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'I can tell that our program made a difference:' Ullyott resigns from coaching Laker wrestling after 30 years

Ullyott announced he was resigning from the head coaching role in a Facebook post this week — putting an end to a combined 32 years of coaching wrestling.

1 Rob Ullyott AD7C1578.JPG
Lakers' head coach Rob Ullyott walks through the practice plan at the beginning of a Detroit Lakes wrestling practice on Nov. 30, 2021 at Detroit Lakes High School. Ullyott resigned as head coach in a Facebook post earlier this week.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune
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DETROIT LAKES — When Rob Ullyott took over the Detroit Lakes wrestling head coaching position in 1996, he was determined to build a culture that would impact student-athletes positively.

As Ullyott steps down from the job 26 years later, it's safe to say the program is in a better place than when he found it.

Ullyott announced he was resigning from the head coaching role in a Facebook post this week — putting an end to a combined 32 years of coaching wrestling.

"There were a lot of contributing factors," Ullyott told the Tribune of his decision to resign. "I think change is good. If we want to take further steps with our program and grow, I think new blood is an important thing. You can only build something so far, and it takes a lot of energy and new ideas to help programs continue to grow. I think our program might benefit from a change in leadership."

Ullyott got his start in his hometown of Walhalla, North Dakota, in 1990 as an assistant coach. He then moved to Detroit Lakes to take a teaching job in 1992, which led him to the Laker wrestling program. After five years of being a Detroit Lakes assistant coach, he took his first and last head coaching gig.

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"Our goal has been to provide a great experience for kids," Ullyott said. "We also want to put a program out there that's competitive. We've done that, but I think to take the next step, it will need another brand of energy and ideas."

"Another part of it is the timing of things," he added. "When you look at bringing in new coaches, you need to have some openings. Our school has some teaching positions available. My hope is that those teaching positions, along with the head coaching position, might attract the quality people we're looking for."

Changing the culture

Detroit Lakes didn't exactly have the most storied program in its early days. From the inaugural 1958-59 season through the next 30 years or so, the Lakers had a losing record. After just two winning seasons in the late '60s, the school dropped its wrestling program entirely from 1982-1986.

The program began to change under Ullyott's leadership. During his years as an assistant coach, he worked with wrestlers at the middle school level. By the time he took the head coaching job, those kids were wrestling on the varsity team.

"When I came here, the Staples, Frazees and Wadenas were just unbelievably dominant," Ullyott said. "They were top five in the state every year. Staples and Frazee won multiple state championships... I used to tease the kids that the water that runs through the Frazee school is the same water in the pipes that runs through Detroit Lakes. We're all drinking the same water. If they can do it, so can we. It took a real special group to understand the changes we needed to make."

The Lakers went 13-7 in his first year as head coach and posted a winning record every season until 2005-06. In his second year with the program, Ullyott led the Lakers to their first section championship appearance.

"We talk about this a lot with our current teams; each kid is a part of this history and part of the culture," Ullyott said. "If you go back to the beginning, we were so fortunate with the kids we had in the beginning that bought into the thought that we could be competitive… You have to credit that team for setting the bar we could build from."

Ullyott watched three of his teams lose in the section championship before he coached during Detroit Lakes' first trip to state in the 2003-04 season.

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"The thing about that '04 team...is we won the section title on a pin from Andy Lundberg at heavyweight," Ullyott said. "It's that special moment that symbolizes a bigger deal. All of these guys bought in and became such a close group of wrestlers. I think back to that dual where we beat Roseau, and there were four or five matches that went to overtime, and we only lost one of them. When Andy gets that pin, everybody on the team gets that pin."

Rob Ullyott
Rob Ullyott steps down as Detroit Lakes wrestling head coach, leaving the position open for the first time since 1996.
Detroit Lakes Tribune file photo

Detroit Lakes made it back to state again the following year before going yet again in 2019-20. Ullyott coached in 11 section championships throughout his career.

Ullyott has seen dozens of wrestlers go to state individually and as a team. Each trip to the Twin Cities is one he looks back on fondly. But there's a regular-season moment from 2016 that will always stick out with the favorites from his coaching career.

"Another favorite memory of mine was beating Frazee," he recalled. "That came in 2016, so it only took me 20 years to beat Frazee. The reason it's one of my favorite moments is because I have such tremendous respect for Clay Nagel and that program. The older fellas, too. They've been leading that program for so many years. To finally get over the hump and beat them was a huge accomplishment because they always set the bar so high."

Ullyott said he has a tremendous amount of respect for the programs around West Central Minnesota that help make it one of the most prolific wrestling regions around the state.

"We've been in the section finals 11 times, with a lot of them coming against Perham," Ullyott said. "They had some tremendous teams come through, especially recently. You talk about wrestling in this particular area — there've been some good teams for a very long time that have built rich traditions."

What kept him coming back

When he first started coaching, Ullyott dreamed about what he would do if Detroit Lakes won a state wrestling championship.

"I pictured getting in my truck, going to the wrestling facility and loading it up with all the guys with a shovel," Ullyott said. "We were all going to go outside of town, put a post in the ground and it's going to say 'State Champions.' We never did achieve those goals, but the kids understood the work ethic it was going to take to be competitive and catch area teams."

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Ullyott found his motivation for coaching early on. He understood that for as impactful as winning can be, the lessons learned as a student-athlete last far longer than six minutes on the mat each match.

"When you first start, you're competitive, and you want to win. I think that drives you in the early years," Ullyott said. "You prepare with Xs and Os. There's a lot of scouting and things like that. When you develop that, you start to develop a sense of the people you work with. It became a big goal of mine that our program made a difference. Whether they were state champs or never won a match, what mattered was our program made a difference and impacted their life."

HEAD COACH ROB ULLYOTT
Rob Ullyott coaches the Detroit Lakes wrestling team during the 2011-12 season. Ullyott is stepping away from coaching after 32 years.
Detroit Lakes Tribune file photo

For Ullyott, making memories was the greatest pleasure of his 32 years of coaching. He feels fortunate enough to share so many of them with his loved ones along the way.

"I have family that was part of the program," Ullyott said. "I had three older daughters — most of them were statisticians. They helped out, and it allowed me to spend time with them in our program. My last two children were boys. Brody graduated last year, and Tyson will be a senior next year. They were part of everything we did for a lot of years. A huge part of my enjoyment in coaching has been being able to spend time with my family for a lot of years."

Ullyott isn't sure what's next for him in terms of coaching. He said he's willing to help whoever takes the helm next in any capacity. For now, he's going to look back fondly on what his program accomplished on and off the mat.

"When I run into somebody I coached 20 years ago while I'm having supper at Zorbaz, I can tell that our program made a difference," Ullyott said. "I felt like we moved in that direction, and that kept me coming back more than anything."

Jared Rubado is the sports editor for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus. He moved to the area in September of 2021 after covering sports for the Alexandria Echo Press for nearly three years. Jared graduated from the University of Augustana in 2018 with degrees in journalism and sports managment.
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