It's late May on the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Mott Gym is packed. This is a welcome sight for Lennis Cowell and John Azevedo, who fondly remember the halcyon days when wrestling drew more than 2,000 fans -- four times today's average -- to dual meets against Cal State Bakersfield, the California coast school's rival.
Tonight's event won't feature the oldest sport known to man, but it is of that tradition. And in its name.
"Fight for Wrestling" -- a professional mixed-martial-arts show aimed, in this instance, at raising funds for a Cal Poly program, conceivably on the chopping block, that boasts two national champions, 110 All-Americas and one of the best MMA fighters of all time -- is finally debuting. The evening culminates a three-year process in which promoters, boosters and alumni (in some cases one in the same) attempted to bring it on campus.
This is what preventive maintenance in the name of saving Division I collegiate wrestling could look like, according to a growing contingent of wrestling supporters.
"Everybody waits until it's too late," said Cowell, whose 25-year run as a wrestler-turned-head coach at Cal Poly officially ended in 2003. "That's been the problem: Coaches don't see it coming."
Based on participation and sponsorship rates over the past three decades, no one, least of all coaches, should be blind to the tenuous status of men's wrestling on the D-I level. In 20 seasons beginning with the 1988-89 school year, men's wrestling has suffered a net loss of 106 teams, ceding programs in all but five years during that stretch, according to an NCAA study. That puts wrestling atop a list of sports suffering the worst of college administrators' scalpels. Tennis, ranked No. 2, lost 71 teams over that same period.
Prevailing wisdom holds Title IX -- the federal legislation passed in 1972 meant to create the same opportunities and quality of treatment for female and male student-athletes -- responsible for the decline in men's sports, particularly wrestling and other Olympic-style contests. Perhaps this was true in the early 1980s, when men's teams outpaced women's by an average of 10.3 to 7.3 per school. Those numbers have since reversed after men lost 287 teams and women gained 714.
Gender equity has unquestionably played a part in the current state of college athletics, said boosters, coaches and administrators. But so have budgetary issues; conference requirements; NCAA mandates on the minimum number of teams institutions must sponsor to qualify for D-I status (six for men, eight for women); and a trend among some of the nation's largest conferences called "focused excellence," which emphasizes fewer teams in favor of television-friendly, revenue-generating sports.
"I honestly believe Title IX has become an excuse for athletic directors who want to just focus on football and basketball," said Rob Koll, coach of the No. 1-ranked Cornell wrestling squad. "If I was an A.D. and just had two sports to worry about for all practical purposes, it makes my job easier. It may sound cynical, but I truly believe that's the case in many situations. If you look at the SEC, less is more. They don't give a darn about anything other than the sports that make money."
News isn't all bad for amateur wrestling in the United States. Participation has increased at Division II, Division III and NAIA schools. And youth wrestling, particularly at the high school level with its 267,000 athletes, has never been healthier, said Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
"Our vital signs are very strong at every level other than NCAA Division I," Moyer said. "That goes back to focused excellence and the downsizing trend at athletic departments across the country at non-enrollment-conscious schools."
"Staff members at the NCAA are very much proponents of broad-based participation type programs," he said. "But the NCAA is governed by the very administrators who are making these decisions at the institutional level."
Said NCAA spokesman Cameron Schuh: "Institutions must continue to make the fiscal decisions that they believe best equips them to support their student-athletes and their core mission."
Three of the most active youth wrestling states -- Washington, Florida and Texas -- are also the biggest offenders when it comes to a lack of Division I opportunities. Meanwhile, state-funded California institutions continue to shed teams. UC Davis, the only school in the UC system that sponsored wrestling, recently shut down its program, citing cost-cutting efforts.
"We're doing things but we just keep dropping," said Azevedo, the current coach at Cal Poly, which competes in the Pac-10 conference for wrestling against Stanford, Oregon State, Arizona State, Cal State Bakersfield, Boise State and, before it was cut, UC Davis. "It comes down to money. It's dire in the West. The Midwest is pretty safe. In the East, wrestling tradition in Pennsylvania is strong. But can they survive if there are 50 programs? If the West drops, it's a slippery slope."
