Central Michigan's Tom Borrelli Took Unconventional Coaching Path

Central Michigan's Tom Borrelli Took Unconventional Coaching Path

Tom Borrelli will retire as the head coach of Central Michigan after the 2024 NCAA Championships, but his journey was not without challenges.

Mar 13, 2024 by Kyle Klingman
Central Michigan's Tom Borrelli Took Unconventional Coaching Path

Tom Borrelli still doesn’t know why he was put in charge of his high school wrestling team as a junior. He was only 16 and competed at 98 pounds — the lightest weight class. 

It was a week before the South Carolina state championships and most of the wrestlers who had qualified were juniors and seniors at heavier weights. The head coach had to leave practice Borrelli became the interim coach for an hour. 

Nervous and more than a little shocked, Borrelli warmed up the team and put them through a series of drills. After the first set, he noticed that the team was goofing off. 

That did not sit well with Borrelli. He stopped the entire practice and ripped into the team. 

“I don’t know what you guys are thinking but I want to do well in the state tournament and I want to finish strong at the end of the year,” Borrelli told the team. “I’m going to practice hard. If you want to practice hard then practice hard. If not, you probably don’t need to be here.” 

Borrelli watched as practice resumed. Everyone was working hard. Everyone listened. Everyone responded to the smallest wrestler on the team.

“It was the first time I ever had the feeling that I might be able to motivate people someday,” Borrelli said. “That was the first time I ever experienced that I guess.” 

Experience is something Borrelli had little of when he took his larger teammates to task in 1974. He started wrestling in 10th grade and didn’t place at the state tournament the previous season. He eventually finished second as a junior and third as a senior for Goose Creek High School — but Borrelli admits that South Carolina wasn’t a national wrestling power, either. 

As it turned out, Borrelli was never destined to be a wrestler. He was destined to be a wrestling coach. 

Because his high school didn’t offer the sport until he was a sophomore, Borrelli had to rely on instruction from his father — a former Pennsylvania state champion who served in the Navy for 24 years. His high school wrestling coach was the football coach who understood that wrestling would help the football team. 

The elder Borrelli would ask his son what he learned in practice and then they would go out in the yard and work on moves. Remember, this is South Carolina so the snow wasn't a factor during the winter. 

Tom learned to execute moves and would return to practice and explain the technique. The coach eventually discovered that Tom’s father was a former wrestler and invited him to be an assistant. 

“I was learning stuff at a very young age and passing it on to the guys on our team,” Borrelli said. “I didn’t realize the effect it had on people until maybe the incident that junior year right before the state tournament.”

Love, Marriage, And Keeping Secrets

Despite only three years of sporadic wrestling, Borrelli was drawn to the one-on-one nature of the sport. He played football and ran track in high school — but wrestling was unlike anything he had ever done. 

“There was something about wrestling that was so much different — so much more fulfilling,” Borrelli said. “I didn’t want it to be over with.”

Borrelli attended The Citadel and Granby wrestling camps as a junior and senior to continue his wrestling education. Ed Steers, the head coach at William & Mary at the time, was impressed with the work ethic of the Goose Creek High School product. Borrelli wanted to attend William & Mary because of Steers’s influence but opted to attend The Citadel — a military college located in Charleston — instead. 

The Citadel was only 20 minutes from his hometown, which was good for the entire family. Borrelli got married after his freshman year of college at the age of 19. 

There’s nothing wrong with getting married as a teenager, but getting married while enrolled at The Citadel is against the rules. You will be dismissed from the corp if they find out. 

Borrelli had to keep his marriage — and the two children he had while in college — a secret. They had been dating since eighth grade so Borrelli’s wife, Lorri, stayed with her family in Goose Creek. 

“The guys on the team always thought I was a little bit different,” Borrelli said. “When we traveled we’d stay in visiting team rooms a lot of times — you didn’t stay in hotels. We’d have a curfew and you’d have to be back to the visiting team room by 10:30 or 11 o’clock. I never went out with the guys. I always stayed back with the coach. I’d either read or do my homework or something like that. They thought there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t tell them I was married and had kids.

“When I graduated from college everybody found out. They were kind of happy because they understood some things. There’s no way you could pull that off today.” 

For three years, the only person who knew he was married with children was his best friend. He found out when Borrelli had to sneak off campus because his wife was having their first child. Cadets were not allowed to have cars so they had to find a way to get to the hospital. 

“He thought I was kidding when I told him,” Borrelli said. “I had to really convince him. He ended up taking me. The funny thing is when I got to hold my oldest son for the first time — when the nurse brought him away from my wife — they looked at me, and they gave Kevin, my son, to my best friend to hold because I looked like I was 10 years old.”

