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FRESNO BEE COLUMN: Clarity would help save wrestling



If only their pleas came with instructions.

"Save Fresno State wrestling!" the bald-headed man with the goatee shouted.

Dr. Bruce Lippmann, the wrestling coach at McLane High, stood on a narrow median between eight lanes filled with cars at rush hour. When the light turned red, he ran into traffic and handed pieces of paper to drivers.

"Help save Fresno State wrestling!" he yelled at car windows.

The handout explained that Fresno Mayor Alan Autry had declared Friday "Save Fresno State Wrestling Day."

The handout listed the many benefits of wrestling, and the history of the sport in the San Joaquin Valley, and a few interesting facts about Fresno State's recent budget history.

The handout did not, unfortunately, explain exactly how to save Fresno State wrestling.

In the short time since the school cut the wrestling program, at least one assistant has gone job hunting. A few wrestlers have enrolled at new schools. This season is gone.

As for the future? Saving a wrestling program is difficult enough these days, and that's assuming the people making the decisions even want to save it.

And if anything is clear in the confusion and suddenness of Fresno State cutting wrestling, it's that President John Welty and athletic director Thomas Boeh are not interested in saving wrestling.

If they were, they would have come up with a list of ideas for how to save it, instead of a list of justifications.

Wrestling is not a priority.

When your football coach makes seven figures, and you cut a program that cost $300,000, it's tough to play the "we explored every avenue" card.

Fresno State has cut sports before. Those were supposed to fix the budget, too. How many sports get wiped out before you stop spending money you don't have?

Fresno State cutting wrestling is like paying off a gambling addict's debt. It's not the long-term solution.

When the uproar got loud enough, Welty did finally come up with one way to bring back wrestling: If the supporters could fund it themselves, along with an additional women's sport. Forever.

Oh, is that all? He might as well have sent them on a quest for the Holy Grail. And then, years later, if they did manage to bring it back, weary, bruised and limping, you can picture Welty saying, "Oh, you thought I said, 'Grail.' No. No. Holy Ale. It's a wonderful brew made on one of the outer provinces of Neptune. Fetch it. Then you may have wrestling."

So yes, the wrestling supporters face an enormous task.

Not that they will give up anytime soon. They stood at busy intersections throughout the city Friday morning, waving signs and basking in the momentum of their mayor-approved day.

They might as well have been yelling into car windows, "Help find alternative fuels!" or "Help make a watchable Wayans Brothers movie!"

No one really knows how to save wrestling, partly because no one fully understands why it was cut. Sure, there was circumstantial evidence, all of Fresno State's justifications: It helps with Title IX compliance. (So would a lot of things.) It will help balance the budget. (So what was the last round of program cuts for?) And the wrestling team's Academic Performance Review numbers weren't great. (If that was the only criteria, the basketball team would have been exiled by now.)

Mayor Autry says Fresno State gives him feedback when he has budget concerns, so he doesn't see anything wrong with supporting "Save Fresno State Wrestling Day."

"I understand the university has to make difficult decisions," he said. "I'm just supporting every effort to look at keeping [wrestling]."

Autry knows that Fresno State's wrestling program has helped a lot of kids from poor families go to college. Many who might not have otherwise.

Lippmann, the McLane coach, knows it, too. His best wrestler, Alfonso Sanchez, had a Fresno State scholarship for this season. He's since enrolled at Fresno City College and taken a job at In-N-Out Burger.

"My plans really haven't changed," Sanchez said. "It's not as cool as wrestling for Fresno State, but it's still wrestling."

Schools from Iowa have called, but Sanchez said he won't leave. His mother works for a food-packing company and his stepdad is gone a lot driving trucks. He is the oldest child of seven and the family needs him.

Here, he can live at home.

The supporters will not give up anytime soon. The roots on the local wrestling tree are too deep to topple easily.

"They picked the wrong sport to mess with," Lippmann said, and ran back into traffic.

The politician said it softer.

"You just hate to see those opportunities diminished in any way," Autry said. "I just want to know, have we looked at every way possible?"

The columnist can be reached at mjames@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6217. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.
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