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Georgia wrestlers unable to compete in home state at college level

It's tough for Rodney Potter to talk about the day he found out his wrestling career was over. Unfortunately for Potter it didn't end on the mat like it should have.

As a fifth-year senior, Potter was ready for his breakout year with the Georgia State wrestling program in the fall of 1998. Then the word came.

"The AD called us in one day and gave us the news," Potter said.

It was something no one on the team expected - the Georgia State wrestling team had just been dropped.

"When the program was dropped, we were doing so well," said Potter, now the wrestling coach at Gainesville High School. "We were the most successful program at the time. It was a shock when we were called in and found out."

Potter was a state champion at 125 pounds his junior year at North Gwinnett. His senior season, Potter went 47-0 before losing in the state finals by one point.

At Georgia State, Potter got matches on the varsity his first three years with the Panthers and was a part of the team's 1995 Eastern Regional championship team. Potter took a redshirt his fourth year at Georgia State due to competition at his weight class on his own team. His fifth year with the Panthers was supposed to be his breakout year, but that season never came.

What happened to Potter and the Georgia State wrestling team was a growing trend across the nation - colleges and universities were dropping their wrestling programs due to financial reasons and Title IX.

"There was difficulty in getting a schedule at D-I and there was a cost issue as wrestling was an expensive sport to sponsor. Travel, scholarships and operations were very costly - those were the primary reasons," said Rankin Cooter, former Director of the Graduate Program in Sports Administration at Georgia State. Cooter was also the athletic director from 1985 to 1990 before the wrestling program was removed.

"Title IX was a factor but primarily funding - wrestling is an expensive sport. Travel to out of state universities, scholarships, coaches' salaries, etc, but Title IX was a factor also."

Title IX was adopted in 1972 as an Act of Congress with its main focus to make sports equal for men and women. Which means a college or university has to have the same number of athletic scholarships for men and women.

"Title IX has been great for women's sports, but in the midst of it, sports like wrestling, men's volleyball and gymnastics have been hurt," Collins Hill wrestling coach Cliff Ramos said.

This new law put a strain on colleges and universities to find a way to abide by the law, which usually meant getting rid of a minor sport like wrestling. Since 1972, 441 wrestling programs have been discontinued and only nine have been reinstated.

"Title IX killed the program," said Meadowcreek graduate Mike Bowbliss, who was a state runner-up in 1993 and wrestled one year at Georgia State. "Women have to have the same number of sports and Georgia State didn't have it. Georgia State didn't have enough, so wrestling was the first to go."

Four wrestling programs have been discontinued in the state of Georgia. The University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Southern Tech and Georgia State have all lost wrestling programs.

Without a wrestling program in Georgia, each year it forces high school seniors who have devoted years on the mat to either give up the sport to attend a school in Georgia or to find a way to go out of state and wrestle.

Dustin Kawa was a three-time state champion at Shiloh and the state's first high school national champion in 1999. But despite all of his success, when it came time for Kawa to find a place to wrestle in college it was very difficult.

"Oh yeah, it was really tough," said Kawa, who wrestled at North Carolina State. "The Citadel and University of Tennessee-Chattanooga are the two closest programs. If you don't want to go to a military school then you really have only one choice. You're pretty much limited to where you can go."

There's now a group of parents, coaches and heads of organizations such as USA Wrestling that want to make it so a wrestler no longer has to go out of state to wrestle in

college.

The Georgia Intercollegiate Wrestling Coalition was formed in the fall of 2005 with its focus to begin a grassroots campaign to educate colleges and universities about the sport in an effort to get a school to bring wrestling back to the Peach State.

"We've talked about it for years and finally decided if we're not going to do something about it, who is?," said Alan Leet, a member of the coalition.

The group delivers brochures about their campaign at youth and high school wrestling tournaments to get more people informed about their effort. In addition, the coalition has talked to several colleges and universities in Georgia about the benefits of having a college wrestling

program.

There are 26 colleges and universities in Georgia and not a single one has a sanctioned NCAA or NAIA wrestling

program.

"I personally believe the quality of wrestling in Georgia has improved at the junior and senior level and I think it's unfair kids can't showcase themselves at the next level," Bowbliss said.

Georgia State was the last school in Georgia to have a wrestling team in Georgia, but since then wrestlers who went to a Georgia school and still wanted to wrestle have done so for the school's club team.

Club teams have become popular in Georgia and throughout the country at schools that do not have wrestling programs. There are 118 clubs teams in the country and Georgia is tied with Florida for the second most with 10. Club teams compete in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association.

Augusta State University, Darton College, East Georgia College, Georgia College and State University, Georgia Southern University, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, Gordon College, Mercer University and the University of Georgia all have club teams.

"It's good, but make no mistake it's a huge difference than wrestling for an NCAA or NAIA team," Ramos said. "But it's a way to stay with wrestling."

The problem with club teams is that they are often run by students on the team, leaving the team with a lack of leadership and more importantly a lack of financial means.

If a high school wrestler is able to compete at the college level on a scholarship, it's rare that he will be able to stay close to home. Of the more than 1,000 schools in the NCAA only 226 have wrestling programs. Of those 226 programs, only 16 are in neighboring states of Georgia with a majority of them in North Carolina.

"Georgia wrestlers have to hit the road if they want to wrestle in college," Leet said.

The Tar Heel state has 10 schools with wrestling programs, while South Carolina has four and Tennessee two.

"To get to any true competition, you have to go to North Carolina," Bowbliss said. "We'd go to school all day, make weight, then drive four hours to wrestle. Then drive back. It's very difficult."

Any college or university unsure about the popularity of wrestling in Georgia doesn't need to look any further than this year's state wrestling meet.

For the first time in the state's history, all five classifications wrestled for their state championships under one roof at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. This year's tournament had 1,456 wrestlers from 272 different high schools, making it the largest high school wrestling tournament in the Untied States. The three-day event drew more than 25,000 spectators, which is more than any championship crowd for any sport in Georgia.

"People want to have wrestling in Georgia and there should be, but it has to be figured out whether it's a D-I or D-II program," Bowbliss said.

Leet and the Georgia Intercollegiate Wrestling Coalition have talked to several schools about starting a wrestling

program.

"Schools like UGA would love to have wrestling, but don't know how to add wrestling and still stay proportional (with Title IX)," Leet said. "Tech doesn't have a Title IX issue, it's money. We hope we're able to convince them to add wrestling with a new AD."

Wrestling programs don't need a lot of money for equipment since all a wrestler needs are shoes, singlet and headgear.

"There's not a whole lot you need for wrestling other than space and a mat," Leet said.

The cost of travel also plays a major role. With no in-state teams to wrestle, a Georgia wrestling team would have to go out of state every time to wrestle and likewise a team from out of state would have to come to Georgia.

Despite all the obstacles still facing a college or university to bring wrestling to Georgia, Leet is still convinced the coalition's efforts will pay off in the near future.

"I feel pretty optimistic with what we are doing and some schools are seriously looking at adding wrestling," Leet said. "I think in the next year or two a program in Georgia will have wrestling."