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Michigan Wrestling Coach Sean Bormet: My Greatest Loss

Michigan Wrestling Coach Sean Bormet: My Greatest Loss

Michigan coach Sean Bormet reflects on two losses that were turning points in his career.

Jun 5, 2024 by Kyle Klingman
Michigan Wrestling Coach Sean Bormet: My Greatest Loss

Sean Bormet was a two-time All-American for Michigan, placing third at the NCAA Championships in 1993 and second in 1994. Bormet lost to Oklahoma State's Pat Smith, 5-3, in the 158-pound finals of the 1994 NCAA tournament when Smith won his fourth NCAA title. 

He wrestled for Providence Catholic High School in Illinois where he placed third at state during his sophomore and junior years and won a state title as a senior (1987-89). The former Wolverine star is the current head coach at Michigan. 

Bormet discusses two losses: a semifinal loss in the Illinois state championships his junior year and his loss to Smith, allowing Smith to become the first four-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion in college history. 

The following are Bormet's words on both losses and how they impacted his career. 

Wrestling Is Personal

"In our sport, winning and losing is so personal. The stakes go higher every level. For me, the loss that impacted me the most was in high school. At that time, it was the most devastating thing. It helped shape a lot of things early in my career, which is good. 

"Losing to Pat, the stakes were high because I was trying to win my first NCAA title and it was my last chance to do it. When you’re insanely competitive, every loss burns me. It’s hard to separate them."

Lefty Headlock

"The one that impacted me the most was the one I had in high school. That was a situation where I had been pretty dominant throughout the season. I only had one loss in my sophomore year, but I was undefeated my entire junior year. There was a lot of build-up to the state tournament because it was a collision course to the finals. 

"I was going to wrestle Joey Gilbert, who was going for his third state title — trying to become our state’s first four-time champ. I had beaten him previously that summer in the freestyle state tournament — I had beaten him pretty badly. I felt pretty confident about my match with him.

"In the semifinals, I was winning 17-3 going into the third period, and at the start of the period, I cut the guy to get my last takedown on the edge of the mat. My shoulder actually bumped the official and I thought he blew the whistle and I didn’t really hear him — maybe it was one of those deals where he taps you. 

"All this stuff goes through your head in a split second, but right when that happened I kind of looked to the right where I felt it touch me and the guy hit me with a lefty headlock on the edge of the mat. I hit my back and bridged inbounds because I was right on the line. I actually drove myself in a little bit not really realizing exactly where I was at. I fought it for a while but it was getting tight. It took a lot of my air away and eventually got pinned so I lost in the semis. 

"I was rated high. My high school was rated No. 1. There were probably 8,000 people in Assembly Hall on their feet, standing ovation just because it was such a big upset — especially being down 17-3. Actually, when I cut him it made it 17-4." 

Finding Fuel

"At the time, and at that age, I was 16, which was incredibly devastating for me. I was pretty down. I fought my way back and took third. We went on and won a team state championship a week later. I had to pick myself up for my team and our coaches and everybody else to do the best job I could. 

"For weeks, I would stay up at night and watch that match over and over. It really taught me how to handle incredible disappointment and turn that into motivation and fuel for every workout. I remember watching that match and trying to analyze what went wrong. What went wrong technically? What went wrong mentally in that moment? I wanted to understand how I could better take responsibility and eliminate any chance of that happening again. It taught me a lot about self-reflection and evaluation. I think it taught me how to take a form of disappointment and use it as a motivator and fuel.

"(That loss) fueled my workouts for an entire summer. It injected a ton of intensity to everything I did at a much higher level. I set a goal to be a much more dominant wrestler and to finish guys and pin guys. That really elevated my mat wrestling and my desire to pin opponents." 

A New Approach

"In that match, I had that guy on his back a couple of times and I was scoring so easy on him and I didn’t really focus on pinning him and finishing the match and ending it. He was fighting off his back a little and instead of focusing on pinning him, I figured I was scoring so easy that I’m going to keep scoring and teach this guy. 

