February 21, 2006

Wrestling Does It Best in Winter

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Cornell has a student body that camps out for hockey tickets days in advance to the start of the season and buys fish at local supermarkets so that it can strap it to its legs in order to honor a silly tradition. Plain and simple, we are a hockey school that praises legends such as Ken Dryden ’69 and Joe Nieuwendyk ’88. As evidenced last Saturday, amidst flying fish and goals from Topher Scott and Byron Bitz, hockey tends to reign as king of the athletic department as we sometimes overlook a different winter sport here on East Hill that clinched its fourth consecutive Ivy title this past weekend – wrestling.

Wrestling often gets lost in the shuffle, with excuses for low interest ranging from how it doesn’t use a ball to how its rules are sometimes hard to follow. The sport is often given a negative stereotype with obvious links to the predetermined outcomes of the WWE and the overly brutal Ultimate Fighting Championships. However, despite these distant cousins of the sport, the ignorance of the program at Cornell might be a thing of the past since it has blossomed into arguably the most competitive sport on campus during the last decade, with it becoming one of the nation’s top-tier wrestling programs in the country after finishing fourth in the team standings at nationals last season in Kansas City – a tribute to last season’s NCAA head coach of the year, Rob Koll, and his staff of assistants, Steve Garland, Clint Wattenberg ’03 and volunteer assistant coach Jamar Billman.

While most students and the Cornell athletic staff focus on men’s ice hockey and basketball, considered the two most popular sports based on revenue generation in the winter season, the wrestling coaching staff has had unbelievable success attracting fans and building the program, doing it in a unique way – combining die hard wrestling enthusiasts with casual fans in a marketing campaign that has proven to be very productive.

The culmination and result of 18 years of hard work was seen in a single dual meet earlier this season during the Red’s first home match versus Lehigh. In an atmosphere that could only be described as “electric,” the match saw the largest crowd ever to see a sporting event inside Newman Arena. Alumni flew in on private jets from Denver, Indiana, and Hong Kong to see the match. High school wrestling teams came to participate in a morning clinic put on by the coaching staff and then stayed to watch the dual meet. It was estimated that approximately 700 Cornell students packed inside the arena as well.

“It was the first time in my tenure here that I’ve ever heard that we had to close the doors and turn people away,” said former Cornell wrestler Gene Nighman ’81, director of Athletics Ticketing, Events, and Sports School Athletics. “More people wanted to come in but we had reached capacity.”

No wonder sales revenue has quadrupled over the last four years – and remember, students get in free. No wonder wrestling quietly ranks third of all the sports Cornell offers in total sales revenue. People just keep packing the house, as if the Friedman Wrestling Center were a mini-Lynah.

The sport, unlike others at Cornell, is incredibly fan-friendly. While halftimes at basketball games and period intermissions at hockey games are filled with downtime, breaks in action at wrestling matches are filled with cheerleaders, occasional band performances, and raffle drawings – sophomore Stephanie Bratek won a 32-inch LCD screen television that was given away this past Saturday.

“We really believe that if you want to build a dynasty you have to have the fans,” Koll said. “You can’t build a great team without a support system.”

What makes wrestling different is that while the support system has centered on a student fan base and locals, another dimension revolves around important Cornell administrative figures with Cornell wrestling ties. Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III attends every home match and even some away matches as well. He left a board meeting at Haverford to watch the team wrestle at Penn two weekends ago. Nighman is a former Cornell wrestler, having won an EIWA championship for the Red in 1981. Even Athletic Director Andy Noel is a former coach of the team, having led the Red to four Ivy League titles from 1974-88.

It isn’t a surprise that the alumni are the ones responsible for the success of the program. The very building where the team practices is the result of alumni gifts. The Friedman Wrestling Center is arguably the finest wrestling center in the country. Opened in November 2002, it is the country’s only stand-alone facility devoted solely to collegiate wrestling and has a capacity of 1,100 people.

“[The Friedman Wrestling Center] wasn’t just one gift, but many,” Koll said. “The more they give is reflected by how much they care.”

Why do the supportive alumni have so much interest in the sport? The reason could be that they can appreciate the sacrifice and hard work required from such a demanding sport.

“As an alumni, there is so much respect and pride attached to seeing the young men that are doing all these things that you did,” Nighman said. “You take a lot of pride in seeing these people perform well. It’s almost as if they are like your brothers or your sons. It’s such a family bond wrestlers share. It’s like a pure fraternity.”

The house the family lives in now is a far cry from the facility they had 18 years ago when Rob Koll came to the program as an assistant coach. As you might imagine, nothing is taken for granted.

“I remember back when we used to wrestle inside Teagle Hall and we used to have to share time with the gymnastics team,” Koll said. “We used to literally bring the mats in while we were moving the gymnastics equipment out. I used to share an office with both the swimming and gymnastics coaches and can still remember the wet cloth chair I used to have to sit in after a couple swimmers used to sit in it before I got there.”

The respect for fans and alumni that the wrestling team shows is unprecedented at Cornell and is something that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Everything is respected by the wrestling team.

“The locker rooms are spotless, the training room is spotless, and the weight room is spotless,” Koll said. “I tell the guys that they better respect our place or I’m going to throw their stuff away. I don’t do it to be a jerk, but I do it because our alumni and our fans deserve it. We wrestle and have this place not only for ourselves, but for them too.”

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. This team has earned it.

Tim Kuhls is a Sun Staff Writer. That’s Kuhls, Baby will appear every other Tuesday this semester.

Archived article by Tim Kuhls