The shifting landscape of Division I wrestling

Jake Calhoun

Dan Hicks is fighting a battle that has been lost by many before him.

The ninth-year wrestling coach at Cal State Fullerton is sparring to keep his program afloat after the school announced it would drop the sport at the end of this season.

After 16 months of fundraising, Hicks raised $196,145 by his Aug. 1 deadline, coming up short of the $200,000-mark set by the school to continue operations.

However, the administration relented and allowed Hicks to finish the fundraising for this season, but the pressure ceased to end there.

“They said, ‘In order to have any life beyond 2010-2011, you need to raise two years in advance by March 1 in cash,'” Hicks said. “Even though we had raised our money and everything was looking good, they made it much harder.”

Division I schools have recently been cutting wrestling in a trend ignited by Title IX, a law that prohibits gender discrimination in an educational institution that receives federal funds.

The law, enacted in 1972, never contained any explicit reference to athletics and has sparked a heated debate over its original intent by differing parties affected by it.

A unique answer to Title IX

T.J. Kerr, who coached Cal State Bakersfield for 26 seasons until retiring at the end of 2009-2010 season, began recruiting female wrestlers to his team in the mid-1990s in an effort to avoid getting axed by the school in a time of uncertainty, provoking opposition among the community.

Much of the opposition claimed that there was a sexual undertone to having women wrestling men, but Kerr saw it differently.

“Wrestling is as close to combat as you can get,” Kerr said. “You’re fighting, you’re using your skills, it’s not sexual at all.”

He was also quick to point out that a rule on the team prevented men and women from dating one another.

Despite having had at least 17 women on the team at one point, athletic director Rudy Carvajal ended Kerr’s recruitment of females after informing him that those wrestlers would not be recognized as female athletes by the NCAA.

“Now whether that was true or not, I don’t know,” Kerr said. “But that’s how he killed the women being on the team.”

Calli Sanders, ISU senior associate athletic director, said wrestling has generally been considered a men’s sport.

“Broken business model”

Controversy has also arisen in how schools have altered their interpretation of the law to accommodate the business of their athletics.

“Too many schools across the country are mortgaging their Olympic sports to keep fueling this broken business model for football and basketball,” said Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

Since football and basketball typically bring the most revenue to a school, some administrations have adopted a strategy to minimize the amount of sports offered while meeting the minimum requirement for each gender: six for men and eight for women.

The maximum amount of scholarship allotments, which have a set cap for each Division I sport, are varied to accommodate this model.

The NCAA permits football programs to offer 85 individual scholarships, while men’s and women’s basketball receive 13 and 14 scholarships. Wrestling, however, is granted 9.9 scholarships, which are divided up amongst the team.

Wrestling typically finds itself on the chopping block since it does not bring in the same amount of revenue that football and basketball do, playing a part in the withering of Division I wrestling from 160 teams in the 1970s to just 81 today.

Hicks said this year the Fullerton wrestling program has an operating budget of $230,000, a small cost compared to larger Division I programs.

Iowa State, which sported three All-Americans and two national champions en route to a third-place team finish at last season’s NCAA Championships, had an operating budget of $764,020, ISU associate athletic director Steve Malchow said. That figure includes salaries, expenditures and scholarships.

Although revenue concerns have been influential in many schools’ athletic cuts, one of Fullerton’s reasons for eliminating wrestling was that the Big West, the school’s conference, no longer offered the sport, forcing the team to compete in the Pac-10 as an affiliate member for wrestling, alongside Boise State, Cal Poly and Bakersfield.

“One of the criteria that university administrations use to evaluate what stays and goes is if the sport is part of the multi-sport conference the school participates in,” Moyer said. “Their first commitment is to the sports that the conference sponsors championships for, and wrestling is not one of them.”

Even though finances tend to be a major factor in whether a sport gets cut from a school, the decision entails multiple aspects, including Title IX.

“There’s a limited number of finances and [schools] want to provide as many opportunities as they can, but the law says that those opportunities need to be proportional with the number of males and females in the student body,” Sanders said.

The Pac-10 used to house wrestling teams for every member institution except the University of Southern California until a recruiting war led to a drastic domino effect.

The courting of George Achica

George Achica, a Samoan-born football player from San Jose, Calif., was the No. 1 football recruit coming out of high school in the late 1970s.

The only problem: He was also a wrestler.

“I can remember walking up to a gymnasium, there were five Division I football coaches in the gymnasium all wanting to talk to George Achica,” said former ISU coach Bobby Douglas.

Douglas, who coached Arizona State to the 1988 national title before coming to Iowa State in 1992, said Achica signed with Southern California when the school promised to start a wrestling program if he signed to play football there, a promise that was never kept.

“That was the beginning of the end of wrestling in the Pac-10,” Douglas said.

An agreement to “take wrestling out of the picture” was made between some members of the Pac-10 in order to ease the competition for football recruitment, Douglas said.

However, former USC football coach John Robinson said he has no recollection of ever doing so and declined further comment on the issue.

A phone call to Achica’s residence to seek comment was not returned.

Tough decision

When Douglas left Arizona State to become coach at Iowa State, he rejected a common option in fear for the future of his former employer.

“If I had done what a lot of coaches had done around the country, taking my team with me plus my recruiting class, Iowa State would have won a couple national titles,” Douglas said. “The only reason I didn’t do that was because I was afraid they’d drop the program [at Arizona State].”

However, wrestling at Arizona State stayed afloat for 16 years before a decision by the athletic department caused a call to action.

Arizona State abruptly cut men’s swimming, men’s tennis and wrestling May 13, 2008, since the athletic department felt that 22 varsity sports were too much to support on a budget that had seen a $4 million surplus, according to The Arizona Republic.

“There was a lot going on with the program,” said Todd Schavrien, a former ASU wrestler. “It was kind of unstable.”

Schavrien transferred to Missouri following the cancellation of the program after two years of donning the maroon and gold in Tempe, Ariz.

Ten days after the cancellation, Art Martori, founder of Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club, led action to revive the program in which numerous alumni made donations for its resurrection.

“That’s a huge success story,” Moyer said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of having alumni with that kind of capacity with these schools.”

As for Schavrien, even though he said he felt more at home in Columbia, Mo., than at Arizona State near his hometown of Poway, Calif., he still feels remorseful for his departure from the school.

“Every once in a while I wonder what it would be like if I would have stayed there,” said Schavrien, now a senior. “I left friends, I was close to home, there’s things that I loved about the school.”

The final hope

Hicks said that the problem he faces not only rests with trying to keep Division I teams in California alive, but also with trying to keep wrestling alive on the West Coast.

“It’s like trying to float the Titanic,” Hicks said. “We’re just bailing water like crazy and it’s sinking and the people that have the power are in the lifeboats.”

The impact that Fullerton wrestling’s cancellation would have reaches far beyond the school’s beach-side campus.

“I’m afraid that we’re going to kill our sport,” Hicks said. “If we go down, it just puts more pressure on Bakersfield and Cal Poly that are teetering on the edge of going under. They’re just slowly killing it off.”