"The next season I was consumed with demolishing every guy I wrestled. At an early point in my career, it drove a lot of those things home and gave me an opportunity to develop those things. That benefited me well into college and beyond.

"It’s crazy because my sophomore year I was undefeated and I lost in the quarters to the guy who won it. Back then I lost on referees' decision. Ben Morris is actually a pretty good wrestler. He won it and went on to wrestle at Minnesota. 

"If you tied, you went into overtime and you wrestled the overtime and if it was still tied the refs just decided who won. That was a tough loss for me to swallow, too. The refs kind of controlled the decision at the end. 

"During my junior year, I fully expected to win. To lose in that fashion was devastating — humiliating, really. It felt like 8,000 fans were cheering against me. It just drove me to a mad intensity. 

"I came from a great wrestling high school and you want to win for your school and your town and your coaches. To have this entire arena cheering because you lost, it drove me. The next season I was destroying people and people were booing. I wasn’t cheap, but the intensity of the wrestling was too much. I had 53 matches and 48 pins and three technical falls. I only had two matches go the distance. One was 14-1 and one was 12-0. I wanted to dominate." 

Unleash The Beast

"The weeks following that loss I mentally beat myself up on how that could happen. It takes a certain situation to unleash and unlock that within yourself. That match did that at that time for me. It’s better to happen at 16 than at 21. I benefited from learning some of those intangible things earlier. 

"If that would have been in some small gym and that happened, I would have been pissed and I hated losing, but the magnitude made (the state semifinals loss hurt). All the newspapers for a week were about me and Joey Gilbert wrestling in the finals. It was all the build-up. 

"I ended up getting to wrestle that guy about a month later in the freestyle state tournament. Man, I wanted to torture him so badly. Back then you could tech fall a guy and choose to continue the match and I did that. Eventually, I pinned him, but I scored a lot of points before I pinned him. I wanted to do it honorably, I wasn’t dirty or cheap, but wanted to dismantle people and dominate and pin everybody. The great thing about that is it fueled my training — every lift, every workout I did. That was in the back of my mind stoking a fire constantly." 

History In The Making

"Pat (Smith) and I had a history of wrestling. My senior year (of high school) I was undefeated and pinned almost every guy I wrestled. My senior year of high school he beat me at (1989) Junior Nationals in the finals. 

"We were supposed to wrestle in the (1993) Vegas finals my senior year and he didn’t wrestle. We wrestled in the (NCAA tournament) finals and I knew from my senior year in high school, as tough as I was, and I felt like I was a tough wrestler — he was the first guy I wrestled who was really good attacking off elbow control. My style fed into his style a little bit. 

"He was also a good rider. He rode real high with a crab and a claw. He was probably one of the only guys who challenged me my senior year from a mat wrestling position. I knew I had to raise my level to win an NCAA championship and knock him out from getting his fourth. That was also part of the excitement, part of the drive. I wanted that challenge and that’s what also drove me to a higher level. 

"I knew he came from arguably the most successful wrestling family. Before I started wrestling against Pat, I was cheering for his brother (John) to win gold. I was a big fan of his brother and how successful he was then I started competing against Pat. I knew he trained a lot with his brother and Kenny Monday. Talk about growing up with incredible resources and training partners. It doesn’t get much better than what he had. 

"I had to do everything I could to make up for some of that. I pushed myself and did everything I could to give myself the best chance to win that NCAA championship. That also drove me to continue to compete. We wrestled again and had a real wild match in the 1996 Olympic Trials. I was beating him and he actually scored with four seconds left off some crazy scramble we got in. I finally beat him at the 1998 World Team Trials.

"That’s our sport. You have to be able to pick yourself up and figure out what areas you have to improve and maybe evaluate your strategy and find a way to improve and get better and beat somebody who has beaten you. 

"Every level you go up, the stakes go up. In 1994, it was more about me winning my championship rather than stopping Pat from getting his fourth. My focus was about going and winning my NCAA title. It wasn’t so much about him. He just happened to be the guy that I had to try to beat to do it. The competitive side was a bonus and made it more exciting and more fun."