granted that opportunity and that moment in your life that sometimes seems so difficult, but it’s some of the best times of your life. Whether it’s winning or losing, it’s really about this opportunity being out there in the center and getting a chance to do something that you live, and we try to remind our guys that every single day, that this day goes by and it goes by fast. Make the most of it, and make sure you enjoy it.”
MTN Sports: As a coach, are there things that you’ve taken from the coaches who coached you, anything from Guy Melby that you’re teaching these guys or from your coaches at Minnesota?
Eggum: “Yeah, always. Everything I’ve learned is from those mentors, those coaches. Guy Melby was an amazing guy in my life. He helped me get to where I am. I owe a lot to him. Growing up, just the changes that are going on in your life at the time, he was always somebody that was like a second father to me and helped me with opportunities, whether it was wrestling or camps and trips overseas and stuff. He was a big part of giving me that exposure and opportunity to continue to grow as a wrestler, and he was right there in my corner.
“Then moving on to the coaching staff and J Robinson and the coaches at the University of Minnesota — the mentality between those two coaches, J Robinson and Guy Melby was very, very similar. Hard work was the key. You could have talent with something that you were God-given, but you could work and continue to put time and effort in. If you did things right and you took the right path, sky’s the limit. And that’s what I gained from those guys. What I thought was hard work and what those guys taught me what was hard work was two different levels, and I learned a lot from them.”
MTN Sports: Was there a point growing up, or maybe it was in your college career, where you realized that this was the path that you wanted to be on and coaching is what you wanted to do?
Eggum: “Initially, the relationship I had with the coaches, with the friendship and the mentorship, was something that I always cherished and I loved. I don’t know if I thought that much about whether I was going to be a college coach or high school coach or kind of the coaching career when I was competing. But shortly after, after I started training to make the world team and doing some of those things and had the opportunity from J Robinson, who asked if I wanted to be one of his assistant coaches. At that moment, it was something that I was like, ‘This is really what I want to do.’ I love it. I was fortunate to be able to start at the ground level and continue to work in all positions. As a head coach now, it’s kind of nice to know that looking back I was able to do everything from the grunt work of going and getting the groceries and all the little things to now at the top level where you’re doing a lot of different things. It changes, the administrative part of it, some of those things. What I thought a head coach would be doing and what you actually do as a head coach is a little bit different, but it’s been great.”
MTN Sports: Let’s go back to when you were competing. Is there a moment that stands out to you as, ‘This was the pinnacle of my wrestling career,’ or is there something like that where you think that was the best moment of your wrestling career?
Eggum: “At every different stage of your life, I think whether you’re a youth wrestler or in high school, there was different moments that I thought this was the pinnacle. And it was kind of awesome, because it opened doors for me. In high school, it started off thinking about winning a state title. During my high school career, I had the chance to compete on some of the national teams. Then it became I want to be a national champion in high school. And then it was to make a world team. And then it was, now I’m looking at college, and at college it was to win a national title, then it was to make a world team. I think in every stage, there wasn’t just one thing that I thought, ‘This is my ultimate goal.’ I think you have some long-term goals, but in the middle of that, to be successful, you have short-term goals, too, that kind of keep you on track. That was probably some of the things that helped me the most, is I had a long-term vision of going to college and wrestling in college, but I also knew that I had weekly goals and daily goals that I needed to accomplish if I was going to get there. And I was fortunate that I had people around me in Sidney, Montana, that were very supportive and helped keep me on track, and I had the resources and partners when I got to college that helped get me to where I wanted to be, as well.”
MTN Sports: The losses are kind of what I want to talk about, because you wrestled against arguably the greatest college wrestler of all-time, Cael Sanderson, right? What was it like going up against a guy like that and being at that level where you were right there as one of the greats?
Eggum: “My junior year going into the NCAA Championships, we were No. 1 and No. 2. At that moment, I remember thinking, ‘Man, this is everything. Winning a match, becoming a national champion, this is exactly why I came to the University of Minnesota, this is who I was.’ It made competing a little bit maybe difficult, I realized later, that that was my sole focus was. As a junior, I ended up making the NCAA finals, and I lost to Cael Sanderson in that match. And I was devastated. Immediately after that, I thought, ‘Man, I got one year left. I came here to win a national title, that’s what I need to do.’ I instantly went into training and competing and getting ready for the next year.
"That year, I lost my youngest sister in a car accident. That was in July. In that moment, I started thinking, ‘Boy, I’m putting a lot of pressure on my wrestling and that being my identity,’ and I realized there was more to life and that I had other things that I needed to look forward to and focus on there if I wanted to be the best wrestler I could be. It was unfortunate I realized that with the loss of my sister, that was something that changed. The next year my goal was still to win a national title, but I went out and realized I was putting too much pressure on that. When I started to realize, at the end of the day I might win, I might lose, but the one thing I had control of was giving my best effort, it changed everything for me.
