Monday, May 31, 2010

He gave his life for the U.S.A.

My father-in-law is from the small town of Walker, IA. Saturday we went to the Walker Cemetery to visit Lee’s parents’ graves. Seth Crawford is buried about 100 yards away. His monument reads:

“1891 – 1918
Killed in action at Veslie River, France
He gave his life for the U.S.A.”

My great uncle was severely wounded in WWII and hated everything German the rest of his life. My father fought in Korea. I lost 2 high school classmates in Viet Nam. Last summer the son of my best man was badly wounded in Afghanistan.

My father taught me to respect the young men and women we send off to war. In his later years he became an advocate for veterans benefits and I remember going with him to the Portland (OR) veterans hospital as he was nearing the end of his life. He saw a couple of doctors, had some tests done and then got some prescriptions to fill. Dad, my brother, Jeff, and I went into the pharmacy. The waiting room was packed. There might have been upwards of 50 people in there and just one pharmacist on duty. We waited for over an hour. I was struck by the patience of these men – men who had fought in Europe, the South Pacific, Korea and Viet Nam.

After we picked up Dad’s prescription and got out the front door his anger finally erupted – not over his own wait – but that of the others, “That’s just horse****! Those poor bastards shouldn’t have to wait like that! They deserve better!”

It has become the tradition of this blog on Veterans Day to pay tribute to those who have walked off the mat and gone on to serve our country and on Memorial Day I honor those who have wrestled and have fallen in our service. Past Memorial Day editions have remembered posthumous Medal of Honor winner “Tommy” Noonan who was called by his friends “the best wrestler ever at Hunter College” and who was killed in Viet Nam, Naval Academy All-American and Silver Star winner, Doug Zembiec (The Lion of Fallujah), Patrick Lybert, a high school wrestler and Eagle Scout who was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for his actions in Afghanistan and Christopher Adeslperger whose family was given his Navy Cross for his actions in Iraq.

Last September President Obama awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Sgt. Jared Monti of Raynham, MA. Sgt. Monti had been a championship wrestler at Bridgewater-Raynham High School and was killed in the same engagement as Sgt. Lybert. Go here for a full description of the battle.

I wish I could stop adding names every year, but tragically, I can’t. Earlier this month Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Davis of Perry, IA was killed in action in Afghanistan. In an article in the Des Moines Register, his wrestling coach, Steve Hamilton, observed, “’The thing that was cool about him was that he had no quit in him.’” Even though he wasn’t the best wrestler on the team, “’he didn’t get discouraged; it didn’t break his will.’”, said Hamilton.

Again from the Register article:

“Hamilton, the wrestling coach, said he wasn’t surprised when Davis told him he wanted to join the Marines.”

“’I told him it was a good fit for him’ Hamilton said, because he was disciplined, took direction well and was a good leader. ‘I thought he’d do well in that arena.’

“’ It’s just unfortunate’”.

I don’t care about your politics – whether you’re a “Hawk” or a pacifist. When someone goes off to war in the name of freedom, we owe them our respect and our thanks. And for those families who lost a son or daughter or a brother or sister – we owe them our sympathy. It’s the very least we can do.

In honor of Sgt Arthur Brown Jr (shown in Korea).

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Rivalries

The Cardinals and the Cubs. The Celtics and the Lakers. The Packers and the Bears. The Hawkeyes and the Cyclones. Rivalries. What would sports be without them?

One of my best friends and I are on opposite sides of the Cardinals/Cubs battle. During baseball season we have a rule that is designed to protect our friendship – “one shot a day”. Whenever we get together, each of us is allowed to insult the other’s team just once – and then we have to let it rest. Any transgression requires that the offending party buy an adult beverage for the wronged party.

When you use the word “rivalry” in college wrestling the Iowa vs. Iowa State dual meet comes to most minds first. Year in and year out that event will rank in the top three for dual meet attendance (depending upon if it is in Iowa City or Ames). Are all of those seats filled with hardcore wrestling fans? Of course not. Many of the attendees are there because this is a grudge meet.

College wrestling is under siege. Extreme budget cuts and Title IX are leading to the elimination of “minor” sports at a number of institutions. In some of the most recent cases, like University of California – Davis and California State – Bakersfield, wrestling was just one of the dropped sports. What criteria were used to decide which programs were cut? In the case of UC Davis wrestling, lack of fan support was one factor mentioned.

Life isn’t always fair. Softball is virtually exempt from the chopping block no matter if 11 or 11,000 fans show up for a game. I’ve been to women’s tennis meets where 20 people were watching. Don’t worry – that sport is safe.

There’s a classic old joke with the punchline, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.” Sadly, that’s the situation many college wrestling teams find themselves in. Sometimes, intercollegiate competition opportunities depend upon “outrunning” the baseball team or the men’s tennis team. In other cases, as with Cal State Bakersfield, if you can come up with enough money to save all of the teams, you can save your own. Is it fair? Heck, no! Is it reality? You bet.

