In an elite university legendary for developing powerhouse athletes, Tony Purler shines as an icon for Husker wrestling fans. However, his NCAA Championship title was only one highlight among many in his stellar career.
Tony was the cornerstone of the only Husker team to surpass Nebraska’s phenomenal successes in the 2008 and 2009 NCAA tournaments. Tony is renowned for leading a six-man crew of All-American Huskers in 1993, a season that he capped off by winning the National Title in the 126-lb class bracket. His dedication and drive helped inspire the team, capturing our highest-ever team ranking at #3. This successful season helped provide the springboard for Olympic Champion Rulon Gardner’s international accomplishments, and the 1993 team holds the Husker’s single-year record for the most All-American honors. Tony compiled a record of 35 wins, with only 2 losses throughout this season.
I met Tony through his twin brother, Nick, who is also an excellent wrestler. The Purler brothers were raised in Wentzville, Missouri, a small town many football fans recognize as home to another Husker legend, Dan Alexander. The twins captured Missouri State Championships in back-to-back years (1987-1988), providing a glimpse into the future for these grapplers.
Tony has a classic wrestler’s build—all muscle, no fat. His “cauliflower” ears hold testament to the constant punishment given to a wrestler’s head, displaying the grueling hours spent developing his skills. But the most notable feature about him is his winning smile, one that shows how much this character enjoys life.
Tony’s personal history is outstanding. He has won National Titles at every level of the sport. Highlights of his accomplishments include:
o NCAA All-American (2 times)
o U.S.. Open National Champion
o U.S. Open National Finalist (3 times)
o U.S. Open Finalist in Freestyle & Greco
o U.S. World Team Member (2 times)
o Espoir National Champion
o World Cup Silver and Bronze Medalist
o Goodwill Games Bronze Medalist
o Junior National Champion (2 times)
Tony’s coaching career began at Oklahoma State University, followed by stints at Oklahoma University and the University of Missouri. Tony also worked with two-time All-American Khris Whelan, coaching a high school team at the American School in London, England. This team competed with teams from all across Europe, showcasing the skills of competitors from our side of the Atlantic.
Tony credits Clarion University of Pennsylvania with providing one of his most valuable coaching experiences. Less prominent schools rarely acquire the high-ranking recruits that major programs attract, so a coach has the responsibility –and from Tony’s perspective, the opportunity -- to build great wrestlers from unrealized talent. To quote Tony, “The measure of a coach is what you can do with an average kid.” His personal reward came from the success his wrestlers achieved, affirming Tony’s skills as a leader.
Currently, Tony lives near Kansas City, and is dedicated to teaching youth-league and high-school wrestlers in the Purler Wrestling Academy (PWA). Tony’s education in business marketing is essential for running PWA. This education helped him develop organizational skills, customer relations skills, quality of training skills, and the ability to be proficient in all facets of the business.
PWA serves all of Missouri, with the eastern half covered by Nick, and the western half covered by Tony. Both Purlers lead training camps at various locations throughout the year. Tony’s coaching philosophy reflects the University of Nebraska’s tradition of building local athletes into national competitors, focusing on team psychology rather than individual glory. By accepting all kids that want to enroll, Tony and Nick have established Missouri wrestlers as some of the fiercest competitors in the sport. So far, Purler-coached teams have accumulated a long string of honors, including four Tulsa National Team Champions. Without a doubt, many more successes will follow.
Tony sees a bright future for the PWA, and he plans to expand this business to become his long-term career. The skills that he gained from leading college wrestlers to their full potential are proving to be an ideal fit for young wrestlers. Tony noted that the kids absorb the lessons like a sponge, and said that seeing the kids learn so much, “is what I love about youth league coaching.”
Tony’s wife, Tracy, is also a gifted athlete: she is a two-time Big-8 gymnastic champion. Their 4 ½-year-old daughter, Lilia, and 3-year-old son, Ronin, still have a few years of training ahead before adding their championship medals to the family shrine.
Tony noted that Nebraska’s dedication to student athletes both academically and athletically is excellent, and surpasses the quality of care provided by other universities. He also found Nebraska’s positive, upbeat environment and competitiveness at an international level to be strong attributes. Tony’s heritage as a Husker provides a direct pipeline for Nebraska to pick up top-notch kids, helping the Huskers to continue their success on the mat. With strong ties like this, Nebraska is poised to continue being a dominant program for years to come.
Tony is the type of athlete and coach—and champion—that make Huskers proud of our storied heritage.