College wrestling coaches must wear different hats these days, said Craig Tobin, a booster for Cal State Bakersfield who wrestled there in the 1970s. No longer is it enough to focus solely on winning on the mat.
"He has to be a three-headed steer: marketing, business, coach," Tobin said of today's coach. "We'll call it the trinity of wrestling. If we want this sport to survive, you've got to get out there and develop this product so that it's marketable."
Tobin pointed to Koll's work at Cornell as an example of someone doing it right. When Koll took over the Big Red program in 1993, wrestling couldn't pull more than 50 people for an event. Last season Cornell averaged 1,700 in attendance, making it just one of 10 D-I teams (there are 86) to draw 1,000 or more per event.
Under Moyer's leadership, the NWCA has invested $800,000 for a CEO training program designed to get coaches thinking about their programs on a broader scale. Sixty coaches will receive scholarships and training over the next three years.
"At the end of the day it's really in the hands of the coach at institutional level," Moyer said. "We need to do better with fundraising. We need to do better with marketing. We need to get more spectators in the stands."
That's also the aim of Scott Adams, a longtime friend and teammate of UFC legend and Cal Poly wrestler Chuck Liddell, who sees MMA, a sport directly influenced by the best in amateur and collegiate wrestling, as capable of returning the favor. Many of MMA's biggest names wrestled collegiately, and as the fight sport grows it will continue to provide wrestlers who want to compete professionally an outlet to do so.
"MMA is the first real promise to former wrestlers in the form of an athletic career," said Aaron Crecy, co-creator of Clinch Gear clothing with U.S. Olympian and MMA champion Dan Henderson, who wrestled at Arizona State (pulled from the ashes in 2008) and Cal State Fullerton (dropped after next year, the school announced Thursday). "I don't think the MMA community can sit idly by while wrestling is eliminated from the college landscape."
Crecy speaks from experience. He wrestled at BYU and San Diego State, both goners, and coached at Miami of Ohio, which died in 1999.
UFC president Dana White has yet to fundraise for wrestling at that level, but he did donate money to the team at Bishop Gorman high school in Las Vegas -- where he went to school and became friends with Lorenzo Fertitta, who purchased the UFC in 2001. White said if need be, he would put the weight of the UFC, MMA's top promoter, behind money-raising efforts to help D-I wrestling.
Why the concern?
It's an easy link considering each of the 47 Americans on the UFC roster has some collegiate wrestling experience. As money and recognition continue to rise in MMA, there's no reason to expect that decorated D-I wrestlers will stop jumping into the sport. Earlier this month, Bellator Fighting Championships announced the signing of Eric Larkin, who won the Dan Hodge Trophy (wrestling's Heisman) in 2003, the same year he captured a national championship at 149 pounds for Arizona State.
The migration of top amateur wrestlers to MMA has some people concerned about the long-term impact on USA Wrestling, which oversees the sport at the international and Olympic level. But the organization, said spokesman Gary Abbott, believes the "success, publicity and popularity of mixed martial arts has given people a new perspective on the sport of wrestling."
Said Moyer: "To protect our future, we're going to need an association with MMA."
Adams, who helped create the WEC with Reed Harris before it was sold to Zuffa, hopes to capitalize on MMA's popularity and its symbiotic relationship with wrestling for his "Fight for Wrestling" program, which last Saturday raised $35,000-$50,000 for Cal State Bakersfield in its second event and $50,000 for Cal Poly in May.
For now, Adams said he will treat the cards like charity events and donate all proceeds to the program being supported that particular evening. Fight for Wrestling is scheduled to return to San Luis Obispo on April 9, 2011.
UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar lent his immense popularity to the Bakersfield event by auctioning off a signed bracket sheet from his 1999 NCAA championship match against Stephen Neal.
"All I know is we're going to keep grinding to do what we can do to survive," said Neal, who left wrestling after beating Lesnar and earning every major wrestling award to become a starting guard and three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots.
Earlier this year, Neal helped raise $130,000 in one night to prevent Bakersfield from joining UC Davis on the scrap heap. The program has built up its coffers to keep it safe for the next three years.
Now, Neal said, "We just have to figure out a way to connect with the fans."