Featured / Sports / The Prairie Fire / September 23, 2015

Knox wrestling becomes Knox history

Knox has chosen to no longer support its Wrestling program. The news was broken to campus this past June, giving time for members of the Knox community to adjust and move on from the blow. It was not an easy decision by any means, yet some feel there was more that could have been done.

The program was established in 1948 by Charles “Chuck” Porter ’52. During his time at Knox, Porter helped turn the then club sport into a varsity team, in addition to helping hire the first Knox Wrestling coach, Art Fish. Porter’s support of the program can be tracked to the present as a prominent donor and influence. In 2006 Knox created an invitational wrestling tournament, which was named the Chuck Porter Duals in his honor. Porter could often be spotted at the annual meets talking to current players and coaches.

Junior Esai Ponce grapples with a Milwaukee School of Engineering wrestler. A combination of factors including the departure of many players, high turnover of coaches and general inconsistency led to the team’s end as a Knox varsity sport. (TKS/Archives)

Junior Esai Ponce grapples with a Milwaukee School of Engineering wrestler. A combination of factors including the departure of many players, high turnover of coaches and general inconsistency led to the team’s end as a Knox varsity sport. (TKS/Archives)

In recent years, the program has not been at full strength and seems to struggle finding consistency. This consistency for over two decades lay with Frank McAndrew, who was head coach for 12 years and assistant head coach for 15 years. However, most recently wrestling has had three different coaches within three years, offering little consistency to build on. With an ever-changing coaching staff, recruiting becomes difficult, and retaining those recruits even more so. The harm of inconsistency was not overlooked by senior Eric Vogel.

“When you go through three coaches in three years, you come for one guy and if you don’t feel comfortable with someone else it’s likely you won’t stay,” Vogel said.

The team would lose four to five members a year, creating holes in their roster, often going into meets with four weight classes empty. Not having each weight class filled means automatic wins for the opponent, leaving players to carry more of the team than is generally required.

With the resignation of Matt Lowers, last season’s head coach, it was apparent something wasn’t working for the program.

Director of Athletics Chad Eisele explains that this was not the first time the program had been in danger; it was simply the first time all the dominoes fell into place.

“If our coach wouldn’t have left and recruiting would have continued on the course it was heading on, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Eisele said. “But because of that circumstance, it put us into a different thought process with the program. It [Lowers’ departure] was a domino, no doubt about it.”

Before making a final decision, Eisele consulted donors, trustees, administration and the president, coming to the hard decision that it would be better for Knox if the wrestling program ceased to exist.

Once the decision was made public, a general sense of shock and anger overtook students and alumni, but it was the current players who took it hardest.

“I felt as though I had been lied to,” sophomore Cooper Collings said. “When I initially looked at Knox as a prospective college, I was promised that the goal was to build the wrestling program, that it had the backing of the entire college.”

A majority of the players chose Knox because of its unique pairing of rigorous academics and having the only wrestling program in the Midwest Conference. Now with Knox vacant of a wrestling program, only two of last season’s seven players have returned to Knox. Collings and Vogel both admitted that wrestling was a large draw for them in the college recruitment process, with Vogel admitting that if he wasn’t a senior he also would not have returned.

Still, current players have uncovered that if funding was a main problem, alumni were ready to help and simply weren’t notified.

“I was informed that at the time the wrestling program was dropped there was enough funding for the next two years, but after the two years the program was going to be dropped anyway,” Collings said.

Along with the funds that Knox already had saved for the wrestling program, many more could have been acquired had the alumni been informed of the state the program was in. Now, any leftover wrestling funds will be added to the remaining sports in hopes to improve those programs.

The situation presents itself as an uphill battle that some were tired of fighting.

“There is always more that could have been done, but I understand the college’s position,” McAndrew said. “Wrestling was not a Midwest Conference sport, and in spite of the best efforts of many coaches it had not successfully become a strong magnet for attracting students to the college. Having lost our third coach in three years, it did not appear that the program was in the position of being turned around anytime soon.”

The decision has left some wondering if this could happen to another varsity sport. While Eisele does not want any sport nervous for their permanence, there are no promises.

Every year baseline goals are set for each sport and then evaluated. If a sport fails to meet multiple goals and appears to be floundering, the athletic department will pump funds into that program, whether by promoting coaches from part-time to full-time or improving equipment and facilities. If a team continues to fail their evaluated goals, then comes the more difficult evaluation of the sport and its longevity, though Eisele assures that the administration is “not in the business of cutting sports.”

Many question the permanence of this decision or hope for the possibility of revival of the program. It may not be gone for good, but it will take time.

“For now we’ve made the decision, but I think over time, whether it’s four years or eight years, we evaluate,” Eisele said. “If we feel we can attract as far as a cohort of recruits, it’s something that we would certainly look at in the future.”

Sam Watkins

Tags:  chad eisele chuck porter Eric Vogel Frank McAndrew knox wrestling

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