Sunday, March 20, 2011

The season is over - it's time to get to work.

Penn State dominated. Coach Cael Sanderson’s Nittany Lions traveled to Philadelphia and won the second NCAA Division I wrestling championship in school history. The most successful college wrestler in American history has now added coaching a team champion to his resume. Congratulations.

For all but the most ardent fans, the wrestling season is now officially over. Oh sure, the US Senior Open, University Nationals, World Team Trials, Fargo and the World Championships will all be contested between now and when high school and college wrestlers take the mat again for the 2011/2012 season, but a lot of fans don’t pay much attention to those events.

What a season it has been for the growth of wrestling. High school participation numbers continue to grow. The Beat the Streets movement is making new inroads into introducing wrestling to kids in the nation’s urban areas. Just last week Beat the Streets Philadelphia held a clinic in conjunction with the NCAA Championships. The NCAA and the Philadelphia tournament organizing committee donated $25,000 to Beat the Streets. College dual meet attendance records were broken at several schools.

This season also validated my contention that wrestling is the most democratic of sports. Here in Iowa, Cassy Herkelman and Megan Black made news when both qualified for the Iowa high school state tournament. Most of the attention was generated when Ms. Herkelman’s first round opponent defaulted rather than wrestle her. It made the national media. Lost in that furor were the accomplishments of Hope Steffensen (Alaska) and Rachel Hale (Vermont) who became the second and third American girls, respectively, to win state high school championships wrestling against boys.

In Arkansas, visually impaired Andrea’ Johnson, from the Arkansas School for the Blind, won his second state high school championship.

Last night, ten years after bi-lateral amputee Nick Ackerman won an NCAA Division III title for Simpson College, Arizona State’s Anthony Robles, born with only one leg, climbed to the top of the medal podium in Philadelphia – the 2011 NCAA Division I 125 pound champion.

Wrestling embodies the American dream. Opportunities to compete are open to all, but victories – and championships – are earned. The athlete who works the hardest and learns the most almost always triumphs. Students learn from participation in all co-curricular activities, but wrestling teaches things like courage, toughness, tenacity and perseverance in ways unmatched by other sports. Scholars since Socrates and Plato have recognized the value of wrestling. During last evening’s ESPN broadcast of the NCAA finals, best selling author, John Irving – himself a former wrestler and wrestling coach, did a marvelous job of explaining how wrestling makes him a better writer.

Many colleges are beginning to realize the value that wrestling can have for students – and themselves. Institutions like Baker University, Shorter University and Grand View University have all added wrestling teams in recent years. Other schools – Wayland Baptist University, Waldorf College, Missouri Baptist University and Jamestown College have added opportunities for women. There are now actually more college wrestling teams than there were 15 years ago.

Does this mean that all is well with American wrestling? Far from it.

On March 8th, the University of Sioux Falls announced that it will drop both the men’s tennis team and the wrestling team. Moving from the NAIA to NCAA Division II status is ostensibly cited as the primary reason. To read the official USF release is to be confused. The arguments presented for eliminating men’s tennis seem to have a tiny bit of validity, but nowhere in that document can I find the real reason that wrestlers are being shown the door. Okay – so the coach is resigning and the school would have to hire a new one. Isn’t hiring new faculty a daily reality in academia?

The University of North Carolina-Greensboro announced the elimination of wrestling six days later. The reason – to have more money ($308,000) to invest in basketball and soccer. UNCG chancellor, Linda Brady, and athletic director, Kim Record, have a stated goal of achieving a higher profile for UNCG sports – but most especially men’s and women’s basketball and soccer. How ironic. The Greensboro Sports Commission wants to brand the city as “Tournament Town” and two of its highest profile anchors – The Super 32 and the Southern Scuffle – are wrestling events. Together they bring millions of tourism dollars to the community every year.

The Southern Scuffle attracts 32 college teams, many of whom are among the top-rated programs in the country. It was started and is hosted by UNCG. The University is hoping to have its cake and cut it too – continuing to host the event without sponsoring a wrestling team of their own. Many in the wrestling community, including Cornell University coach, Rob Koll, have indicated that they will not support the Scuffle if there is a UNCG affiliation and the school drops the sport.

Apparently, Trev Alberts learned nothing about courage while playing football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. In a move that can only be called cowardly, the University of Nebraska-Omaha athletic director chose to call wrestling coach, Mike Denney, on the telephone – in the middle of the night – to tell him his team was being eliminated. Even worse – Alberts chose to make that call while the Mavericks were celebrating their third consecutive NCAA Division II National Championship.

Like the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, UNO appears to want to chase the potential payoff of being a 16-seed in an NCAA basketball regional. UNO is moving into Division I and to finance their run to big school hoop “greatness” they have chosen to eliminate two of the school’s most successful programs – football and wrestling.

The move may well backfire financially for UNO. At least one major donor has indicated that he will withdraw his support if football is eliminated and another is questioning the validity of claims made by Alberts.

The National Wrestling Coaches Association has issued a call to arms to save these programs from the chopping block. You can visit their website to read guidelines for a course of action that anyone who cares about wrestling can follow.

There’s a lesson here that we don’t seem to get. If a program like University of Nebraska-Omaha – or the University of Oregon – or Fresno State – or Syracuse – or Portland State – can be dropped, is any college program really safe? Why do so many of us wait until another elimination announcement is made before we act? Why aren’t we working every day to keep the sport growing?

The season may be over, but the work still needs to be done.

No comments: