Mat McClenahan was one of the first UAA student-athletes to earn both All-America and Academic All-America honors. He has taken the lessons he learned in wrestling into a career as a teacher.
Wrestling was very popular in McClenahan's small town of Sigourney, Iowa. He always planned to wrestle in college, but he may not have imagined going to the most populated city in the U.S. "Sigourney has fewer than 2,000 people in it. Going off to New York City was a really big stretch for me," he said. "My family supported my decision and I trusted (NYU coaches) Mark (Clayton) and John (Giura) to do the right thing by me. They did. What a great place to go to college and learn about the world!" He had met both coaches at camps in Wisconsin and they talked to him about NYU.
Photo: Mat McClenahan (shaking hands) on the podium in his early wrestling days
"I was from the Midwest and ran across him in the summer at a camp," Clayton said. "I always remembered him. He really stuck out. He went about everything with a purpose and he always had an impact on me. When I went to NYU, I knew I would love to have him come and wrestle there. He seemed like the kind of person who would look for an adventure and adapt."
Based on the financial challenges in attending the school, McClenahan felt it was imperative to do well. "I was always fighting to be the best I could be and get all I could out of my NYU education," McClenahan said. "It was not a small thing for me or my family so I often felt the pressure to do well.”
Another hurdle for McClenahan was overcoming a knee injury he suffered in high school. "It did not make it easy for him to train and compete," Clayton stated. "His mental toughness was at a very high level. To achieve what he did in pain was extra special. A lot of guys would have walked away, but he never complained."
In his first UAA Wrestling Championship in 1989, he won the title at 118 pounds. “I loved wrestling in the UAA,” he recalled. “The University of Chicago was another school I looked at early on so getting to compete in Chicago and win was very special for me. My family got to come see me, which was wonderful.”
In 1990 and 1991, McClenahan earned back-to-back Most Outstanding Wrestler honors, becoming the first UAA wrestler (and still one of only two in Association history) to accomplish that feat. “Competing against the kind of student-athletes that I did in the UAA was always an honor,” he remarked. “I always knew that the athletes in the UAA were earning everything they achieved, both on the mat and in the classroom. The UAA is truly an old-fashioned idea. I appreciated that, so to receive honors from such an organization was special.”
Photo: Mat McClenahan competing at NYU
The two-time All-American finished with 111 career victories, but he still recalls falling short of his own expectations. “In 1989, I was one match away from becoming an All-American,” he stated. “I was winning with a few seconds left and then I lost. It is more than 25 years later and I still remember that.” He did achieve All-America status in 1990, but struggled with his weight and did not fare well at the 1991 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championship.
"Watching him win All-America honors the first time was a joy," Clayton recalled. "I was extremely proud of him. His dedication was extraordinary. He did everything we asked of him and more. People see the wins, but not the time it takes in the gym on your own or working out alone. He demanded so much of himself."
McClenahan placed third at the 1992 NCAA championship, which remained the highest finish ever by an NYU wrestler until Nathan Pike reached the 133-pound final in the 2016 championship. “It is a bittersweet memory,” McClenahan exclaimed. “I wrestled great in the qualifier. I beat the guy who eventually won nationals and I was ready. I made a slight mistake at the end of my first match (at the NCAA championship) and turned a sure victory into a loss. My coaches talked me back down and got me focused and ready to go. I wrestled all the way back to third place, beating the guy who beat me in the first round. So, while I did well, I didn’t achieve my overall goal of being a national champion.”
McClenahan earned Academic All-America honors three times. “That was always the most important thing to me and my family,” he said. “Academics were the main reason I chose NYU. The quality of education I received there was second to none. Achieving what I did in wrestling, while representing myself in the classroom is as much as I could have hoped for.”
After earning a master’s degree from Columbia University, he returned to NYU to work before his friend John Gallucci told him about a teaching opportunity at his old high school on Staten Island, Monsignor Farrell. He ended up teaching and coaching wrestling there for four years before moving to Los Angeles and briefly giving up teaching.
“After a few years, I missed coaching so much that I started calling local high schools (in Los Angeles) to see if they needed a wrestling coach,” he recalled. “One called me back and asked me to coach and teach. That was in 2001 and I haven’t looked back since.” He returned to coaching at Birmingham High School.
Photo: Mat McClenahan coaching one of his high school wrestlers
He has been teaching at High Tech Los Angeles, a college prep charter high school in the Lake Balboa/Van Nuys part of the San Fernando Valley, since it began in 2002. “When the school was founded, the idea of the ‘digital divide’ was gaining traction,” McClenahan said. “As students are now seeing and using technology all the time, we aim to get them to use digital devices for more than texting with their friends. Among other things, we want them to develop their own ideas and use the technology to help support their position and to communicate better.”
In November 2005, McClenahan received a meritorious teaching award of $25,000 as one of two Los Angeles-area teachers to win the prestigious Milken Educator Awards. He was credited for his hands-on instruction, innovative teaching, and support of fellow teachers.
He sees consistency in the rewards of teaching, wrestling, and coaching wrestling. “If you do the right thing in small decisions over and over again, in a few years, you are way further ahead than you imagined possible,” he said. “To watch a student who didn’t understand something put in the work and then figure it out is a sublime moment. I try to help that process every day. Then, as a graduate, they start to realize the options they have and the dreams they can chase. That is what keeps me coming back year after year.”
To see profile on McClenahan, click on graphic below:
Eventually, McClenahan hopes to become a principal and recently completed another master’s degree at UCLA. He is a teacher and an assistant principal at High Tech now. “I would love to work with an entire school in a similar way I work with my classroom,” he stated. “What I learned in the wrestling room and the classroom is ‘Today, we will get a little better, all of us.’ It was true 30 years ago, it is true now, and it will be true 30 years from now. My thanks go out to NYU and to the UAA for helping me to understand this.”
McClenahan was inducted into the NYU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996, but making a speech made him far more fearful than wrestling ever did. “At that time, I was not accustomed to public speaking like I am now as a teacher,” he remembered. “I was asked to prepare a few remarks. I had about two or three minutes worth, but the people who spoke before me spoke for more than 15 minutes each. I literally started expanding my speech on a napkin. They were up there talking about the Olympics and their accomplishments, and I was ready to run out the door. I never got that nervous on the mat or in the classroom. When I got up to speak, my knees were actually shaking. I have no idea what I said. I hope it made sense.”
His undergraduate experience has shaped his life. “Wrestling for NYU was a great pleasure for me. I loved putting on the purple gear and representing my school,” he said. “Then after the meet, I was just another student and another person in New York City. You really can’t beat that. I can’t say enough about NYU and my fellow NYU students and student-athletes. " In addition, he met his wife of 21 years at the school.
"NYU and everyone on the team was better for Mat coming there," Clayton remarked. "He impacted everyone in a positive way."
One of the lasting memories from his time at NYU inspires McClenahan to this day. “I once turned in a test in an intro computer science class,” he said. “There were about 250 students in the course. When I turned in my test, the professor said, ‘Good luck this weekend, Mat.’ I had no idea he knew me. That is how I often felt at NYU. It is a huge university in a huge city, but I felt at home. The professors, my coaches, and my teammates helped create that home for me. When I am teaching, I try to remember this. The world is huge and the students all have their unique histories, circumstances, talents, and dreams. If we can connect to each other and trust each other, every day we can all get a little better.”