UNCG wrestling supporters resist takedown

by Jordan Green

Jud Werbella, Peter Bearse, Sarah LeFebvre, Andrew Krieger and Keith Ritter (l-r) gathered recently at Brewski’s Pub to formulate a plan to save the wrestling program at UNCG. (photo by Jordan Green)

Wrestlers are used to not getting respect, said Keith Ritter as he nursed a Budweiser at the bar at Brewski’s Pub. Despite the perception of flamboyance projected by the Hulk Hogan variety promoted by WWE, collegiate and high school wrestlers work hard for minimal glory.

That might be why they’re so loyal to each other.

In mid-April, Ritter assembled about 10 supporters of the UNCG wrestling in the backroom of the bar he owns to strategize a campaign to persuade the university to reverse a decision announced last month to eliminate the program. Ritter wrestled for UNCG from 2000 to 2004. Some of the guys huddled around a white folding table — and with one exception they were guys — were alumni. There was an economics professor at the university who wrestled through his mid-twenties. There was a parent of current student who had wanted to try out for wrestling, and a parent who runs a youth wrestling program in Greensboro. Jud Werbella is a fan.

“When you get done and the other guy has beaten you, after he pins you to the mat, he reaches down and pulls you up,” Werbella said.

Several of the supporters said coaches with rival collegiate programs are rallying behind the cause of saving UNCG wrestling.

“Do you think if Duke dropped their basketball program, Carolina would be trying to save it?” Andrew Krieger asked. “They’d be ecstatic. There would be rioting in the streets.”

The university estimates it could save $308,000 by eliminating wrestling. The university currently operates 16 men’s and women’s athletic programs with a budget of a little more than $8 million. What is particularly galling to wrestling supporters is that as the university struggles to raise the profile of its men’s basketball team, which began playing games at the Greensboro Coliseum in 2009, the wrestling team already holds a record of athletic accomplishment. The UNCG wrestling team brought home the 2010 Southern Conference Wrestling Championship title and currently ranks No. 2.

Athletics Director Kim Record’s prepared statement in a March 14 press release announcing the program’s elimination has fueled suspicions that the wrestling is being sacrificed for the benefit of the basketball program.

“The university’s strategic plan has a goal of increasing competitiveness, accessibility and visibility of its intercollegiate athletics program,” Record said. “Over the past 18 months we have considered many strategies to accomplish this goal and it became obvious that painful decisions needed to be made.”

Ritter said he was one of the first to find out about the decision.

“I was outraged,” he said. “Everyone knows that all she cares about is basketball. I didn’t know it was going to come down to cutting wrestling. We’re kind of used to not getting respect because we work so hard for so little glory. The kids were called into a meeting. They thought they were going to get a new locker room or something like that. They were expecting a bonus because they were doing so well.”

To add insult to injury, Ritter said, the decision came three days before NCAA Championships in Philadelphia. UNCG sent four wrestlers — Ivan Lopouchanski, Manny Ramirez, Caylor Williams and Peter Sturgeon — to the finals.

“UNCG — it’s a big school, but it’s a midmajor school,” Ritter said. “It’s D[ivision] I, but we’re not in the ACC. We’re not at the ESPN level. What UNCG needs is a team that can produce well on a budget. That is exactly what wrestling is.”

A UNCG Athletics employee in Record’s office referred questions about the wrestling program to Tim George, associate AD for external operations.

“That really couldn’t be further from the truth,” George said. “That had no impact. That wasn’t part of any thought process that I know of. I don’t think there’s any correlation. It wasn’t like we’re going to get rid of wrestling to help basketball or any other sport.”

George said the primary reason for cutting wrestling is to help the athletics department close a $1.1 million gap in its 2011-2012 budget, adding that there is no specific program or line item to which the $308,000 in cost savings will be reallocated. George said a decision by the NC General Assembly to eliminate out-of-state athletic scholarships forced the athletics department to dip into reserves, and the department cannot continue to do that.

Some supporters have suggested that if the program were to operate without scholarships, the annual cost could be reduced to $100,000.

“We looked at all options, but we felt like none of them presented a viable way to keep the program,” George said.

The athletics department evaluated its various program based on upwards of 10 criteria to determine where to cut the budget. The first mentioned by George was competitiveness.

“It certainly factored in because one of our criteria was competitive success,” George said. “And that was an area where wrestling rated very well. The department has never said wrestling was not successful. They were.”

Other factors included use of support services such as tutors and proximity of regional competitors. George said wrestling fared less well under those criteria because the 35 members of the wrestling team place a more significant burden on support services than smaller programs such as golf, with five to seven student athletes. He also said the dearth of collegiate wrestling programs in North Carolina forces the team to make an inordinate number of overnight trips for meets, driving up fuel costs.

Ritter said he disagrees with both justifications.

“We can take plenty of day trips,” he said, citing NCAA Division I wrestling programs at Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State University, Campbell University, Appalachian State University and Davidson College. Ritter added that the UNCG wrestling team only took three overnight trips in the season that has just completed, out of 18 matches overall. Ritter also said that the wrestling team is one of the programs that utilizes tutors the least.

“Unfortunately, it was just a financial decision,” George said. “Obviously, the economy nationally and statewide is not as strong as everyone would like it to be. It was not indicative in any way of wrestling’s success. They had done a great job and we’re very proud of them. Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions that are going to affect people’s lives for the greater — not the greater good, but for the good of the department.”

In the back room of Brewski’s Pub, the supporters laid out a strategy to get wrestling back at UNCG. They talked about appealing to the Greensboro City Council, the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and the Greensboro Sports Commission for help by arguing that the Southern Scuffle and the Super 32 — big events in the wrestling world that are held at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex — make a significant impact on the city through hotel and restaurant revenues. They discussed working their contacts in the local press and building a social media presence for their campaign. They distributed tasks to plan for a noontime rally on Saturday at the UNCG campus to save the program and talked about coaches across the state and athletes in other UNCG programs that might be enlisted to speak out.

“Wrestling is a very intense sport,” Ritter said. “You train intensively year-round. You learn a lot of life lessons because you work so hard. There’s not a lot of glory. I run a bar. It’s a full-time job. That’s nothing compared to wrestling.”