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Wrestling Goes Big Time

Back in January I wrote about how Cornell was quickly transforming itself into a big-time sports school, and the winter season has certainly lived up to its promise. Men's Basketball recaptured the Ivy Crown last weekend, while Men's Hockey continues to be competitive in its quest for another ECAC title and an NCAA bid, hosting RPI this weekend in the ECAC quarterfinals. Gymnastics recently secured its second straight Ivy title, and the men's and women's tracks teams won the indoor Heps thanks to the assistance of future Olympic gold medalist, Jeomi Maduka '09.

But perhaps the greatest excitement is for wrestling, where the team has a legitimate shot of winning a national championship this year. And while there is no intended disrespect to the nationally relevant Polo or the Crew teams, Cornell has not won a team championship in an NCAA sanctioned sport since the 1977 lacrosse team.

So that's why the Wall Street Journal, better known for its coverage of arcane financial and business matters than its sports beat, has picked up on Cornell's unlikely rise to become a national wrestling powerhouse:

Cornell's rise to the top wrestling ranks is part "Field of Dreams," part fund raising, and part the story of two unlikely champions. Head Coach Rob Koll, an NCAA champion and the son of a three-time NCAA champion, is wrestling royalty, but he has charted his own path.

Though his dad had been the coach at Penn State, Mr. Koll opted to attend the University of North Carolina, a school never known for wrestling. After a career capped by an undefeated season and a stint as a graduate assistant, he was hired by Cornell as an assistant coach. Four years later, in 1993, Mr. Koll, who looks and sounds much like Coach Taylor on NBC's "Friday Night Lights," gained the head job at age 28.

Soon after, wrestling alumni hatched plans for a new facility on campus. The idea of a building devoted to a single nonrevenue-generating sport -- even one fully funded by alums -- was "not a slam dunk," says Andy Noel, Cornell's athletic director and a former wrestling coach himself. But Cornell's president at the time was Hunter Rawlings, who had been president at Iowa. He backed the plan.

The $6 million Friedman Wrestling Center, named for Stephen Friedman, a former wrestler who went on to become chairman of Goldman Sachs, opened in 2002. The building -- the only stand-alone wrestling facility in the country -- was the biggest step in raising the program to national prominence. "If you build it, they will come," Mr. Koll says. That same year, Travis Lee won his first of four EIWA titles for the Big Red.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on March 12, 2009 (#)

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