What can wrestling do to gain that needed support? Start by promoting a dual meet rivalry. Last season’s battle between Coe College and Cornell College is an example of how it could be done. Yes – the rivalry between the two schools already exists in all sports – and that’s a big help. The meet was given a boost when the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum and Body Bar Systems sponsored a breakfast celebrating the rivalry. Cornell, the host school, also made the meet “Breast Cancer Awareness Night” and donated proceeds from ticket sales to the American Cancer Society. Cornell coach, Mike Duroe (normally one of the sport’s snappiest dressers), and his team wore pink tee shirts as their warm-ups. During team introductions, the Cornell wrestler handed a matching pink tee to his Coe counterpart. The teams opted for a “halftime” intermission and their was entertainment – which was greatly enhanced when Coach Duroe’s daughter decided that she wanted to join in. The gym was packed and it was a great mix – students and fans from both schools, young wrestlers and prominent alumni were all there.

The Oklahoma State/Oklahoma “Bedlam” series, Augsburg and Wartburg, the Iowa/Minnesota “Border Brawl” and the Oregon/Oregon State “Civil War” (oh, sorry, I forgot) – are all mat rivalries that get fans out cheering for wrestling. We need far more examples of this.

Frankly, dual meets need to matter – and they don’t to many coaches and athletes. Rivalry duals are only a first step. We need a true dual meet national championship. The current issue of Win Magazine features an interview by Mike Finn of Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. In the article, Moyer outlines both his reasoning behind his national dual championship proposal and two hypothetical scenarios for holding such a tournament.

The NWCA already holds its National Duals event which features teams from every division of college wrestling. It’s my favorite event of the year because of the variety. Sure I focus on the Hawkeyes when they’re on the mat, but I also get to watch top Division III teams and it’s one of the few times a year that I get to watch women compete. However, it’s not a true championship because the top teams don’t always show up. For example, Oklahoma State has declined their invitation the past couple of years. I’ll really miss this event if it gives way to several true dual championship tournaments, but I agree with Mike Moyer – college wrestling needs this change.

(Writer’s note – full disclosure laws require that I mention that WIN Magazine occasionally hires me to develop direct marketing campaigns for them.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

The legacy of the Cedar Valley

I suppose it started with Finn Eriksen 77 years ago. That’s the year that Eriksen led New Hampton to a share of the Iowa high school wrestling championship. Since that title in 1933 the Cedar Valley – Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Waverly, Gilbertville, New Hampton and a dozen other small Iowa towns - has influenced American wrestling at all levels.

Take Finn Eriksen for example. It wasn’t just that he started the most storied program in Iowa high school history – Waterloo West. Eriksen, a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, introduced practices that we now take for granted – like summer camps and coaching clinics.

Since those days in the 1930’s wrestling rooms in the Cedar Valley have produced future NCAA championship athletes and coaches, Olympic medallists, some of the sport’s preeminent officials and enough Distinguished Members of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame that maybe they ought to have their own wing.

In 1943 Roy Jarrard took over for Eriksen at Waterloo West and led the the Wahawks to three consecutive Iowa high school team championships. Those three teams featured three athletes who won 7 individual state titles and had a runner-up finish. As college freshmen those three – Dick Hauser, Lowell Lange and Leo Thomsen – helped carry Cornell College to the 1947 NCAA and AAU team championships.

Iowa State Teachers College finished second to Cornell in 1947. In fact, Coach Dave McCuskey’s ISTC teams were national powers from 1946 to 1953, winning the NCAA team title in 1950. Olympic champion Bill Smith and silver medallist Gerry Leeman and three-time NCAA champions Bill Koll, Bill Nelson and Keith Young all wrestled in Cedar Falls for McCuskey.

Bob Siddens also wrestled on those teams. His career record as the wrestling coach at Waterloo West was 327-26. His wrestlers would go one to win multiple Big 8, Big 10 and NCAA titles. He coached two 2X NCAA champs who would help their universities win national team titles – Dale Anderson at Michigan State in 1967 and Dan Gable in 1969 and ’70.

It’s impossible to mention everyone – UNI graduate Jim Miller who has so far led Wartburg College to seven NCAA Division III team championships, NCAA champions like Joe Gibbons and Chuck Yagla from Waterloo Columbus and Daryl Weber from Gilbertville Don Bosco and Hall of Fame official Mike Allen from Waterloo East and UNI are just some. Even the sport’s most prolific writer (and founder of the Hodge Trophy) – Mike Chapman - hales from Waterloo.

Then there’s Gable. His career as athlete, coach and ambassador is unrivaled.

