Head coach Leo Kocher (M.B.A. '87) doesn’t like tooting his own horn, but the National Wrestling Hall of Fame is willing to do it for him. Last Sunday, Kocher was awarded the Hall’s Lifetime Service Award at its Illinois Chapter in Countryside, Illinois.
Kocher is entering his 35th year as Chicago’s wrestling coach, a tenure that has seen his squads place in the top 15 at the NCAA D-III Championships four times and win the University Athletic Association 15 times. Kocher has coached 21 of his wrestlers to All-American plaudits, including two D-III championships by Peter Wang (A.B. '92) at 177 in 1991 and 1992.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 1992, Kocher was quick to diagnose Wang’s weaknesses as a wrestler.
“When Peter arrived here, he had good instincts and physical gifts,” Kocher said. “But he had no style while he was on his feet. He needed good coaching and good competition.”
Under Kocher, he got both.
Kocher’s current wrestlers can testify to his commitment to giving his wrestlers the coaching they need and then some, from the team’s annual trip to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado to critical individual attention even after the regular season ends.
In 2012, when fourth-year Samuel Pennisi booked a surprise bid to the NCAA D-III Championship at 184 pounds, he had a couple of weeks alone with Kocher and his staff.
“It is really helpful to have all that focus on what I’m doing,” Pennisi said at the time, “but it makes for harder practices.”
“He is deeply committed to what he does,” said fourth-year Jeff Tyburski, who wrestles at 285 pounds. “I believe that wrestling and his role as coach are on his mind for most of his waking life.”
In his day, Kocher was an excellent wrestler in his own right. At Northwestern, where he studied history as an undergraduate, Kocher was a captain, a two-time runner-up at 158 pounds at the Midlands Tournament, and a first alternate at 163 for the U.S. World University Games Freestyle Team.
After college, Kocher won the Montreal Open in 1974, and finished second at the 1974 U.S. Freestyle National Open, third at the 1973 U.S. Greco-Roman National Open, and fourth at the 1976 AAU Freestyle National Open.
Kocher started his coaching career as an assistant at Northern Illinois University. He spent two years as an assistant at Northwestern before switching allegiances to coach the Maroons.
Kocher also served as a member of the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee from 1990-1996. After earning a master’s degree in education at Northwestern, Kocher graduated with an M.B.A. from the University in 1987.
Along with his award, Kocher received a commemorative plaque and jacket from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and will have his name engraved on a bar at the Hall’s museum.