In one sense, you could say the South is rising again. In another, you could say it's falling under a succession of duck-unders, leg sweeps and high crotches. Dixie, you see, is in the midst of a collegiate wrestling boom.
For years, the only Deep South team of merit was Arnold (Swede) Umbach's Auburn Tigers. Umbach, who grew up in Oklahoma, a wrestling hotbed, ended 30 years of coaching in 1973 with 25 Southeastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association team titles, two Southeastern Conference championships and a 249-28-5 record.
"The only wrestling many Southerners knew for a long time was the professional kind," Umbach says. "When we got the sport into the SEC in 1970, we polled the schools to see how many would have teams. I still remember Mississippi's reply: 'Never.' I wanted to build the sport throughout the South, so I put on clinics everywhere. But I 'spect people from the Midwest and the North laughed at Southern wrestling."
Well, the joke is over. During the 1960s, only seven wrestlers from Southern schools placed in the top six at NCAA tournaments. In the '70s, 16 have earned that distinction, nine in the past two years. What's more, four coaches—all from up North—have led their SEC teams into the top 20 this season: Fletcher Carr (Erie, Pa.) at Kentucky, Gary Schneider (Massapequa, N.Y.) at Florida, Tom Milkovich (Maple Heights, Ohio) at Auburn, and Larry Sciacchetano (Teaneck, N.J.) at Louisiana State.
The main reason for this meteoric rise is a 2-year-old NCAA ruling that limits colleges to 11 wrestling scholarships. That has curtailed the stockpiling of talent by teams such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa and Iowa State, which often signed good prospects just to prevent them from going elsewhere.
Vital, too, has been the all-out effort by Southern schools to improve their wrestling programs. LSU Athletic Director Carl Maddox says. "When the SEC gets into a sport, it goes all the way. The SEC only recently got into swimming, but at last year's NCAAs, three of the five top teams were from our conference." And then there have been hordes of high school seniors from wrestling-rich New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, who have flocked South to join in the empire building.
Being given the coaching job at a Southern university used to be akin to being handed a rotten apple—"Sorry, Al, you're the wrestling coach this season"—but now it's more of a juicy plum. When the LSU position opened up two years ago, more than 50 applicants were screened before the then 33-year-old Sciacchetano (pronounced Shack-uh-tan-oh) was chosen.
Shack had a 137-31-5 record in 12 seasons at New York Maritime and Montclair (N.J.) State. He also has a knack for recruiting, an invaluable asset in the suddenly furious skirmishing among SEC teams for the top high school prospects.
"I left LSU because I disagreed with the administration about recruiting," says Shack's predecessor. Dale Ketelsen. "The way to build the program, I felt, was to recruit the local boys, not to bring in a lot of outsiders."
"One reason I came here was because the administration committed itself to letting me recruit from coast to coast," Shack says. "I got the job in May of '76. By then all the blue-chip high-schoolers were signed. I decided to save most of my scholarships, suffer through the first season and hope for a good recruiting year the next time around. Last year I spent an awful lot of time on the road. High school wrestling in the South is in its infancy, so I had to travel to where the best prospects were."
Shack's anticipated agony—his 1976-77 team was 5-12—was followed by the ecstasy of recruiting triumph. He set his sights on 11 high school All-Americas and bagged nine.
"Recruiting is multifaceted," says Shack, who is six feet, 230 pounds and wears a mustache as big as a broom. "To get top prospects you've got to have a big-time schedule, excellent facilities and a school that offers a well-rounded program of athletics and academics. Being able to offer Northern kids warm winter weather also helps."
When Shack got home from his forays to the North, he sent postcards of the sunny South to the prospects he had visited, and on his follow-up phone calls he was careful to do most of his phoning on days when the North was snowbound. Shack's roster is now stacked with 30 wrestlers from 10 states, and 28 of them are from above the Mason-Dixon Line.
Although in one breath Shack says, "I don't intend to spend my life coaching," he adds in the next, "There's nothing in the world that's as exciting." Certainly, this season has been. Shack has built so well so fast that the nationally 17th-ranked Tigers won the SEC title and feel that they could be headed for an NCAA championship in the next two or three years. For the SEC meet, Shack resurrected the Chinese Bandits, the gung-ho third unit on LSU's 1958 national championship football team. The coach outfitted his wrestlers in purple and gold T shirts with CHINESE BANDITS in oriental-type letters on the front. "It's a gimmick," he says, "but it worked."
Though seven of Shack's starters are freshmen and his team has had an inordinate number of injuries, he directed a remarkable turnabout this season. Louisiana State's record was 10-5, with all the losses coming against top-20 teams. The Tigers' most notable victory was a 27-14 thrashing of Florida, only the second loss in the last 30 SEC dual meets for the Gators.
LSU has sent four wrestlers, three of them freshmen, to this week's NCAA championships at College Park, Md. Two of the finest are 134-pound conference champion Mike Chinn and heavyweight George Atiyeh. Chinn, a senior who left the University of Oklahoma after three seasons, works out with a boxer—a dog named Obie with whom he goes on daily runs. Atiyeh is a 6'4", 245-pound Pennsylvanian who won two state titles as a high-schooler. Following the '76 high school football season, he was acclaimed by a panel of college coaches as the best high school player in the country. He started at defensive tackle for LSU last fall and then joined the wrestling squad. In one of his first matches he built a 6-1 lead over Oklahoma State's 6'7", 370-pound Jimmy Jackson, a two-time NCAA champion, but made a freshman's error and was pinned. Since then he has won all nine of his matches, seven of them by falls. The last of these victories was over Harold Smith of Kentucky, the defending conference champion and third in last year's NCAAs.
Neatly carved into a leather visor that Atiyeh made in the eighth grade and which he has been wearing ever since are a beer mug, a four-ace poker hand and a cigar. "Being an athlete keeps me away from those things," Atiyeh says. "I try to be straight, because I believe you have to be if you want to be an athlete. I came here because I wanted to compete for a school that was good in football and wrestling. Shack's Pack is going places."
Southern fans must think all their wrestling teams are headed in the right direction. As few as 50 people used to attend wrestling matches at Southern colleges; now as many as 4,500 show up for dual meets. The region's record crowds will be at Maryland this week. Sellouts are virtually guaranteed for all six sessions.
No one is more pleased about this than Sully Krouse, who is finishing his 31st and final season as Maryland coach. "I've finally accomplished my goal." he says. "A couple of weeks ago, the ACC athletic directors ordered us to move our conference wrestling tournament back a day so that it wouldn't conflict with the ACC basketball tournament. The ADs wanted to go right from there to the wrestling finals the next day. For years you couldn't get our ADs to watch wrestling. Now they insist upon seeing it. The South is rising again." In one sense.