Erik Ford and Matt Surber will be standing on opposite sides of the mat Thursday night, Ford as the head coach of the Piedmont wrestling team, and Surber as the head coach of Tuttle.
It was only a matter of timing that kept the two former Chickasha High School wrestlers from being on the same team.
Almost a Tiger
Just a few years ago, Surber asked Ford if he wanted to join his staff as an assistant coach at one of the most successful programs in the state.
Ford had just finished his first year as head coach at Piedmont, and it was his commitment to that school that is the reason he is a Wildcat instead of a Tiger.
Ford felt like he needed to see his commitment to Piedmont through. It has worked out well for him, but what if the opportunity had presented itself just a year earlier?
"When I was first looking for a job three years ago, there weren't any jobs going around," Ford said. "And I don't believe [Tuttle] had one. If they did, I probably would have taken it at the time.
"The past couple of years he's asked me to be his assistant, but I'm comfortable where I'm at, enjoying what I'm doing, and don't want to give it up just yet," Ford said.
Ford admits that he's thought about what it would be like to be a part of the Tuttle wrestling program. He also said Surber has asked him about joining Tuttle after each of his first two years at Piedmont.
"You always think about it," Ford said. "It'd sure be a lot of fun to get a state tournament ring almost every year. But it's just one of those things, I feel like I've made a commitment to these kids and this group, and I want to see it through."
The two coaches' paths have long been intertwined. Both are products of the Chickasha High School wrestling program. Surber wrestled at Chickasha from 1990-1993, placing fourth in the state tournament as a sophomore and winning the state title his senior year.
Surber went on to become an All-American wrestler at the University of Central Oklahoma, and spent five years as an assistant coach to Chad Randle at Chickasha High School from 2000-2005. He coached Ford for three of those years. In the fall of 2005, Surber left for Tuttle.
Ford wrestled at Chickasha from 2001-2004. He was a four-time state placer, winning the state title his sophomore year, which was Surber's first year as an assistant for the Chicks. He is Chickasha's all-time wins leader at 134 career wins.
"He was a good kid to have," Surber said of Ford. "He was a hard worker, did things right, wrestled hard. I don't know that Chickasha has had many four-time state placers."
Although he didn't begin wrestling until seventh grade, Ford took to the sport like a natural. He placed in a state tournament each year from eighth grade through high school, despite competing against wrestlers who had dedicated their entire lives to the sport.
"What's funny with Erik, is that it took me a full year to recruit him out for wrestling, because he thought he was a basketball player," Randle said. "He wasn't the fastest. He was a little skinny kid, just like I was. Athletic, but not very fast and with a competitive nature."
Randle, who coached Surber for one year, said Surber and Ford were very alike. Ford said Surber's presence and coaching contributed to his success at Chickasha.
"He was a great wrestling coach," Ford said of Surber. "Huge, huge to have. Coach Randle is an amazing coach, but it was huge to have another guy that was a wrestling mind. He was somebody who really made you think about the sport."
Surber said as Ford got older and went off to college, he began to see potential in Ford as a coach.
"He's a student of the sport," Surber said. "He understands it, he follows it."
Randle said the way Ford approaches the sport is what lends him to being a coach.
"He's a thinker," Randle said. "And that's what I consider myself. There are some people that can be great wrestlers, but may not be as good as a coach. Because it's one thing to do it, it's another thing to have to show someone what you're talking about."
Ford went on to wrestle at the University of Oklahoma for three years, where he said he "got beat up a lot". Nearing the end of his college career, he realized he had some choices to make.
"Through college you get that whole 'what are you going to do with your life' feeling, and I just felt like it was something that was really calling me," he said about coaching. "Something I knew I would enjoy and be passionate about."
Randle said he advised Ford to pursue coaching out of college, at least until he figured out if there was something else he wanted to do.
"When he was about to graduate, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do," Randle said. "I don't know if it had anything to do with me, but I told him 'If you don't know what you're going to do, you need to go ahead and get your teaching certificate and start coaching until you figure it out.'"
Ford's first coaching job was as a lay coach at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City. He was there for one year, before the Piedmont job came open in 2010. Ford had figured it out.
Building a program
Piedmont wasn't much of a wrestling school in 2010 when Ford became the head coach. The Wildcats had only had one wrestler place in the top-10 at the state tournament, and that wrestler was a state champion the year before Ford got there.
"Overall, Piedmont wrestling hasn't had a whole lot of success," Ford said. "It was really struggling to find its bearing and become a competitive team."
In Ford's first year, the Wildcats took a school-record five wrestlers to the state tournament, and earned two third-place medals. Two of the five wrestlers were freshmen.
In year two, Piedmont again sent five wrestlers to state, and that year had four of them place. The team finished sixth overall at the tournament, another milestone accomplishment for the program. Piedmont had one state champion that year.
The improvement has continued in Ford's third year. Piedmont qualified for its first-ever Dual State tournament by beating Cushing, meaning the team that hosts the Dual State tournament will be watching this season.
It also means Surber and Ford could meet up for one more dual, this one with extremely high stakes.
"We're going to have to knock a few teams off to get to them, but I think it would be a lot of fun to compete against Coach Surber and his crew, if we were fortunate enough to get there," Ford said.
The two coaches' teams met in a dual for the first time last season, with Tuttle coming out on top. Surber said he doesn't think Piedmont will be so easy to beat this time around.
"We beat them pretty handedly," Surber said. "We were pretty solid last year. This year should be a better matchup for sure."
And so the Chickasha coaching tree continues to grow. In the Chickasha Invitational Tournament Jan. 25-26, five of the top six teams were coached by former Chickasha High School wrestlers. Joining Randle, Surber and Ford were Greg George of Southmoore and Mark Peck of Westmoore.
The Chickasha wrestling program has never been known for having dominant teams, but the individuals that have come out of the program have impacted wrestling in Oklahoma.
"Chickasha's not really known as a hot bed of wrestling as far as top-notch teams year-in and year-out, but they've always had a lot of top-notch individuals," Surber said. "I'm proud to say I was a state champion there, and we've had a lot of kids that have come on since then that have been state champs or that are currently wrestling in college, or coaching. It's neat for the heritage of the sport in Chickasha."
Randle was Chickasha's first state champion in 1985, and has coached numerous individual state champions at Chickasha, with the chance to get a few more this season. Surber coaches a nationally-ranked program that has won three Dual State and four state tournament championships in a row.
Ford appears to be well on his way to following the success of his predecessors.
"At the end of the day, there aren't two guys that I would rather compete against," Ford said of Randle and Surber. "I know what they stand for, and what they bring to the table. Getting the opportunity to coach at the opposite end of those guys is an honor for me."
Beating one of them for a Dual State title would be an even greater honor.
"That's what we're working for," Ford said. "We're going to go down there and give them a go. Sure would be a lot of fun to compete against Coach Surber in a match like that."