Eric Keller continuing tradition of excellence at Wartburg College
Eric Keller (right) has taken over the reins at Wartburg College after serving as co-head coach with Hall of Famer Jim Miller (left), who retired after winning 10 NCAA titles. Wartburg College photo.
It was one of the best recruiting pitches Jim Miller made during his legendary tenure as head wrestling coach of the Wartburg College Knights.
It was the summer of 2000 when Miller placed a phone call to Eric Keller.
Just a year out of college after an All-American career at Northern Iowa, Keller was considering joining an NCAA Division I program as an assistant coach at either his alma mater or at Nebraska.
But that all changed during a conversation with Miller.
“I didn’t know all that much about the Division III level, but Coach Miller called me and sold me on Wartburg,” Keller said. “My head was spinning after that call. He really impressed me. He sold me on the opportunity to really, really make a difference with kids. Just the way he worded it really caught my attention. You could feel the passion he had when you talked to him.”
Miller’s pitch paid dividends and Keller joined the Wartburg coaching staff in 2000. Keller worked closely with Miller in building a wrestling dynasty in the small northeast Iowa community of Waverly, Iowa.
Promoted to co-head coach alongside Miller in 2010, Keller has now taken the reins as the sole head coach for the Knights this season.
Wartburg’s run of excellence has continued this season. The Knights are ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division III and won their fourth straight National Duals championship in January.
Wartburg faces long-time rival and D-III power Augsburg on Thursday at home.
Miller won an amazing 10 national titles and 21 Iowa Conference titles during his 22 seasons at Wartburg. He retired after winning his final national title in 2013.
Keller doesn’t have to look far to find Miller, who was named Emeritus head coach when he retired as Wartburg’s head coach. Miller continues to teach in the health and physical education department at the school.
“Jim’s still got the big office and I’ve got the little office next door – and I’m OK with that,” Keller said with a laugh.
The transition to this season has gone smoothly for Keller this season.
“It’s been great,” Keller said. “One of the things Jim’s so good at is getting guys prepared to be good coaches. You can see that with so many of his guys going on to be successful high school and college coaches. It was important to him to make sure I was ready to go and prepared to be a head coach. Because of that, I feel confident in where I am and what I’m doing.”
Keller said Miller still comes into the wrestling room “once in a while” when the Knights have practice.
“He will come in and give a motivational speech to the guys or give them a history lesson,” Keller said. “It’s real special when he stops by. He likes coming in and watching the live wrestling. It’s great having him around and having him as a resource.”
Keller was an assistant coach at Wartburg from 2000-05 and then spent a season as head coach at North Central College. He returned to Wartburg in 2006 as associate head coach before being elevated to co-head coach in 2010.
“It’s really not that different this season,” Keller said. “When you’ve been doing the same thing this many years in a row and having success, you don’t need to change a bunch of things and try to reinvent the wheel. I’m a big believer in what Jim did and we were on the same page.”
Keller had an interesting experience at the National Duals last month in Des Moines. He traveled with the team to the event, but got sick the day before the event. He ended up contracting influenza and pneumonia.
“My parents live just south of Des Moines, in Indianola, and I went to their house on a Friday and didn’t leave until the following Wednesday,” Keller said. “My dad hooked the computer up to the big screen TV and I was able to watch the webcast of the matches while I was lying on the couch. It was killing me to miss the National Duals because it’s always a big, big event for us. It was heartbreaking to not be there. Coach (Chris) Ortner took over for me and did a great job.”
The Knights have won 51 straight duals entering the battle with perennial power Augsburg.
“I always expect those guys to be good,” Keller said. “I have immense respect for that program and I love the rivalry we have with them. We have to wrestle well and be ready to go at every weight class. It’s always exciting when we wrestle Augsburg. It’s only been us or them since 1995 that has won the national title. It’s an important dual.”
Wartburg has won a whopping 172 straight Iowa Conference dual meets. The Knights haven’t lost a league dual since the 1993-94 season.
“We take a lot of pride in that,” Keller said. “We educate our guys on that and make sure they are aware of it. This streak has been going longer than a lot of our wrestlers have been alive. It’s a powerful thing and it’s crazy to think it’s still going. We don’t take anything for granted against anybody – especially in the conference. We get everybody’s best shot, so we have to be ready every time.”
Wartburg is led by two-time NCAA champion Kenny Anderson, a senior 133-pounder. He is ranked No. 2 nationally.
“Kenny was a little banged up, but he’s back now,” Keller said. “He’s a dominant wrestler, but he hasn’t had a chance to be Kenny Anderson yet. We are looking forward to getting him back.”
The Knights also have ranked wrestlers in Landon Williams (No. 1 at 174), Ryan Fank (No. 2 at 285), Cole Welter (No. 3 at 165), Gilberto Camacho (No. 3 at 125), Puna Soriano (No. 6 at 197), Connor Campo (No. 7 at 141), Sam Upah (No. 8 at 184) and Brett Yonkovic (No. 9 at 157).
“Cole Welter has been a leader all year long,” Keller said. “He’s on a mission. He’s been our most focused and most consistent guy. Camacho and Fank are wrestling really well. We’re not quite there yet. We haven’t reached our full potential yet, but we are ready to get to that point.”
The Knights will look to make a little more history at next month’s NCAA Division III Championships in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“We have a lot of seniors on our team, and no team in D-III has ever won four national titles in a row,” Keller said. “This group has a chance to win four National Duals titles and four NCAA tournament titles in a row. They have a chance to do something real special. We have to be mentally and physically ready to go. It will take a real laser focus by each individual to do it.”