The Mysterious Comings and Goings of Wrestling Programs

I’ve been around a long time and have participated and coached several sports. In my opinion what is very clear through the lenses of world history is that wrestling is the most valuable sport to a boy that society ever devised.

Numerous wrestling programs have stayed off termination or scrutiny with endowments for coaching, scholarships, capital improvements and general program budgets. It’s also been done at the high school level. Even in a strong wrestling state like Pennsylvania I’ve seen school boards cut relatively healthy wrestling programs. One case I’m very familiar with in Dist. 3 a program was in line to be cut while generating enough money with ticket sales to cover 65% of its budget only to be saved by an anonymous benefactor. The net budget cost of this program was less than football, basketball, baseball, track and field and tennis, yet it was singled out by the school board.
Why you ask? I keep coming back to wrestling being out of sync with today’s society. The culture makers in the government education complex generally don’t like strong boys. The out of step values of personal responsibility, hard work and physical behavior make wrestling diametrically opposed to the victim “snowflake” culture that we are bathed in on a daily basis.

Is an endowment fool proof? Nope. Boston University had close to a million-dollar endowment for wrestling scholarships and the school disappeared the program. Likely because they stood to get more money from New Balance to help bring in field hockey and improve the lacrosse field. I’m sure that they thought they could convince the donor, Orin Smiley‘s family to change the donation to general athletics. But they just returned the money to his widow so I guess that didn’t work. The program even raised another half million trying to stave off termination but that didn’t work either. Endowment, sports brand sponsorship plus active alumni and fan base seem to be the ingredients needed in this day and age.

Good news is that schools like Fresno State, Cal Baptist have (re)created D1 programs in the wrestling starved west coast. While it’s early, CBU knocked off in state foe Cal Poly in their inaugural season off. That may tell us as much about CBU as it does CP.

Other smaller schools that nearly no one in the wrestling universe has heard of are committed to starting D1 programs: Long Island University, Presbyterian and Arkansas are getting it going.  Augustana is slated to start in in the 2021/22 season. We will see how the birthing process goes.

Okay so wrestling programs are growing, especially at levels other than D1. The bad news is that big programs with recent AA’s are being cut.

Bad News: ODU, Eastern Michigan and Boise State recently dropped their programs. Everyone in the wrestling community is upset about these programs being dropped and the way it was done at each program was financially suspect. The school cut wrestling to save athletic department money for other sports. In fact they are planning big financial outlays for other sports. How the NWCA didn’t see or hear that these cuts were coming makes me question a lot of things. No one answer will satisfy inquiring minds. Just like previous programs wrestling was just out of favor.

Will women’s wrestling be a game changer? I don’t really think so. Outside of the Ivy’s women make up close to 70% of undergrads across the nation. Campuses have become rather hostile to the kind of boys that wrestle. Also women’s wrestling won’t generate close to the revenue that men’s wrestling does. It’s not personal, it’s just reality. Very few people watch women play basketball or softball in comparison to the corresponding male sports.

Reason and evidence are in short supply on American college campuses. School presidents and boards largely operate in secret and have agendas they think with further feather their nests and political agendas. We can expect numerous contradictory statements from the schools that cut our favorite sport. It’s never going to be strictly a financial decision. People in power that generally aren’t accountable for the consequences of their decisions grow out of touch and are politically motivated. Baseball, football and basketball teams cost more than wrestling teams in terms of operations and capital expenses. It’s the whim of the administration up against the false equalization of educational opportunities law that is title 9.

Since more girls go to EMU, BSU, ODU and American colleges than boys. Shouldn’t boys have a title 9 of their own? I thought the idea was to equalize males and females on campus. I digress.
University’s do underhanded, behind closed doors and nontransparent things every day. Fans of the sport shouldn’t take this personally. It’s just one of the things that happens when people in power experience very little accountability. State schools will keep receiving public funding no matter what goes on on campus.
To be a “safe” program you need a coach that can be at least moderately successful on the mat with victories and some attendance but just as importantly is success off the mat with an active alumni organization that drives fund raising, competitive facilities and endows elements of the program if not the entire thing. Head coach can be a misnomer at the D1 level. CEO and program leader are more appropriate. At well-funded schools coaching roles are spread out, scheduling, techniques, strength and conditioning, one on ones with the boys can ease the load on the Head Coach.
Even big schools have holes that seem obvious: Lehigh’s home match attendance was glaringly small for its long and storied history,. This does seem to be changing. Maryland’s lack of success on the mat was remarkable. Will a change of head coach Clemson make a difference? I think that the school is just as much of a problem as the last coach was. A real leader as head coach makes all the difference in the world. Pitt, Wisconsin, Princeton, Cornell, PSU, Ohio State, ASU, Lock Haven, Campbell have all made marked changes for the better in the last decade. It’s about the leader. There is no reason to doubt that Coach Flynn will be able to build a West Virginia program that has actual resources. Another program builder was John Stutzman. Buffalo is proving to be a harder build than Bloom was. Less local talent maybe? Kevin Dresser is already making a difference at ISU. Lenny Zalesky built CBU into a D2 power, I see CBU as the most likely candidate for success of the new D1 programs. The schools that have losing programs are accepting it for other reasons, usually political.

Finding a competent leader for a program isn’t easy either. Competent people tend to hire competence. If you see a poor head coach you’ve got to look at the AD. From there look at the school president and board. These people don’t operate in an open economy looking to increase value. They have other agendas that might not be visible.

Franklin & Marshall recently received a $5 million endowment for the wrestling program. David Lehman a 1968 alum made the donation to the school and program. He wrestled at F&M in the late ‘60’s. F&M has been off the wrestling radar since Richard Durso graduated. One of the things that make F & M unique is that it’s one of the only liberal art colleges with a D1 wrestling program in the country. Wrestling can be at its very best when combined with rigorous academics. F & M has invested in coaching staff numbers but it hasn’t shown on mat results yet. The financial stability that the Lehman donation provides it gives hope to other small D1 programs.

Read F&M story here.

“Saving” wrestling is really about “saving” boys in our society. It’s not a fashionable thing to say and the values are in contradiction to popular culture. In many ways it’s like pushing a boulder up hill. You’ll be stronger for it but it will take a big team to accomplish the task.

The bottom line is, it can be pretty hard to follow the reasons for these moves because more often than not the reasons don’t add up.  What can you do?  Drive your support and  dollars into programs that you’re passionate about.  Pick a club, a High School, a college – whatever.  But be loud about it!  The world needs more boys that have the grit and discipline that wrestling teaches.


Updated: April 13, 2020 — 10:40 pm

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  1. Maybe since wrestling is growing in High School, colleges will start making it more of a priority. It’s nice seeing schools like UALR put lots of money into the program, for a second-year team their wrestling room is much nicer than some top 30 schools like NCST Binghampton, etc.

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