In 1996, Chris Bono won a National Championship for Iowa State.
Flash forward 22 years and he’s the head wrestling coach at South Dakota State, where he has transformed the Jackrabbits into a prominent program.
The Jackrabbits are having arguably their best season in program history. They are ranked No. 12 in the country, their highest ranking ever, and are undefeated in the Big 12.
Bono wasn’t always going to be the head coach for the Jacks and the engineer for the program rebuild, it was a long road for him that took many turns.
After wrestling for 28 years, Bono decided that he wanted to coach, so he became an assistant at his alma mater, ISU.
Bono was at ISU for nine years before he decided it was time to become a head coach. So, he went to Tennessee in 2007 to coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“It was very similar to here [SDSU],” Bono said. “We had to raise a lot of money, we had to recruit really hard because the state of Tennessee wasn’t real good at wrestling.”
When Bono took over the program, UTC had only seen modest success. The year before Bono took over, UTC went 16-8-1.
In 2007, his first season, Bono delivered a 16-1 record throughout the season and led nine wrestlers to the NCAA Championships. Bono continued coaching at Chattanooga until 2009.
Then, in 2010, his alma mater, Iowa State called and Bono couldn’t resist. He returned again to Ames, Iowa for a year as an assistant head coach, but was unable to mesh with the coaching staff.
“It was a bad decision,” he said. “When you are the number one man, you never want to go back to being the number two guy.”
After one season, he resigned and took a job with Stryker, a medical equipment company to provide for his family.
“I had too many disappointments in my years from the sport.” Bono said. “I wanted to be home every night and on the weekends.”
It turned out Bono couldn’t sell medical equipment quite as effectively as he could sell a wrestling program to recruits.
“When you put your head down at night, you know where you want to be and for me it was always getting back into wrestling,” Bono said.
As chance would have it, the head coach position at SDSU opened in 2012 after the resignation of then head coach Jason Liles. Bono was the first to have his resume in. Before long, he had an interview and was offered the job.
Before Bono took the job, the Jacks were going through a tough time. They had five straight losing seasons from 2007 to 2011 with just two NCAA qualifiers.
SDSU has improved each season under Bono. In his first season, the Jacks went 5-12 with just one NCAA Tournament qualifier. The next year, they went 6-8 with three NCAA qualifiers.
Then, in 2014, the Jacks added another key component to their coaching staff: Jon Reader, who Bono had coached at Iowa State, signed on as an assistant coach.
With Reader on his staff, Bono finally felt that he had a one-two punch that would translate to coaching success. Bono and Reader have created a cohesive coaching unit that doesn’t have definite head coaching or assistant coaching duties.
In the first season with both Iowa State alums, the Jacks went 11-8 with three NCAA qualifiers, then 14-6 with five NCAA qualifiers. Last season they went 14-5 with five NCAA qualifiers and two All-Americans.
Part of their success is a result of recruiting, a process that Bono and Reader have stressed. In Bono’s office, there is a sign that reads, “Recruit well, Develop well = SUCCESS.”
So far, that plan has been apparent for Jacks fans. SDSU was able to land a top recruit in now junior Seth Gross.
After he left Iowa, they were able to get a four-time Missouri High School state champion Connor Brown. They also recruited now senior Nate Rotert, who also won state twice in South Dakota.
When Rotert was growing up, the Jacks didn’t have the best program. Instead, he looked up to perennial powerhouses like Iowa and Minnesota but eventually committed to SDSU because of the continual success of the program.
Bono is often raucous and energized during matches, and that doesn’t change during practices — it’s simply who Chris Bono is.
“He is always fired up, there is never a time where you don’t get that,” Gross said.
Bono has been able to change the culture around the SDSU wrestling room, by challenging the wrestlers every day.
“He finds our breaking points and makes sure we go past our breaking points every time and get at least one percent better each day,” Brown said.
Bono has no hesitation calling last year’s season his most successful coaching season, but don’t be fooled to think he is content taking the team to a program that hovers around the top 15.
“Everybody is tooting our horns about this and that,” Bono said. “But, we are nowhere close to where we want to be.”
SDSU has compiled an impressive season, going undefeated in the Big 12. but with the coaching reigns in Bono’s hands, he’s made it clear that a merely successful regular season won’t please him.
He wants SDSU to be a perennial powerhouse with wrestlers that can win National Championships.
For Bono, part of that is building the fanbase for SDSU to match the increasing intensity level of the program.
So far, he has done a good job. Last year against Iowa, the Jacks had 4,087 fans in attendance. At their last home dual against Northern Iowa, the Jacks recorded 1,277 fans.
“At one point, we were hoping to get 480 people in (Frost Arena) to break records, now we won’t be satisfied until we sell out every night,” Bono said with a smile.