Photo: Wartburg Athletics

Williams named head wrestling coach at Central College

PELLA -- He's reached the pinnacle as an athlete, as a club instructor, high school coach and college assistant coach, and now Landon Williams will strive to accelerate the Central College men's wrestling program's rise as its new head coach.

Williams, a three-time all-America honoree and two-time NCAA Division III national champion at Wartburg College, has served as the top assistant coach for the Knights since 2020. As Central's new head coach he follows Eric Van Kley, who gave up the position he held for the past 17 years to devote more time to his new role as vice president for athletics.

An Eldridge, Iowa native and Davenport Assumption Catholic High School graduate, Williams posted a 47-0 record with a state title as a high school senior. He was also a two-time USA Folkstyle All-American for the Young Guns Wrestling Club. At Wartburg, Williams compiled a 135-15 career record and was a part of four Division III championship teams at Wartburg, serving as team captain for two seasons. He spent an additional season as a Wartburg assistant then taught high school physical education at Holy Cross School in New Orleans from 2015-19. He was an assistant coach there for three seasons before spending a year there as director of wrestling. He helped lead Holy Cross to a Division I state championship while finishing third twice and second once during his tenure. Eleven of his wrestlers claimed individual state crowns. He also co-founded the Bayou Elite Wrestling Club, helping lead 50 wrestlers to USA state titles.

In 2019, Williams helped launch and operate The Burg Training Center in Waverly, providing individual instruction for youth and high school wrestlers. He served as a volunteer assistant at Wartburg in 2019-20, then was named the program's top assistant the following year. The Knights captured the NCAA Division III title in 2022 and finished second the past two seasons. Wartburg wrestlers received all-America honors 25 times during his four years as the lead assistant.

Yet his championship pedigree is not what stands out most to Van Kley about Williams.

"Landon's own personal experience and passion for the Division III model is something we really prioritize and value at Central," Van Kley said. "He's competed in Division III, he's coached in Division III, he understands what we're about and that is focusing on the student-athlete experience, helping them be successful in all aspects of life both in college and beyond.

"But, yes, beyond that, he's a tenacious recruiter and a phenomenal developer of talent on the mat. I've seen him operate in a variety of settings and have always come away impressed. Every coach and reference I spoke with about him raved about his ability to teach, develop and build relationships."

Van Kley said giving up head coaching duties was especially hard because of the close connections he's established with his wrestlers, and he was committed to finding the right coach for their futures.

"I feel like the program is in a really good place right now," Van Kley said. "I care deeply about these guys and identifying the person who not only can maximize their potential but will care about them as well. I'm confident that Coach Williams is that guy. They are going to love having him as their coach."

And while Van Kley will follow the wrestlers and the program closely, he stressed that his coaching days are over.

"You won't see me in the wrestling room," he said. "I'm obviously available for our wrestlers anytime they need me, just as I am for every Central student-athlete. But Coach Williams is the program leader."

Williams already has a close Central connection. His wife, Rachel Cassens Williams, is a 2016 Central graduate and a former member of the Dutch women's golf team while also learning as an athletic training student. She's now an assistant athletic trainer at Wartburg. Williams said his recent interactions with the Dutch staff made him appreciate the warm feelings she has for Central.

"Through talking to the administration and coaches, with them laying out their vision of what they want to see in the program, it really aligned with mine," he said. "They're passionate about the school, they're passionate about the sport of wrestling and they're very passionate about making kids better, with an opportunity to be great."

Williams feels prepared to take on a head coaching role and eager to do so at Central.

"I do think the next step is to take over a program as head coach," Williams said. "It's a huge opportunity to take what I've learned, my hard work and experience in growing programs and building wrestlers into great human beings. I think the sky's the limit on what we can achieve."

Central has won four conference team championships and posted 14 top-25 NCAA team finishes, including one runner-up finish. But Van Kley inherited a squad that posted a 0-15-1 dual record in his first season. He's since built a program that's grown to more than 40 wrestlers in some seasons and is housed in a spacious new training center in P.H. Kuyper Gymnasium. The Dutch have sent at least one wrester to the national tournament each of the past 14 years. Central wrestlers have earned NWCA Scholar All-America distinction 39 times in the past nine years. Williams wants to build on that.

"I think the biggest thing is not only finding great wrestlers, but having great coaches and a great support system, making sure everything's in line," he said. "And just bringing a level of commitment and passion and work ethic every single day. That's contagious. If the coach is leading the way with that, the wrestlers will be excited about coming in to practice every day and being able to achieve things that maybe they didn't believe were possible. I look forward to setting new goals and finding out how good we can be."