Phillips to be inducted into Upper Iowa Hall of Fame

By Matt Levins For The Predicament

2013 NCAA Division II National Championships - Ryan Phillips

Ryan Phillips remembers his first day of wrestling practice like it was yesterday.

Phillips, then a seventh-grader at Horace Mann Middle School, decided to check out the Burlington Kids Club practice. Phillips walked into the gym, saw coach Mike Sayre putting the wrestlers through up and downs and running stairs, turned around and walked right back out the door.

Wrestling, Phillips decided, could wait.

A year later, Philips came back to wrestling and fell in love with the sport, so much so that he became a pioneer of sorts in the sport. Four years later, Phillips became Burlington High School's first state champion wrestler, winning the title at 215 pounds in Class 3A in 2002.

Five years later, Phillips became Upper Iowa University's first NCAA Division II national champion, claiming the crown at 197 pounds.

Phillips went on to be an assistant coach for the Peacocks for six years under head coach Heath Grimm and currently is head coach of the Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School wrestling team.

On Saturday, Phillips will be inducted into the Upper Iowa University Athletics Hall of Fame.

Phillips made a meteoric rise to the top, and on Saturday he will be recognized for his remarkable achievements in such a short amount of time.

"I feel its an honor to be included with all of the great people who are already in the Hall of Fame since the school opened in 1854," Phillips said. "It will be nice to go back and see my face up there with guys like Mike McCready and all the other national champions and football All-Americans, guys like Ryan Birt and the older guys who were two-sport athletes. That's almost unheard of these days. I won my only national title in my only year here."

For Phillips, his wrestling career nearly ended before it began. When he walked into Horace Mann that day back in seventh grade, he turned around and walked right back out. Wrestling, he decided, was not for him.

"I showed up at kids club practice one day and they were running stairs and doing up and downs," Phillips said. "I left and didn't come back until the next year. I was lucky because (former BHS coach Mike) Richart let me come to the high school and practice against guys like Matt Hartman and Ben Good, some really good guys. I am very grateful that Coach Richart gave me that opportunity. He was the first one who told me I could be a state champion. You can't really believe that you are good enough to be a state champion until someone else tells you you can do it."

Phillips fulfilled his dream in 2002, winning the Class 3A 215-pound state championship. That was a learning experience that Phillips would use five years later when he beat Josh Majerus, 12-0, in the NCAA Division II 197-pound national championship match.

"I remember the mistakes I made in high school and I tried to correct them at the national championships," Phillips said. "I warmed up for a very long time at state. It seemed like hours. They finally got to my match and I was literally exhausted. I couldn't finish my shots, things I normally finish on. I waited and waited and waited at nationals before I started warming up. I didn't start warming up until they got to 149. Grimm was getting all nervous and I told him, 'I've got this.' Then I went out and beat the guy, 12-0. I think about that experience every single day."

Phillips spent his first four years of college at Wartburg, where he saw sporadic mat time and eventually got stuck behind T.J. Miller, son of former coach Jim Miller. A change of scenery is just what Phillips needed, and Upper Iowa proved to be a perfect fit.

"I remember when I first got there and we had our first team meeting. We went around and introduced ourselves. I said, 'I'm Ryan Phillips. I'm a senior and I'm going to be a national champion,'" Phillips recalled. "I remember the looks I got. 'Who is this guy? He says he's going to win a national championship? Who does he think he is? He thinks he is better than everybody else.' I was able to focus more on myself because I knew I was going to be the guy. I trained my tail off and stayed away from the nightlife. That gave me the focus and work ethic to be a national champion."

After graduating, Phillips spent six years as an assistant coach at Upper Iowa, where he attained his Masters degree and special education certification. He then spent three years as head coach at Labette Community College before becoming head coach of the West Burlington-Notre Dame/Danville high school program for two years. He is beginning his second season as head wrestling coach at Jefferson.

Not a day goes by when Phillips doesn't reflect on his days at Upper Iowa. On Saturday, he will add another memory when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

"I tell my kids that you can still be good and win matches and be a national champion, even if you start late," Phillips said. "I think my biggest influence was as an assistant coach at Upper Iowa. I just hope I am making an impact on these kids' lives."