When Boston University wrestling captain Nestor Taffur defeated Penn State’s James Vollrath on Dec. 6, the crowd of 1,664 cheered so loud the floor vibrated. It was the first time wrestling had sold out BU’s Case Gymnasium.
A Terrier had beaten a Nittany Lion, for the second and last time on the chilly December evening. Taffur then turned and flexed his biceps toward a far corner where BU athletic director Mike Lynch was standing.
It was Lynch who called wrestling coach Carl Adams into his office last April 1 and told him the school was ending its wrestling program, effective in the spring of 2014.
The university issued a release that day that said “an immense infusion of resources, including major facility enhancements and additional staffing, would be required” to bring the team to a championship-caliber level.
BU had not won a championship in 15 years, Lynch noted. He later called the wrestling program “mediocre at best” in a radio interview.
Taffur, the first in his family to go to college, says BU lied to the wrestling team, plain and simple.
“They added men’s lacrosse [in February 2012] and promised they wouldn’t drop us and then announced they were dropping us on April Fool’s,” said Taffur. “I was looking at Mr. Lynch just to let him know the wrestling community is strong and we’re still here. We can still save BU wrestling.”
Students, parents, and alumni have rallied to try to keep the sport intact. The Boston University Wrestling Alumni organization hired a public relations firm to promote the cause and got 4,200 signatures on a petition and 8,500 supporters on social media. They gave out “Save BU Wrestling” T-shirts at that Dec. 6 meet against unbeaten and top-ranked Penn State. The defending national champions had come to Boston to try to help BU’s wrestling program avoid extinction.
“It’s a tough deal, they’re quitting on a program, it’s not good,” said Cael Sanderson, the Penn State coach who went undefeated as a wrestler in his college career at Iowa State and later won a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
“You’ve got a class act of a coach in Carl Adams and he’s producing successful student-athletes that go on and do well. They’ve got something to work with here, they just need to work with it.”
But Adams contends that BU never made that commitment.
“They told us we needed to do better by their standards but at the same time they didn’t really give us the resources to achieve those standards,” said Adams, now in his 33d year at BU.
BU declined multiple requests for interviews with Lynch and other school officials.
The last regular-season match for the Terriers, whose record is 1-5 this season, is scheduled for Feb. 22, at home against Sacred Heart.
An accomplished coach
The wrestling program’s operating budget is just $187,000 a year, not including the 9.9 scholarships it receives, according to Adams. The team has been practicing in the same room for 40 years. Its lockers are hand-me-downs from the women’s lacrosse team and its recruiting budget is just a third of the average Division 1 team, said Adams.
Adams, himself a two-time national champion at Iowa State, and a member of four wrestling halls of fame, even helped pay for an assistant coach out of his own pocket for years.
“It took me 23 years to get a full paid assistant coach,” said Adams.
Adams also said his annual high school wrestling camp has paid $2.5 million in fees to BU over the last 32 years.
On April 1, Adams was recruiting a high school prospect on campus. The athlete’s parents asked Adams if the program was stable.
“I had told them everything was great, we had great support,” said Adams. “Then I had to call them back an hour later after the program was dropped. In fact, they saw it in the media before I even got to them.”
There were tears in the locker room that day, many of them belonging to the coach.
“I cried off and on for a week,” said Adams. “I was in a state of shock.”
Adams’s career record is 301-204-7, and his teams have won 10 conference championships.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve been either first, second, or third 19 times,” he said. “The fact that we didn’t win the conference, does that mean that every other team in the conference should be dropped?”
But Adams is no longer leading the battle to reinstate the program, instead concentrating on the season at hand.
“I’m looking at 25 kids and 50 years of alumni history going down the drain,” he said. “I want to see these kids through the season.”
Others sports added
Joe McGinley, a former wrestler at Bucknell whose son Bubba is a senior on the BU wrestling team, says that New Balance, a large supplier of lacrosse equipment, bought that sport’s way into the BU program.
“We believe the truth is that the board members arranged for New Balance to donate $3 million, that New Balance donated the $3 million, and [BU] brought in men’s lacrosse and they got rid of men’s wrestling,” said McGinley. “Why they couldn’t just be honest and say that is beyond me.”
The university denies that claim.
“There’s absolutely no correlation between the two,” said Colin Riley, executive director of media relations for BU. “It’s obviously as painful for these individuals as it is for us. Obviously, we are respectful of their views but there’s no merit to their allegations.”
New Balance Field virtually doubled the field space on campus and provided a home for the women’s field hockey team. BU also added women’s lightweight rowing as a Division 1 sport. Some alumni say that was a Title IX compliance move. The administration has denied any Title IX issues.
“Do I think they want a country club sport as opposed to a blue collar sport? Yes, I do,” said McGinley.
Former BU wrestler Brad Castronovo recently wrote a letter to New Balance saying the university was “surreptitious” in its decision making and “such shady practices and underhanded dealings now become direct reflections on New Balance as well.”
New Balance president emeritus/adviser John E. Larsen replied in an e-mail: “Sounds like some unintended consequences occurred here. Having said that, decisions to add or drop sports from a program rest entirely with the school.”
Requests to interview New Balance chairman James Davis and president/CEO Robert DeMartini went unanswered.
Marie Sanders, mother of sophomore wrestler Peter Ishiguro, met with Lynch and Todd Klipp, secretary of the BU board of trustees, looking for answers. She said they were rude to her.
“I feel like I’ve been brushed off like a pesky gnat,” said Sanders. “The university doesn’t care. They’ve gotten away with this before with the football team.”
BU terminated its football program on homecoming weekend in 1997.
“BU Wrestling Strategy,” a plan created by alumni to raise two years worth of operating revenue — approximately $400,000 — by Feb. 1, 2014, was dismissed as inadequate by the university.
BU also lost two endowments earmarked for the wrestling program by Orin Smiley, BU’s original wrestling coach, who died in April. Smiley’s widow, Marilyn, says she wrote BU three letters pleading to save the wrestling program.
“Because of the discontinuance of the wrestling program, that money will not be going to Boston University under the current state of facts,” said her attorney, Arkley L. Mastro Jr.
Mastro also said that alumni proposals that value the Smiley gift at $800,000 are not accurate. That figure is “substantially less,” he said in an e-mail, but cannot be determined until Mrs. Smiley’s death. He also said there was no redirection of the Smiley gift by BU, as some alumni have alleged.
Sweat and tears
Back in Case Gymnasium, Kevin Innis, a heavyweight wrestler from Secaucus, N.J., is still drenched in sweat from the last match of the evening, a loss to 10th-ranked Jimmy Lawson of Penn State. Innis is the first generation in his family to attend college and he wants to be a doctor.
A group of high school wrestlers waits patiently nearby to meet him. Although Division 1 wrestling programs have steadily declined nationwide, high school participation has grown by 40,000 over the past decade, according to Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
Innis is exhausted. He had a 102-degree fever the night before and probably should not have competed. But he takes one look at the kids and gets a second wind. His voice amps up with conviction.
“It breaks my heart to know that there are people in worse positions who aren’t going to live out their dreams and make something of themselves because they aren’t going to have the opportunity to do what I did,” he said. “I think it’s terrible.’’