Wrestling's believers still believe

Coast Guard Academy's Matthew Vieira, left, battles Norwich University's Ben Swanson during the 149-pound consolation match in the All-Academy wrestling championships on Saturday in New London. Vieira finished fifth.
Coast Guard Academy's Matthew Vieira, left, battles Norwich University's Ben Swanson during the 149-pound consolation match in the All-Academy wrestling championships on Saturday in New London. Vieira finished fifth. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

New London

It has become a secret society. When you're in, you're in. Because you want to be.

You swear by it. What it teaches. How its education endures. How it is "unique," a word that wrestling loyalists use a lot, when they don't want to be coarse and tell the truth: Not everybody is made for this.

Not everybody has the, shall we say, testicular wherewithal to spend six or seven minutes on the mat, all eyes watching, as you are grabbed, slammed and twisted like a ballpark pretzel with nobody else to blame if you lose.

It wasn't always so secret, not in the 70s and 80s, when more than double the colleges and universities in this country offered wrestling. In Connecticut alone, more than half the state's programs Yale, Hartford, Fairfield, Southern, Central and UConn no longer offer NCAA wrestling, save UConn's club team.

The believers, however, believe. And this is their month. It began Saturday at Coast Guard with the All-Academy Tournament that delivered Army, Navy and Air Force, among others, to our corner of the world (and to Mr. G's pizza). It continues later this month with all the high school tournaments. And tucked between is next Sunday's extravaganza at New London High School, the "Husky Howl," an annual tournament that raises funds to reestablish wrestling at UConn.

Imagine what could have been at UConn: Would T.J. Hepburn, a three-time State Open and two-time New England champion from Ledyard High, have considered going there instead of Division II Nebraska Kearney, where he won a national championship?

Would Brennan Ward of Waterford, who wrestled at Johnson & Wales, have considered State U? And how might State U benefit now from Ward's new fame as a Mixed Martial Arts middleweight champion?

"Wrestling has taken a beating in the last couple of decades," Waterford High School coach Chris Gamble was saying Saturday, a rare day off for his team, spent at Coast Guard watching the big boys. "Locally, when kids say they're interested, I tell them to try Pennsylvania, where there are tons of Division I, II and III schools. Connecticut is very limited and so are the states around us."

New England becomes more limited after this season. Boston University, where former Fitch great Chris Coppolo wrestled, will drop its program. What remains: two New England programs offering scholarships (Sacred Heart and American International College) and four programs total in Connecticut (Sacred Heart, Coast Guard, Trinity and Wesleyan), none of which are public.

Theories abound as to why wrestling's popularity swirls the bowl, at least among college czars. It's not an expensive sport to run, save the initial cost of mats. Title IX is a popular punching bag for wrestling advocates, although numbers say otherwise.

A recent ESPN.com story reported that in 1984, the Supreme Court held in "Grove City v. Bell" that only institutions or programs receiving direct federal government financial assistance had to comply with Title IX. In 1988, Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan's veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which "forced any institution receiving federal funds to comply with Title IX throughout the entire institution."

ESPN.com found that during that four-year span when Title IX was not in effect for athletic departments, NCAA schools still dropped 53 wrestling programs, an average of 13.2 a year. From 1988 to 2000, when the law again covered sports, 56 programs dropped during a 12-year period, an average of 4.7 per year.

Coaches at Saturday's event suggested that the sport's inherent challenges one needs to be tough coupled with its position outside the sporting mainstream has conspired to render it less relevant. All of which is likely true. Except that its supporters steadfastly maintain colleges don't know what they're missing.

"One of the things that makes my heart blossom is seeing the young men graduate from here and go to the top of the Coast Guard," said Steve Eldridge, Coast Guard's coach of 47 years before his recent retirement. "I believe 13 or 14 who wrestled for me became admirals. I truly believe they went that far because of the work ethic they learned from wrestling."

Gamble: "I wrestled with a kid who weighed 70 pounds in high school. No other sport can accommodate that."

The "Husky Howl" has raised more than $40,000 thanks to the United States Amateur Wrestling Club of Connecticut and the UConn Wrestling Club. That's a start.

Remember: It's doesn't have to be a secret society forever.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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