ABBOTT COLUMN: It’s been a painful NCAAs watching the final days of Boston Univ. wrestling

By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling | March 22, 2014, 5:58 p.m. (ET)
Action photos of Nestor Taffur of Boston University competing at the 2014 NCAA Wrestling Championships by Tony Rotundo, Wrestlers Are Warriors. Celebration photo of Nestor Taffur by Larry Slater.

My first NCAA Wrestling Championships was 1983 in Oklahoma City, Okla. It was the season after I graduated from Boston University with a journalism degree. My college wrestling coach Carl Adams had this crazy idea to create a new wrestling magazine, and he brought me in to handle the project. I was there to cover the event for Wrestling Masters, and sell magazine subscriptions.

I was a walk-on at BU, choosing the school for its journalism school, not its wrestling. My coach the first three years at BU was Freddy Lett, who is an interesting story all by himself and still brings a smile to my face when I see him. My senior year, we had two-time NCAA champion Carl Adams come in as coach, hired after his program had been dropped at Rhode Island. I never qualified for the NCAA Div. I Championships, placing second, third and fourth in the New England Conference, which only brought its champions to the big dance. I was a four-year starter with a winning record, basically an average Div. I wrestler with a love and passion for the sport.

I find it amazingly ironic that I have been sitting here, my 32nd straight NCAAs, once again in Oklahoma City, watching the last days of Boston University wrestling. It has been both painful and sad, and has truly affected me all weekend.

The BU administration made a bad decision last April to drop wrestling after this season, and the team has gone through a full season with lame duck status. Our alumni, which honestly had not been as active as we should have been over the years, made a hard push to come up with a plan to retain the program, including a strong fundraising element. BU, in its typical style in all matters, strung us along, rejected the proposal, and then shut it all down. They allowed no more contact with the wrestling alumni. They would not even respond to media requests about it. Case closed. Done.

Instead of splitting apart, the young men in the BU program all stuck together, and put together an admirable season. The team acted with class and integrity, in spite of the adversity it faced. In its first year in the EIWA, BU had its first EIWA champion, the talented and impressive Nestor Taffur at 157, and qualified three guys for the NCAAs. Joining Taffur in Oklahoma City were teammates Tyler Scotton at 141 and Mitchell Wightman at 165.

Sitting on press row, which is where I’ve seen all of my NCAA events, I could not help but think about Boston University and the cold fact that our program was shutting down. I have gotten used to seeing the guys in the red singlet at nationals. Dropped wrestling programs have affected my family directly. My older brother Jim was fourth in the EIWA for Colgate, which dropped its team a year after his career ended. My nephew Nick considered wrestling for Coach Adams at BU as a high school senior last year, but made a different choice after BU announced it was cutting the sport.

I have watched literally hundreds of colleges drop wrestling over the last 35 years, but this time it was happening to me. My college. My wrestling history. My legacy. As a BU alum, I have gone through the full range of emotions, from anger to frustration to determination to disgust. Now, all I can come up with is painful sadness.

As a journalist, I asked myself this weekend what had been the legacy of BU wrestling on the national level. I was on our first conference championship team, which won the New Englands in 1982 during my senior year. Since that first NCAAs I attended in 1983, I have watched the BU wrestlers closely every year at nationals. I am not allowed to root as a journalist, but I have been a supportive observer, and of course, kept up with the team through my friendship with Coach Adams.

If I were to characterize BU’s impact on college wrestling, it would have to be its ability to occasionally pull off some amazing upset every few years. The first one came in 1984, when my college teammate Tod Giles was a senior competing at 190 pounds. In the second round, Giles knocked off returning NCAA champion Pete Bush of Iowa, the No. 4 seed, in the second round 7-4. Giles lost his next match, which put Bush out of the tournament, and ultimately finished eighth, our first All-American. Adding to the sadness is that Tod Giles is now deceased. He stayed in wrestling as a top Greco-Roman athlete and a coach, spending a few years as head coach for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I was in Beijing, China at the 2007 Junior World Championships when I heard of Tod’s untimely passing, and was unable to get back in time for the funeral.

The biggest upset by a BU guy came in 1993, when Earl Walker, a transfer from Brown who hails from Delaware, knocked off No. 1 seed Matt Lindland of Nebraska in the first round. Alas, Walker lost his next match to Doug Taylor of West Virginia, and did not become an All-American. We all know about Lindland’s amazing career since then, winning Olympic and World silver medals in Greco, and then on to an impressive career in Mixed Martial Arts.

Walker also gave BU its best individual performance. Walker went on a run the next year in 1994, getting all the way to the NCAA semifinals, where he lost a competitive 6-2 match to Pat Smith of Oklahoma State. Walker wrestled back and took third, the highest placement ever for a Terrier wrestler. We all know about Pat Smith, the first four-time NCAA champion in Div. I wrestling history, and an Olympic Trials runner-up in freestyle. Earl Walker remains active in wrestling, and was among the leaders of our alumni fight to save the BU team.

One other upset comes to mind. Cornell’s past NCAA champion Troy Nickerson came into the 2010 NCAAs as a senior, hoping to go out of college wrestling with another title. Honestly, Nickerson was banged up physically that year, but believed in his ability to win it all again. In the second round, a BU kid from New Jersey, Freddy Santaite, kept his match close with Nickerson and pulled off a 2-1 upset. Santaite could not make it through the brackets after that big win and did not place. Nickerson rallied in the wrestlebacks and finished fourth.