Borrelli was a four-year starter at The Citadel with conference placings of fourth, third, and second, which weren't good enough to qualify for the NCAA championships. He wanted to continue his military commitment by becoming a pilot but one of the questions on the application is about one’s marital status. Borrelli didn’t want to lie on his contract so he never served as an officer. 

Born To Coach

Borrelli coached in high school for the next five years — serving one year at Goose Creek before moving to Atlanta to coach for four years. He was the head wrestling and track coach, and an assistant football coach. 

From there he went to Clemson to coach with Eddie Griffin. Borrelli was involved with Georgia USA Wrestling summer camps so he was connected with the Cadet and Junior teams, which meant he was deeply connected to the wrestling talent within the state. Georgia was a prime recruiting ground for Clemson so hiring Borrelli was an ideal fit for the program. He went to Lake Superior State in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, from there and then was hired as the head coach at Central Michigan — a position he has held for 29 seasons. 

“I really enjoy coaching wrestling,” Borrelli said. “I still enjoy it. I feel like you can’t have the same relationships with your athletes in very many other sports. I don’t know if there’s another sport where you get as close to your athletes as far as team sports. They don’t know their kids the way we know our kids. It’s not the same.”

How did Borrelli — a wrestler who never qualified for the NCAA championships and never won a state title in South Carolina — land a Division I coaching job? The biggest reason was Rod Rapp.

Rapp was a successful wrestling coach in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, who had won numerous state team championships during the 1970s and 1980s. He retired from high school coaching and was an assistant for Tom Minkel at Central Michigan. 

“Rod was a really good coach and he had the pulse of wrestling in the state,” Borrelli said. “He had seen us at some of the open tournaments. He knew how our team competed and he had a lot of influence. He was a Central Michigan All-American back when they were NAIA and he had a lot of influence with athletic administration at the time because he was really well respected. I think he basically talked him into hiring me. I had talked to Rod a few times but I didn’t know him really well. I think he’s the reason I got the job”

Life, Death, And A New Perspective

Tom and Lorri Borrelli had three sons: Kevin, Bob, and Jason. Kevin, the oldest, was a healthy and energetic boy until he was two. Then he got the flu and stopped breathing in the emergency room. His esophagus was closed over his trachea and his windpipe was sealed off. 

Doctors performed an emergency tracheotomy as Kevin was without oxygen for around 10 minutes. The result was severe brain damage, which led to cerebral palsy. Tom was a senior in college when his son fell ill and couldn’t be with him for six straight weeks. 

The Borrellis raised a disabled son from the age of two until his passing in 1994 at the age of 17. Lorri was ultimately responsible for feeding him through a tube, taking care of his needs, and numerous overnight hospital visits.

“My wife is the one who had the struggle,” Borrelli said. "I got to live out my dream as a coach and do what I loved to do. She’s the one who had to sacrifice her life for 15 years to make sure he was ok."

“Living with that for 15 years gives you a different perspective on life. You look at the world a little bit differently. You have a little bit more empathy. You have a little bit more compassion. 

“It’s hard to accept when some of the most healthy and gifted people on the planet feel like they can’t accomplish certain things. They feel like they’re a little bit disadvantaged. They don’t know what struggle is. The world is at their fingertips. They have everything they need. They have two good arms. Two good legs. A good mind. They can see. They can feed themselves. They can run. They can do anything you ask them to do and sometimes they don’t appreciate the gifts they have. I think all of those things are put into perspective for you.”

Borrelli was also offered a perspective on how it might affect his younger sons, Bob and Jason. He worried about how it affected their relationship with friends and how it changed the family dynamic of growing up with a severely disabled brother. 

“You try to make their lives as normal as possible but you know it affects them,” Borrelli said. “There’s a ton of sadness (when he passed) but you get over that and life goes on. For (my wife) — and for all of us — life got more normal, which in some ways it’s a little bit of a relief — but there’s always a little bit of emptiness. I still think about him every day.” 

The End Of The Line

Borrelli announced that he is retiring as Central Michigan's head wrestling coach after the 2024 NCAA Championships.

He was 368-179 at Central Michigan including a remarkable 154-36 in MAC duals. Twenty-eight times in his 33 seasons they finished .500 or better in all duals, a ledger made all the more extraordinary by the fact that Borrelli's teams annually went head to head in duals with top-25 programs, including the likes of Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan. His team won a record 11 consecutive MAC titles from 2002-12.

Borrelli has coached one national champion, 45 All-Americans, 10 MAC Wrestler of the Year honorees, 10 wrestlers who have earned the MAC Freshman of the Year Award, seven who have walked away with the Outstanding Wrestler Award at the MAC Championships, 93 MAC champions, 61 National Wrestling Coaches Association Scholar All-Americans, 79 Academic All-MAC selections, and two Academic All-Americans.