Third in an occasional series
ITHACA, N.Y. - The likelihood that Cornell would ever be home to the nation's best wrestling team once seemed as remote as the Ivy League school's Central New York campus, perched like a Brigadoon above Lake Cayuga's sparsely populated and piney shores.
Not so many years ago, Cornell's program, like so many others in a challenging post-Title IX landscape, was battling for its life. It had one tattered mat, few supporters, and no dedicated gym. On road trips, its athletes frequently slept on cots in the homes of parents and alumni. And far from competing with the Iowas and Oklahoma/ States, the Big Red often got whipped by Division III opponents.
"It was like a mid-level high school," said Cornell coach Rob Koll.
But next month, when its wrestlers arrive in Philadelphia for the 2011 NCAA Wrestling Championships, Cornell almost certainly will be the favorite. The NCAA runners-up in 2010, the nation's No. 1 team this season, the Big Red currently have eight wrestlers among the top 15 in their weight classifications. A year ago, Cornell finished second to Iowa, the best finish by an Eastern school since 1953.
This transformation from mat doormat to heavyweight has been as dramatic as a last-second wrestling reversal. The reasons are complex and numerous, ranging from a zealous coach to some admission quirks that help soften the school's otherwise rigid standards.
Simply put, though, Cornell became a wrestling power because its coach and administrators realized quicker than most that 21st-century success required more than the traditional tools of teaching and recruiting.
The Big Red and Koll, their 43-year-old coach, are exemplars of the sport's new paradigm. If the rule for college professors is publish or perish, for wrestling coaches, their teams constantly endangered by federal gender mandates and ongoing budget concerns, it's plead for donations or perish.
"At the end of the day, that [fund-raising] is the most important job for a coach these days," Koll said last week. "Because if you don't have a program, it doesn't matter how good a coach you are."
In the decades since Title IX required colleges to provide equal opportunities for male and female athletes, nearly 450 wrestling programs have vanished, as have countless men's track, golf, swimming, baseball and gymnastics teams.
Those wrestling programs that survived and prospered often did so because they had big-time football to pay the bills (Penn State, Iowa, Oklahoma State) or, like Cornell, they learned to build both an endowment and alumni support.
Under Koll, a State College, Pa., native who took over in 1994 after several years as an assistant to Jack Spates, Cornell wrestling has raised a $5 million endowment, constructed a stand-alone arena/training center and developed a deep pool of supporters and donors, their passion and numbers as important as their dollars.
"Our goal each year isn't to raise more money, it's to attract more donors," Koll said. "You might raise $50,000 a year, but if you have 500 people making gifts, there's a pyramid of connections. Those 500 people might not have millions of dollars but I guarantee you they know thousands and thousands of people and some of those people are going to come to your matches."
It was a lesson the competitively successful wrestling program at nearby Syracuse University failed to learn. That team, which had produced seven national champions and five Olympians but virtually no fan base, was eliminated for budgetary reasons in 2001.
"I guarantee you if Syracuse had 500 people making gifts that would have been the last program they dropped," Koll said. "Instead they probably had 10. [Athletic directors] aren't stupid. They see the support. If they're thinking about cutting a program, they're going to ask themselves, 'Do I want to deal with not just 500 alumni but the 10,000 people they're going to contact?' "
Koll, whose father, Bill, once held the same position at Penn State, admitted that the job's demands have increased. Whereas he spent 80 percent of his time working with wrestlers on the mats in the 1990s, marketing and fund-raising demands have cut that to 20 percent.
"I'm not going to lie to you, it's a pain in the butt," he said. "But you have to do it. Some of these programs, you ask them, 'What's your biggest gift?' They don't even know. These coaches are so out of it. Wrestling is different now. Fund-raising has become a much bigger component of their jobs."
A combination of an evangelist, a motivational speaker and a financial analyst, the fast-talking Koll seemed to have been born for this role.
"Some people are bred to be astronauts, doctors, lawyers. I was brought up to be a wrestling coach," he said. "My day-care center was the Penn State wrestling room."
His father, who also had to teach at Penn State, once visited him here and, noting that his son had no additional duties, asked him what he did all day.
"He didn't do fund-raising and he didn't do much recruiting," Koll said
Koll does plenty of both. His skills at schmoozing and motivating have created a deep reservoir of alumni support. As he spoke last week in his office, he fingered a thick file of 800 blue pledge cards. On each was the name of a potential donor. Either he or an assistant will telephone them all.
He has sent at least one wrestler to the NCAA championships in each of his 17 seasons, including a record nine - a total the Big Red could match this year – in 2005 and 2009.
That success has created a devoted and surprisingly loyal fan base, one comprised of alumni and Central New Yorkers seeking an outlet for their wrestling fervor.
"We look at every one of our donors as owners," he said. "What happens when you become an owner? You care more about what you own. When a person gives a gift, whether it's $5 million or $5, they're more likely to come to our matches, more likely to come for golf outings. They've bought into the program. The actual act of writing that check is so fundamentally important to our program. It's one of the big reasons we increased our attendance."
