Maintaining a Midwest tradition

Jake Calhoun

In the spring of 1993, Scott Gonyo was supposed to be preparing himself for the upcoming NCAA Championships in Ames. He qualified as a wrestler at 118 pounds for Drake University.

Two weeks before the tournament, the Drake wrestling team was called together by then athletic director Lynn King, who told them that the school would be cutting the sport at the end of the season.

“At the time I took it as a slap in the face,” said Gonyo, who went 2-2 in what would be his final tournament as a Drake Bulldog. “They might say they’re serious about some sports, but when you look at the dollars they’re putting into their programs, it’s just not there.”

A lawsuit filed by Gonyo and four of his teammates, Gonyo v. Drake University, claimed that the cancellation of wrestling was a violation of their right of inclusion granted by Title IX.

“Title IX is designed to ensure equitable participation for men and women for intercollegiate sports,” said Calli Sanders, senior associate athletic director at Iowa State. “When it was passed, we didn’t really fully know the impact it would have on sports.”

The law only pertains to institutions receiving federal funds, and even though Drake is a private school, its athletic department had been receiving them to maintain its operations.

In October 1993, the court ruled in favor of Drake, in that the cancellation was not in violation of Title IX since it was made to reallocate the school’s finances toward academics.

“After being there for four years, I was kind of beaten down,” Gonyo said. “If you’re surrounded by an administration and a school that really doesn’t care a whole lot, that atmosphere sort of rubs off.”

Iowa’s wrestling prominence

The cancellation of wrestling at Drake, situated in Des Moines, was a shocking occurrence in the Midwest where the sport holds a rich tradition in its culture.

“Wrestling is significant in the Midwest, especially in the state of Iowa,” said Dan Gable, wrestling icon and Waterloo native. “We are probably the most recognized state for the sport of amateur wrestling with the emphasis on how successful the upper-level [programs] have been in history.”

Considered one of the most illustrious figures in the sport of wrestling, Gable was a two-time NCAA champion at Iowa State with a record of 100-1, won the gold medal at the 1972 Olympic games and later coached Iowa to 15 national titles during his tenure from 1976 to 1997 as coach of the Hawkeyes.

Twelve Olympic gold medalists have come from Iowa. However, the cancellation of Division I programs like Drake is still disheartening for some.

“Our American kids are getting denied an equal opportunity to win the gold medal in the Olympics,” said Bobby Douglas, who coached Iowa State from 1992 to 2006.

“Wrestling is one of America’s best-kept secrets and one of America’s greatest weapons. The wrestlers have provided the type of leadership, loyalty, patriotism and American spirit that makes us so unique as a nation of people.”

With Drake abandoning the sport, the state of Iowa was left with three Division I schools sponsoring wrestling teams: Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa.

All three have won at least one national title, combining for 32 of the 77 titles that have been won at the Division I level. Cornell College in Mount Vernon, which now competes in Division III, also won a Division I title in 1947.

“With that emphasis at the higher level getting the most notoriety, I’m sure the state of Iowa is probably the most well-known state in America from the public point of view for wrestling,” Gable said.

Despite Iowa’s low population compared to states on the east and west coasts, talented wrestlers from more populated states are drawn to programs like Iowa and Iowa State, which ultimately hurts those states.

“Any time you let somebody slip out of your boundaries and they go somewhere else and get positive ink from performance, it is taking away from your state,” Gable said.

Kevin Jackson serves as a prime example of this.

Heated rivalry

Jackson, a four-time All-American, transferred to Iowa State for his senior season after wrestling was dropped at Louisiana State.

One of the main reasons Jackson came to Iowa State was his hunger to defeat Gable’s Hawkeyes, who had won nine-straight national championships prior to the 1986-87 season.

“I was confused as to why teams couldn’t beat them,” Jackson said. “So I was looking to join a team that had the athletes and the coaching in the environment to upset Iowa for that No. 1 spot.”

Traditional power Oklahoma State gained immediate consideration from Jackson, but he instead chose Iowa State.

Jackson went 30-3-1 as a senior on his way to a second-place finish at 167 pounds to help the Cyclones win the 1987 national title — the last the school has won in the sport.

Now into his second year as coach of Iowa State, Jackson is confident that ISU wrestling will not be going anywhere due to the program’s spot as the winningest sport in school history.

However, the same cannot be said for all wrestling programs.

“Except for the strong teams, every other program is on pins and needles,” Jackson said. “There are several teams out there that do not feel they’re on solid ground as far as the future of their programs.”

Oregon’s happy trails

Chuck Kearney knows firsthand that it doesn’t take long for a wrestling program to get cut.

The former coach of Oregon wrestling could only watch as the school cut the sport at the end of the 2007-2008 season in order to resurrect its baseball team that had been nonexistent for 26 years.

The cancellation came shortly after the hiring of former insurance mogul Pat Kilkenny as the school’s athletic director in 2007.

“I knew of Pat Kilkenny,” Kearney said. “He was one of our major donors to the athletic department and I had a grasp of where he was coming from.

“And I knew that he had a vested interest in baseball.”

Days after Kilkenny had taken over as athletic director, he called Kearney into his office to discuss the feasibility of bringing baseball to Oregon.

Shortly afterward, Kearney began receiving tips of off-the-record leaks from reporters about talks of dropping wrestling in order to bring baseball to the school.

“At that point, we started game planning and manned the hatches down, getting prepared for the dropping of wrestling,” Kearney said.

In desperation for compromise, Kearney planned to make wrestling’s presence small enough that it would not be worth it for the school to cut the sport.

However, negotiations never took place when wrestling was officially cut in July 2007, five months after Kilkenny’s hiring.

“It happens fast,” Kearney said. “We don’t have conference protection in the Pac-10, so the grounds can shift quickly.”

Kilkenny, who stepped down in June 2009, could not be reached for comment.

Prevention of further cuts

Gonyo transferred to Nebraska for his senior season — where he placed sixth at 118 pounds in the 1994 NCAA Championships — as a result of Drake’s canceling of wrestling.

Although originally hailing from Fort Myers, Fla., Gonyo returned to Des Moines after college to work as an assistant wrestling coach at Dowling Catholic High School.

“This was where my friends were,” Gonyo said of Iowa. “I went to Nebraska and it was great, but this is where home was.”

Years have passed since the epidemic of the disintegration of Division I wrestling, and it is unlikely to see the three remaining programs in Iowa suffer a fate similar to that of Drake.

“Our Division I programs are remaining somewhat static,” said Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. “We’re not really losing and we’re not really gaining. I think the best word for it would be that we’re just hanging in there.”

The association has worked to educate coaches on how to sustain and even grow a wrestling program by developing close relationships with donors to reduce the chances of the sport being dropped.

“At the end of the day, the goal of each coach has to be to mitigate their dependence on institutional resources to fund their programs,” Moyer said. “That’s the only way to insulate these programs from being dropped.”

Even though the association’s efforts have improved in preventing the loss of more Division I programs, Gonyo said it all comes down to the administrators.

“It is what it is,” Gonyo said. “You can blame it on Title IX, you can blame it on this and that, but if the powers that be want the program to be there then it will and if they don’t, it won’t.”