The Top PositionIn his third season as head wrestling coach at Muhlenberg, Jason McLean ’01 continues to help bring the Mules to new heights.
By: Jeremy Fuchs ’14 Thursday, March 5, 2020 04:43 PM
Jason McLean ’01 (center) is in his third season as Muhlenberg's head wrestling coach.
Jason McLean ’01 never wanted to coach. He knew how much it would take out of him, how it would consume him, how he would obsess over every detail.
But the call of home, and then alma mater, drew him in. McLean, Muhlenberg's first All-American wrestler, was recently named the Centennial Conference’s Coach of the Year. Last weekend, three of the athletes he coaches qualified for the NCAA Championships, becoming the first Mules bound for the national meet since 2009.
McLean graduated from Muhlenberg in 2001 as one of the best wrestlers in school history. He earned All-American honors that year after finishing eighth in the 141-pound division at the NCAA Championships. The Centennial Conference champion that year, he won 34 matches, second-most in program history.
After his wrestling career ended, McLean worked in contract jobs, traveling the country, teaching people software and hardware.
But home came calling. McLean, who went to Scotch Plains-Fanwood (New Jersey) High School, was recruited to volunteer at nearby New Brunswick High School for the 2006-2007 season. The father of a Muhlenberg friend of McLean’s was principal there. He knew McLean had wrestled, and he asked for McLean’s help while the school tried to reboot a wrestling program that had been defunct for 25 years. They started with kids who had been cut from the football or basketball teams. There would be younger brothers and sisters hanging around practice, which had to be held in random hallways or at other nearby schools—there was no available, dedicated practice space.
Quickly, the man who never wanted to coach became pretty good at it. After a year, McLean became the head coach himself.
"I built such a relationship with the kids," says McLean. "It was about the experience. I've fallen in love with the process. That just makes me want to get people that I'm responsible for to their full potential. I'll do whatever I can to show people you believe in them and they'll believe in you."
In 2016, McLean was named the Greater Middlesex Conference Blue Division Coach of the Year. The team that once practiced in random hallways won 20 matches under his leadership. He was building a real program, one that had community buy-in. The fourth-graders that originally stopped by his hallway practices were now on the team.
But the call of his alma mater was too strong.
When McLean left New Brunswick for Muhlenberg, he was sure to always keep the city in mind.
"In New Brunswick," says heavyweight Ramiro Osuna ’22, a political science and media & communication major, "people usually just graduate high school. He wanted us all to go to college. And now that he has the title at Muhlenberg, he's created a funnel. I'm now one of three from New Brunswick."
Osuna, a captain of the football and wrestling teams in high school who also won a district wrestling title, was offered a full scholarship to play at The College of New Jersey. He chose Muhlenberg to be with McLean. "He sacrificed that to come to Muhlenberg," says McLean. “Whoever thought being a rinky dink wrestling coach in New Brunswick that you can have enough of an effect on people that they want to change their home."
A few years ago, McLean got a call from Jeorcy Peña ’23, one of his former team members in New Brunswick. McLean recounted the conversation:
Peña: "I want to go to Muhlenberg."
Peña: "To change my life."
McLean: "If you want to do your part, I'll do my part."
"And I told him," McLean recalls, "this is what I need academically and he did it. He didn't apply to any other college. For a student to put that much faith in me, it's pretty phenomenal. I don't know if he realizes it. I'm choking up just talking about it."
Osuna finished third at the Northeast/Mideast Futures Tournament and is 11-7 on the season. Peña, a 133-pound freshman, is 4-8 in his first season.
The wrestling team saw major success at the NCAA Mideast Regional in Ithaca, New York—qualifying more than two wrestlers for the national meet for the first time since 2007—and McLean is still bringing his intensity and obsession to every facet of the program. But he is also able to look beyond the mat to see the bigger picture: "It's more than wrestling," he says. "Wrestling is just a vessel. It's changing these students' lives."