ON THE PLAQUE: He was NCAA champion in 2006 and 2007 at 133 lbs., becoming just the second Penn wrestler to win two NCAA titles and the third NCAA champion in program history. A three-time All-American, he also won three EIWA titles and was twice named EIWA Wrestler of the Year. He was named Ivy League Wrestler of the Year in 2007. He holds the program record for career wins (137), wins in a season by a freshman (33), and graduated atop the list for wins in a season (36, twice).
Written by Dave Zeitlin C'03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 21, 2017
Had Matt Valenti C’07 done nothing else besides wrestle, he would still have gone down as a Penn legend. But for Valenti, being a two-time national champion turned out to be the only beginning as he decided to first coach and then became an administrator at his alma mater — calling himself “one of the true triple threats out there.”
And that’s one big reason why being inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame only 10 years after graduating is so special.
“It’s pretty simple,” said Valenti, now an assistant athletic director at Penn, from his office inside Weightman Hall. “I’m a Penn guy through and through. I love this place. I loved my time here as a student-athlete, I loved coaching here, and I’m learning to love being an administrator here as well.”
Valenti’s completion devotion to Penn is ironic, in a sense, because his dad wrestled for Princeton, the Quakers’ fiercest rival. And growing up in a rural part of northern New Jersey, he knew very little about Penn, admitting that, “as a country boy coming down to the city, I came in [on a visit] assuming I was gonna hate it.”
Valenti also wasn’t a big-time prospect for most of his high school career, at least not compared to some of the wrestlers he came into Penn with as then-head coach Roger Reina C’84 WEv’05 assembled the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. But acting on a tip from Valenti’s club coach, Ernie Monaco, Reina applied the pressure and got an early commitment from Valenti, who had grown to become “incredibly impressed” with Penn and its wrestling program.
“[Monaco] basically said if everything lines up for Matt, you can paint an ‘S’ on his chest because he’ll become Superman,” said Reina, now a Penn senior associate AD and one of the only other “triple threats” at the University. “But he hadn’t broken through at the national level yet.”
It didn’t take long for Valenti to break out in college, emerging as a starter at 125 pounds immediately and coming within one win at the 2003 NCAA Championships of being the only Penn freshman to ever earn All-America status. As a sophomore in 2003-04, he began to grow into a team leader. His favorite memory in college came that season when, at the end of a “totally insane” Palestra dual against a top-10 Wisconsin team, Valenti upset All-American Tom Clum in overtime of the final bout with a “move I had never done before in my life.” It proved to be enough for the Quakers to prevail in what Valenti calls “the most complete and most fun team experience I ever had”—in large part because he got to share it with his best friends.
“Wrestling is an interesting sport,” he said. “It’s a strange combination of individual plus team, and I was always a team-first guy. I’ll never forget being in the wrestling room, banging heads with some of my best friends, where we’re literally trying to beat the snot out of each other on any given day to the point we’re probably throwing punches at each other. And then we walk out of the wrestling room and we go get breakfast at Hill [House] together and are chumming it up like nothing ever happened.”
Of course, Valenti also had an incredible amount of personal success. Although he lost in his first match at the 2004 NCAA Championships, he wrestled back through the consolation rounds to a fifth-place finish and a slot on his first All-American team. Calling it the “single most exhausting experience of my life,” he capped the stirring run with an upset overtime win—“a massive, massive win,” Reina said—over Iowa star Luke Eustice, right in front of a huge Iowa cheering section. To this day, Valenti calls it the favorite match of his career because he “mentally broke an Iowa guy, which is not something that happens at NCAA Championships.”
Valenti dealt with some adversity, redshirting the 2004-05 campaign because he blew out his shoulder. But he returned the following season with renewed determination and in a bigger weight class (133). And after getting seeded sixth at the 2006 NCAA Championships, he stormed to his first of two national championships, knocking off three lower seeds and beating Purdue’s Chris Fleeger in the title bout.
“It was an extra sweet win for me because [Fleeger] was the guy who blew out my shoulder,” Valenti said. “When I won, I remember that moment of, ‘Holy smoke, that just happened.’ I was obviously excited and really pumped about it. But it was more of a shock. I hate to say it, but I have to admit that if we wrestled 10 times he’d probably beat me nine. But that day, it was my day.”
Perhaps even more impressive, Valenti defended his NCAA title at 133 the following year, beating Oklahoma State’s Coleman Scott to win the crown and end his college career with his arm raised in triumph by the referee.
“He proved not only that he could handle the big stage, but that he really thrived in a big-stage environment,” said Reina, who had resigned as Penn’s head coach in 2005 but watched the national titles from the stands with Valenti’s family. “I think after that match against Eustice his sophomore year, he figured out he could beat anybody in the country. He really rose to the occasion and made that happen.”
By the time he graduated from Penn in 2007, Valenti was the program’s career leader in wins with 137, a two-time national champ, a three-time NCAA All-American, a three-time EIWA champ, and the 2007 Ivy League Wrestler of the Year, among other accolades. At the time, he figured that was more than enough for him to happily step away from the mat, so he decided to skip the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. But after seeing a couple of guys he had beaten facing off in the U.S. finals, he got the urge to pursue the Olympics, training for the 2012 London Games while serving as an assistant coach at Columbia and then Penn.
Valenti eventually fell short of fulfilling his Olympic dream, as Coleman Scott got a little bit of revenge and knocked him out of the U.S. Trials before winning a bronze medal in London. But the former Penn star never felt any bitterness as to what transpired, even waking up at 4 a.m. to scream at his computer and cheer on Scott at the Olympics. He then quickly turned to the next page of his life, getting his Master’s in sports management from Drexel and transitioning from his coaching gig at Penn to an administrative job in the athletic department.
Valenti loved coaching, recalling that he “cried in the tunnel” of the Wells Fargo Center after one of his pupils, Zack Kemmerer C’12, followed him into the Penn record books as an All-American in 2011. But he admits that the “coaching lifestyle was wearing me down a little,” so he embraced the opportunity to help his alma mater in another way, believing that his past experiences could help him uniquely relate to both student-athletes and coaches.
“Ultimately, I’d love to be an athletic director some day, and I think part of why I like that path is that I can equate a lot of it to wrestling,” said Valenti, who oversees budget, recruiting, contracts and other aspects of 13 Penn varsity sports. “You have to earn your stripes over time, you have to work hard, you have to learn different things.
“I’m at the beginning of that journey. I expect it to be a long journey. But if wrestling taught me anything, it’s that I’m gonna bust my butt to learn as much as I can as humanly fast as possible.”