As of last Thursday there’s a new player in the Cedar Valley. Doug Schwab was announced as the new head wrestling coach at the University of Northern Iowa. Schwab, a native of Osage, IA and former NCAA champion has been an assistant at the University of Iowa for the past four seasons and has been instrumental in the Hawkeyes’ last three NCAA title runs. He takes over a program that had, perhaps, lost sight of its legacy.

Doug mentioned both that legacy and the Cedar Valley during his press conference. The three 2010 Iowa high school team champions are Cedar Valley schools, Waverly-Shell Rock in AAA, Denver-Tripoli in AA and Gilbertville Don Bosco in A and Schwab inherits a recruiting class that includes two young men from Don Bosco and one from Denver-Tripoli.

I’ve long been a Doug Schwab fan. Yes, he won an NCAA championship in 1999, but it was his performance in Saint Louis in 2000 that most of us remember. Upset in the quarterfinals by #8 seed Carl Perry, Doug piled up bonus points in the consolation bracket that were invaluable to the Hawkeyes in a very close team race. If you’ve watched wrestling for any length of time you’ve seen it more than once – the favorite gets knocked off and then is unable to compose himself and give his best in wrestlebacks. Not Doug Schwab – he sucked it up and went out and beat the living snot out of people to come back and finish third.

That’s the level of determination he will need to turn around a program that finished 40th at the NCAA tournament six weeks ago. I suspect that he won’t settle for respectability. In fact, in his press conference he said he wants to “win it all”. You’d be disappointed if he said anything else, but I think he means it.

Good luck, Doug, and may you add an exciting new chapter to the story of Cedar Valley wrestling.

Monday, May 3, 2010

California Dreamin'

“… and the sky is gray.” That is the last half of the opening line of the Mamas and Papas hit California Dreamin’. Every state in the union faces a budget crisis but they all pale in comparison to the situation in California. The proposed 2010-2011 budget calls for massive cuts including almost $900 million from school funding. Virtually every service in the state will be reduced in some way. Is it any wonder that intercollegiate wrestling in California is on life support?

Publicly funded institutions in the University of California and California State systems must find millions of dollars to pare from their respective budgets. Dropping wrestling and other minor sports seems to be the easy answer. Just two weeks ago UC Davis announced the elimination of wrestling and three other sports – a move that the university claims will lead to $5 million in savings over the next five years.

In the face of all of this potential financial disaster, how can we fans justify our insistence that these financially strapped institutions keep wrestling on their varsity sport rosters? Well – first, there’s a need. Perhaps I’m na├»ve, but I’ve always felt that tax-funded universities ought to serve their constituencies. California high schools rank second in the United States in total athletic participation, but are the runaway leaders in wrestling participation. Over 10% (27,500) of all high school wrestlers in America compete at California high schools. Illinois is in second place with 16,000+.

Do we truly believe that athletics can be a stepping stone to higher education? Do we really value the concept of educating the whole person? Are business and government leaders who have learned “Toughness 101” on the mat crucial to the future of California?

My answer is obviously, “Yes!” But, the reality is that California tax payers can’t save wrestling at their colleges. So who will? Once again it’s up to us – those who love the sport - to do what we can.

Cal State Fullerton just announced that they met the May 1st (May Day – how ironic) fund raising goal to save wrestling and women’s gymnastics for at least one more season. I’m guessing that they started working to fund the 2011-2012 season yesterday. If you want to help them off to a great start you can do so online at www.fullerton.edu/tac or by sending a check to

Titan Athletics
Cal State Fullerton Philanthropic Foundation
2600 E Nutwood Ave Ste 850
Fullerton CA 92831-5455.

Cal State Bakersfield faces a tougher challenge. The university gave supporters until May 21, 2010 to raise $1.4 million in order to stave off the elimination of wrestling and three other sports. To date they’ve raised about $407,000. Yep, they have just under three weeks to come up with almost a million bucks.

New England Patriots offensive lineman and former NCAA and World heavyweight champion (and CSUB alumnus), Stephen Neal, and NCAA Champion Jake Varner are among those leading the fund raising. They announced an event on May 15th at the Jam Events Center on Norris Rd in Bakersfield. A dinner will be served and several unique items and packages – including airfare, hotel expenses and two tickets for a Patriots game – will be offered at live and silent auctions. For more information, see Mark Palmer’s full article here.

You can also donate directly to Save Bakersfield Wrestling here.

Cal Poly is being proactive and will host a Mixed Martial Arts event called “Fight for Wrestling” on May 22nd at the Mott Gym to raise money for the program.

I know that some of you reading this will choose to donate to one or more of these schools – and I can almost guess who. There’s a very select segment of the wrestling community that inevitably answers the call. Thank you.

However – the sport needs more high profile support – especially in California. Movie stars like Tom Cruise and Ashton Kutcher like to talk about their wrestling backgrounds – but I don’t see them out in front trying to grow the sport. Perhaps they’re quietly active behind the scenes and if they are I thank them. But, come on, if the sport has really meant something to you – let the world