Leaders at Western Carolina University say reviving its men’s wrestling program could be the key to recruiting more local student athletes.
“Consistent with our mission to serve Western North Carolina and our mission and desire to recruit first-generation college students, I think there’s some pretty good data out there to say men’s wrestling is the sport that does both of those,” WCU Board of Trustees member Casey Cooper said. “Right now, you have to be a pretty elite athlete to play at WCU in football or basketball, and there’s such a small, small percentage of those kids that are coming from the far-western counties. That would not be the case with men’s wrestling.”
Athletic Director Randy Eaton agreed with Cooper’s assessment. “It’s big here,” he said of the sport. “It’s huge.”
Adding wrestling to WCU’s list of athletic programs could prove difficult, however.
“From a Title IX standpoint, I would not grow men’s sports. I can’t,” Eaton said. “Well, I take that back. If I added wrestling, I’d need to add three or four women’s sports, just for participation rates.”
Title IX requires universities to maintain equal ratios between the number of male and female students and student athletes.
“I think full-time institution enrollment is about 45 percent male. We’re at about 58 percent male participation points (in athletics), so I’m already 13 participation points flipped,” Eaton said. “More males just widens the gap.”
Cooper said he was disappointed to learn of the potential Title IX challenges. High school wrestling programs in this region have performed well over other parts of the state and could serve as the perfect recruitment pool, he said.
“I worry when we see a low penetration rate in WNC,” Cooper said. “It really concerns me, and it concerns me even more when I see the low penetration rate of American Indians. I think that’s an opportunity for mom and dad to come watch their kid at the college level, and it’s an opportunity that they will never see in football, baseball or basketball.”
Trustees’ co-chair Bryant Kinney asked Eaton to create a report, using men’s and women’s wrestling as an example, exploring how Title IX ratios would be affected.
“Does that mean having to do away with a sport? I don’t know what that means, but is that possible?” Kinney said. “As Casey knows, I gripe about the same thing – our percentage of student acquisition in Region A. It just doesn’t happen, it feels like. It’s a small population, but boy we don’t capture many of them.”
Other institutions in the Southern Conference have added wrestling programs in recent years, such as Citadel, Chattanooga and VMI, Eaton said. The logistics for women’s wrestling would take longer to figure out, he said.
“I’m going to fly to California; I’m going to fly to Michigan – there is nobody around here to have a full schedule,” the athletic director said. “It’s going to take some time to figure out travel partners and conference affiliation.”
Cooper said the National Wresting Coaches Association has a program dedicated to helping universities establish or reestablish men’s wrestling. “There’s a lot of support (the association) provides – a lot of data and marketing information, and assistance even with startup,” he said. “So if we could just give it an honest exploration, I’d be happy with that.”
Smoky Mountain High School’s wrestling coach said he would be all for wrestling at WCU.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Coach Tony Moody said. “Right now were seeing an explosion in the sport. They would definitely have athletes locally to support that.”
High school programs from the central part of the state, historically, have dominated the field, but those in the mountains are catching up, Moody said. He mentioned the teams at Enka and North Henderson high schools as two standouts, along with teams at Pisgah, Swain and Robbinsville high schools.
At Smoky Mountain, junior Will Frady finished second in the 195-pound weight class at the State 2-A Wrestling Tournament,at the Greensboro Coliseum this past season. Frady ended the year with a record of 40-2. Teammate Seth Ledford also competed at the state tournament at 220 pounds and finished the season 31-14.
WCU hasn’t had a wrestling program since the mid 1970s, when it was led by the late Bob Setzer, a longtime assistant Catamount football coach and former athletic director. It ended primarily because of competition, said Steve White, WCU’s retired sports information director and unofficial athletic historian.
“The people we were competing with were pretty well funded. Here, it was mostly walk-ons,” he said. “It was tough to compete – at that time, it was a razor-thin budget.”