It was a $3.5 million gift from Cornell wrestling alum Stephen Friedman, who later became Goldman Sachs' chairman, that allowed the school to build the sparkling facility bearing his name.
One of the few wrestling-only arena/training centers in the country, the 15,000 square-foot Friedman Center is equipped with offices, an 1,100-seat arena, a weight room, study and training areas, even a makeshift hall of fame. Opened in 2002, it has helped Cornell become one of the few schools beyond Iowa and Oklahoma State where wrestling is a popular spectator sport.
The donor said it was a desire to let wrestlers know they were as respected as football or basketball players that led to his gift. "They look for those kinds of signals and that's where this building comes in," Friedman said.
With its elaborate sound system and intimate seating, the arena is regularly filled for dual meets and there's a long waiting list for season tickets. Demand for a Jan. 30 match with traditional power Iowa State was so great the event was moved to larger Newman Arena. There, a crowd of 4,419 saw the Big Red win easily, 30-16.
"There are a lot of measuring sticks for our success, Koll said. "But one of the biggest for me was when I looked up at nationals a few years ago and saw a sea of giant white C's in the stands. There were people - lawyers, doctors, engineers - you never thought would be wearing this silly white 'C'. And they're so proud. This year, for Philadelphia, we've sold 1,100 to 1,200 tickets. Not too long ago we sold two or three."
The wrestlers on Koll's 2010-11 team come from across the country - New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Tennessee, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, and California.
With three very winnable dual meets remaining this season, the Big Red were 19-1 through last weekend. On Saturday, they shut out Princeton, 44-0, as Koll became the winningest coach (204 wins) in the program's long history. Cornell has beaten Iowa State and Ohio State, its only defeat a 17-15 squeaker at Lehigh last month. They also won all three tournaments they entered.
Sophomore Kyle Dake, the defending NCAA champ and an Ithaca native, is No. 2-ranked at 149 pounds. Junior Cam Simaz from Allegan, Mich., is No. 2 at 197 and senior Mark Lewnes, from Annapolis, Md., No. 3 at 174.
"We definitely have a shot at winning the team title," said Lewnes. "We just have to keep it all in perspective. It doesn't matter if you go undefeated during the regular season or not. What matters is what happens at nationals. We obviously want to be at our peak for nationals."
Because the Ivy League doesn't permit athletic scholarships, Koll has had to narrow his searches by demographics. The ideal recruit, he said, would come from a family that earns less than $60,000. The child of any family making less than that qualifies for full financial aid. "The problem," he said, "is how many kids from families making less than $60,000 have the grades?"
The children of those who can easily afford the $55,000 annual cost are also easy sells. It's the middle-class wrestler, whose family might see a good state school as a viable and much cheaper alternative to Cornell, where the difficulties arise.
Aside from its academic reputation, Cornell has another advantage. While most Ivy League schools are private institutions, three of its colleges - Agriculture and Life Science, Human Ecology, and Industrial and Labor Relations - are affiliated with the State University of New York system and, as such, have slightly easier admission requirements.
It's a distinction that, given Cornell's success, other coaches haven't missed.
"Robbie Koll is a great motivator," said Drexel coach Jack Childs. "He's done a tremendous job there and built a great program. But people don't realize that the kids who get into the agricultural program don't need 1,300 on their boards. We were recruiting one boy and he had about 950 on his boards. He said he was going to Cornell. I told him he wouldn't get in there but he called back and said, 'Coach, I got accepted. I'm going to Cornell.' "
Koll said the very factors cited as disadvantages when Cornell was losing, now are mentioned as unfair advantages.
"When I first started coaching here people would tell us, 'You can't do it because the academics are so hard. You can't do it because it's so expensive. You can't do it because the schedule is too easy," he said.
"Now these same people are saying, 'Oh well, you've got a great school and everyone wants to go there. You have great financial aid. You don't have to wrestle Big Ten schools so our schedule is easier.' It's amazing how those glass-half-empty people don't want to give you credit for working hard and learning how to do it. It's because you have all these advantages."
He insisted he wasn't getting around the system, but rather merely being diligent enough to learn and take advantage of its soft spots.
"We've become very efficient at screening the applicants early and then, admissions-wise, I've learned the colleges and what each one is looking for. So we're getting kids in that never would have gotten in before."
Koll knows the college course manual as well as he knows the NCAA's wrestling handbook. If a recruit was interested in, say, biology, the coach might suggest that instead of majoring in it in the College of Arts and Sciences, where two years of a foreign language would be required, he do so elsewhere.
"You can study biology in Agriculture and Life Science and get right into it without that requirement. Or you can take it in Human Ecology, where you'll get more human-service and social-work courses. It's all so stinking complicated."
Whatever his advantages or disadvantages, at 43, Koll has a long career ahead of him. And with each passing year, it looks increasingly as if he'll spend it all on the banks of the Cayuga.
"I never thought I'd be here this long," he said. "I thought this would be a stepping-stone to a bigger and better place. . . . Once you know you're going to be here at least 20 years, you make different type decisions. My focus became much more effective. The next thing you know these alumni aren't just people you get money from, but they become friends, good friends."