"I’d love to go on and say my senior year, but, again, my senior year, I end up wrestling Cael Sanderson in the semifinals, and I lost that match, and I came back and ended up taking third. There wasn’t any difference there. Some people said, ‘Were you upset that you didn’t get on the other side of the bracket and you got a chance to meet in the finals again if you meet?’ To be honest, I said, ‘The biggest thing for me was, I was going out there, I knew I was going to have to beat Cael Sanderson, whether it was the finals, semifinals, quarters, it didn't matter.’ My goal was to be a national champ. After I lost that match, my goal was to come back and rebound and get ready.
"And I think that's probably the biggest lesson that you learn in a sport like wrestling, is some days you’re going to win and some days you’re going to lose. And when you lose, it says a lot about you how do you respond. You see some guys they lose a tournament, they’ve had a lot of success, especially at the youth level, you see the dad picks the kid up and walks out of the tournament, they don’t even finish. I tell that same message to my guys or my kids, it says a lot about who you are. When you're down, how to respond? It's one of the things that I’ve always carried and one of the things I always remember about this sport. And I think it teaches you a lot about life, because today’s world where we think everyone’s going to get a blue ribbon and we’re trying to make everything even — and sometimes in school you feel like that’s the way it’s taught, like everybody's a winner — I think we all realize when you get out in the real world, life isn’t always that way. It doesn’t treat you fairly the way that it’s sometimes it’s depicted, and that’s the one great thing about sports, wrestling in particular, but every sport, it teaches these guys the personal development it gives them to realize that in life it's not like that. Sometimes you might get a shot to the gut, you’ve got to pick yourself back up, you've got to keep going forward, and that’s one of the things. In wrestling, it's one of the biggest lessons they learn. You work hard, you go out there, you have to grind through things, but at the same time, you don't always get what you want, but you’ve got to keep your focus moving forward and get ready for the next scramble or the next point. And if you’re focused on what happened in the past, good or bad, you're probably going to fall behind.”
MTN Sports: Do be able to go back to Sidney, especially Montana — I know you do this all over the place — but to go back where it all started for you, what’s it mean to you to be able to pass that advice along and teach some of these young up-and-comers?
Eggum: “It’s just a great feeling when I go back to Sidney and a chance to maybe help with the camps and stuff, because I remember being a kid and that’s where it all started for me. Just a lot of friendships there, a lot of relationships within the community and stuff that were developed by the sport of wrestling. So, when I get a chance to go back and help them and work them, it’s a great feeling. I look down and I get to see a lot of other kids, I'm thinking, ‘Man, maybe one of these individuals will be the next guy that I’ll be recruiting here at the University of Minnesota or the next kid that’ll go on and try to make a World Olympic team.’ And I think that’s pretty special, so it’s always a good feeling to go back and reflect on the past around people that have helped me in my life and a chance to give back and help others.”
MTN Sports: I could ask you a whole bunch more questions, but I’ll end with this one: Montana produces a ton of Division I wrestlers, a lot of guys coming to the Big Ten. Big Ten wrestling is the equivalent of SEC football. What is it about Montanans that makes them, or gives them the potential, to wrestle at this level and be good wrestlers at this level?
Eggum: “One of the things that I think that helps a lot when you see guys from Montana being successful is, the kids that are getting out there — there’s not maybe as many opportunities as there are in states that are more populated and stuff, as far as tournaments and some of those things, and even resources of partners and training — but the guys that are going out and finding that and that are traveling and searching those things out, these guys have a strong desire inside them to be great. I think that’s amazing. It is unique when you think about a sport like wrestling that takes so much from an individual, and then look at the state of Montana where you maybe don’t have as many wrestling opportunities, and the guys that get out of there and the success that they’ve had, is pretty unique. I think it’s something that’s inside them, it’s driven just inside them from when they’re kids looking around saying, ‘This is what I want. I'm going to go out and get it.’ That’s a big part of being successful in this sport, is the mentality and attitude.”
MTN Sports: Is there anything you want to say specifically about your career or path?
Eggum: “I guess I’m just really thankful when I reflect back on the state of Montana, just in general, all the support they gave me. And I think it’s unique. You grow up in a small community like Montana, but in the sport of wrestling, like the sport of wrestling even across the country, just almost is such a tight-knit community that wherever you go, you get to walk and talk to people that have the same desires and have the respect even though you’re out there competing against one another. The respect that you have for them because of what they're going through is universal there. The state of Montana, I’m just really thankful for what they’ve given to me. The support, it continues to come through. I have a ton of friends from Montana, probably over 100 people that are coming to the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis this year. And a lot of them, whether they wrestled with me or not, are wearing Gopher stuff when they get there, and I just think that’s pretty cool, and it’s because of the small tie of being from Montana and them wrestling or I wrestling or maybe they watched me compete or they’re following another Montana kid, but that’s pretty cool. Yeah, just want to say thank you to the state fo Montana for everything it did in my life and continued support.”