Twelve months ago, many daunting obstacles stood in the way of the Yale club wrestling team’s struggles to regain the coveted varsity status it lost in 1991. One of these hurdles was the logistical difficulty of hosting a home meet.
A lot can change in a year.
Last Sunday, Eli wrestlers hosted Bergen Community College at the John J. Lee Amphitheater, the Bulldogs’ first home wrestling meet in over 10 years. Although the undermanned Yale squad of 10 wrestlers eventually lost to the fourth-ranked junior college team in the nation, the wrestlers and fans understood that the importance of the meet far surpassed its result.
“The [wrestling] team has a long-term vision on how Yale wrestling should be, this is the vital first step,” team president Vince Panzano ’04 said. “There was definitely a huge global understanding of the importance of this meet. This really energized the whole team, especially the younger guys. The fact that our team, the fans and Bergen [Community College] all knew the gravity of this meet really made the event special.”
In 1991, the Yale varsity wrestling team lost its charter due, among other concerns, to budget constraints and the Yale Athletic Department’s need to comply with Title IX of the Educational Amendment of 1972. The amendment — which prohibits private and public schools who receive federal funding from discriminating in the forms of education, financial aid and athletics on the basis of gender — has been controversial since its institution. This controversy stems largely from the trend among schools to eliminate existing male varsity programs, rather than add more female athletes, in order to comply with the proportionality rule. Wrestling has become a popular target for athletic departments across the nation. Twelve years ago, Yale’s team went on the chopping block.
Since then, a once-storied program has begun to fade from the campus spotlight. Although the club team experienced success — highlighted by its 1998 first place finish at the National Collegiate Wrestling Association Championship (a club tournament) — it became clear that without varsity status it would be difficult for the wrestling team to retain its past luster.
Fast forward to last year, when Title IX once again made national headlines as the Federal Commission on Opportunity in Athletics recommended loosening the amendment’s requirements. Yale’s squad saw this as a possible opportunity to achieve its goals, but the reality was that the team’s lack of a consistent coach and a strong campus presence made it virtually impossible to do so.
Since last year, however, the team has taken giant steps forward. The Elis found a man with an impressive resume to be the new head coach. Brian Reardon has previously coached at Trinity and Sacred Heart universities, as well as internationally.
“[Reardon] has really good connections in the wrestling world, which I think is so important for our growth,” said captain Chris Connelly ’06. “He has a greater long-term focus than our past coaches. If the long-run goal is to try to get reinstated, I think he could be the guy to help us do that.”
Accompanying a new coach is a new group of wrestlers energetic about recruiting. The team has made it a point to be more aggressive in the on-campus recruiting process, and so far it is working.
“I already felt I wanted to continue wrestling in college, and after meeting Vince and the rest of the guys I was sure this is what I wanted to do,” Scott Klebanoff ’07 said. “They just seemed like a close-knit group of good guys, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
Due to an increase in participation, the Bulldogs have outgrown the practice room they use on the fifth floor of Payne Whitney Gymnasium. The Elis hopes to secure their own permanent practice room next year.
Space issues have been part of the reason why Yale has not been able to host any wrestling meets in the recent past. The club’s regular quarters were too small for practice, let alone a meet. And the Bulldogs’ club status made it extremely difficult for them to compete with varsity teams for use of the necessary facilities.
But all of this changed with last weekend’s event. The diverse team comprised of both undergraduates and graduate students — an indication of the increasing success of the team’s on-campus recruiting — had reasons to be proud of its on-the-mat grit and off-the-mat perseverance.
“Since my first year on the team, it had always lingered in the back of me, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’,” Panzano said. “I made it a goal this year to get it done. The rest of the team really jumped on board, and we just really wanted to get it done. “
Last Sunday’s meet was major step forward for the Yale wrestling program and despite the possibility that wrestling may never become a varsity sport again, Panzano and company insist that this is not necessarily the central issue of concern at the moment.
“The main goal is not necessarily to get reinstated, but to increase our presence to the point where it basically is a ‘varsity’ sport,” Panzano said. “We want to take it to its fullest capacity.”