Once again, the sport of college wrestling in Arizona has been taken to the mat and, for one school at least, may be down for the count.
It was just eight years ago that Arizona State University dropped its wrestling program, citing “economic realities” for the need to eliminate the sport. The school was facing major budget cuts, and the sports programs took a hit as part of the overall cost-cutting as three sports, including wrestling, were put on the chopping block.
The local community rallied to the cause with a commitment of financial support that enabled the school to reinstate the wrestling program within weeks.
But now a similar scenario is playing out at Grand Canyon University, where the west Phoenix Christian school announced this week that it will be discontinuing its wrestling program after the current academic year.
And that leaves the ASU wrestling program as the only game in town, so to speak. Neither University of Arizona in Tucson nor Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff offer the sport.
The notice posted Monday on the GCU website read in part: “After evaluating the program, it was determined a programmatic change was necessary to allow the institution to remain successful in a constantly changing collegiate athletics landscape.”
Since the school has not been responding publicly to inquiries, there hasn’t been any more detail than was included in the four-paragraph statement on the website. What we do know is that this came as a surprise to everyone. Head coach Jon Sioredas, who is in his second year directing the program, was reportedly informed of the unexpected move in a meeting with the school’s compliance department; the team was included in that meeting.
Sioredas, a former head assistant at Tennessee-Chattanooga, got the GCU job when R.C. LaHaye and his assistant, Larry Wilbanks, were dismissed from the program in July of 2014 “for violation of institutional policy.” Again, the announcement was posted on the school website and with no further explanation.
LaHaye started the GCU wrestling program in 2007 as a D-II participant and led it through the first year of its four-year transition to D-I, which will be complete after next season. Wilbanks put in five years with the program.
In recent years, LaHaye was building the program into a national contender. In the final four years as a D-II program, he posted a 62-23 overall record and his wrestlers collected four individual national titles. In his first year of the transition, the team reached a No. 1 ranking in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA) coaches poll and won the NCWA Collegiate Cup.
But Sioredas hasn’t enjoyed the same success. The Antelopes finished the 2015 season with a 5-19 record – and that was actually an improvement over his first season.
That kind of problem, of course, has a solution. ASU found the answer in Zeke Jones, a high-profile nationally-respected coach – a literal icon in the sport – that the Sun Devils hired two years to begin the process of returning the program to national prominence.
Of course, that was also an option for GCU. In fact, the school has done that more than once in the past, hiring fomer Major Leaguer Andy Stankiewicz five years ago to run its baseball program, and then bringing in NBA great Dan Majerle to lead the basketball program through its transition to D-I.
However, that takes both commitment to the sport and finances.
And since the school isn’t offering much detail, it’s impossible to tell whether either of those is a viable option this time. We’ll just have to wait and see whether this wrestling program is able to be resuscitated, as the Sun Devils did back in ’08.
That would continue to provide high school grads with more than one option to be able to continue their wrestling careers without having to leave the state.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)