BU had high hopes for senior Nestor Taffur at this year’s NCAAs. He was No. 6 seed, and on a roll after his EIWA title. The kid is talented, focused and mentally strong, and was the clear leader of the Terrier team which had its farewell tour all season long.

Thursday is the most hectic day at the NCAAs, and I am busy chasing down athletes for video interviews, spending much of my time in the tunnel and back hallways. People like interview videos, and does what it can to provide them all tournament long. Of course, I kept a special eye out for the BU kids, and spent some time with the athletes and coaches during the day.

Nestor Taffur had an exciting day. He opened with a pin in 1:11 over Austin Matthews of Clarion. The second round was a crazy match against No. 11 Taylor Walsh of Indiana. Taffur looked good early, but Walsh jumped to a big lead in the second period. It looked like Nestor’s run was in peril. I had to run off and do another interview and missed the amazing finish of that match, where Taffur came back to get the lead and pin Walsh at 6:58. All season long, Walsh was the top pinner in NCAA wrestling. Yet it was Taffur who had two falls on day one of the NCAAs.

The other two BU guys were unable to advance, and I saw portions of their matches. Scotton fell to No. 14 seed Edgar Bright, 3-1 and then was eliminated in the consolations by Nick Lester of Oklahoma, 7-0. Wightman opened with a 7-0 loss to Ramon Santiago of Rider in the pigtails, and was knocked out in his next bout by Peyton Walsh of Navy, 3-1.

Friday is the big day of the NCAAs. At the end of the day, we not only have our finalists, but the field is whittled down to the All-Americans. If you survive Friday, you get to wrestle Saturday as an All-American. Taffur entered the day with his goal of being a national champion still alive, but he had a tremendous quarterfinal challenger in No. 3 seed and Junior World silver medalist Alex Dieringer of Oklahoma State.

Taffur fell behind Dieringer early, but in his fearless style, he came storming back, throwing Dieringer to his back and closing the lead. The talented Dieringer was able to answer Taffur’s comeback charge, and the match finished 18-11, a true crowd pleaser. After the match, when I was shooting my video interview with Dieringer, I could see a disappointed Nestor in the background with his coaches.

Prior to the Friday night session, I had an opportunity to visit with Coach Adams and talk about the situation at BU and about his 30-plus years in Boston. The program had over 50 years of existence, and was a leader within the wrestling community in New England. Thousands of young men had gone through Carl’s summer camps at BU over the decades, and hundreds of his student-athletes had graduated from college and gone on to tremendous careers in other walks of life. We talked about the impact of the program at BU, on the mats, in the classroom and in society.

I also told Coach Adams know that I would probably not get to see Taffur’s match in the round of 12 against Rider’s Anthony Perrotti of Rutgers, an opponent that he had beaten twice during the regular season. Every year during the NCAA semifinals, I am in the interview room talking to all of the 20 semifinals winners. The NCAA brings every winner in for interviews after their matches, and we interview every one of them. Since video has become popular, I film every press conference, which we post to YouTube. I end up watching the semis on ESPN on a TV in the interview room, so I would not miss a single interview. Unfortunately, I am not able to watch those amazing All-American round matches in the consolations, which are not on the ESPN telecast.

After a number of weights ended and interviews conducted, I noticed on the results ticker on the ESPN show that showed results from 165 and 174 consolation matches. Taffur’s 157-pound match had already ended. I called up the brackets on TrackWrestling on my I-phone, and that is when I found out that Taffur lost to Perrotti, 10-2. The last Terrier standing had fallen just short of All-American status. I felt for Taffur, a great kid with a positive attitude and some special wrestling skills, who did not get the chance to show his stuff as an All-American on Saturday. I also have to admit that, over 30 years watching the BU wrestlers out of the corner of my eye at nationals, I was very disappointed that I did not see the final BU wrestling match.

And now it is over. I sit in the arena on Saturday, All-American day, and there are no more BU Terriers on the mat. And may never be there again.

A big chapter in my life, which began as a high school senior in 1978 looking for a college, had ended. Going into this year, only two colleges which competed in the old New England Wrestling Conference remained in college wrestling, BU and Brown. Since my time, Brown joined the EIWA. I thought about the old days, when Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Boston College and Maine all had Div. I varsity teams and were in our conference. Now only Brown remains from that New England Conference tournament. (Congrats go to Brown’s Ophir Bernstein for reaching All-American status this year for first year coach Todd Beckerman!!). I think of my teammates and coaches, and the wrestlers who came after me. It was so long ago, but it seems like just yesterday.

My question now is simple. What’s next? The seniors on the BU team will graduate and go on with their lives. The younger guys will have to choose whether to transfer to compete somewhere else or just finish their studies at BU without wrestling. Coach Adams is undecided about what is next in his career. He tells me our little wrestling room, perhaps the smallest in Div. I wrestling, may be slated to become a lacrosse team locker room. I hope that the group of alumni that worked so hard this year will stay in touch in the future, and continue to let BU know that they should reinstate wrestling.

For me, I have joined the thousands of wrestling alumni who no longer can see their college team on the mats. I finally understand the pain felt by those former wrestlers who watched their own program eliminated for whatever reason. It is not a group that I enjoy being part of. However, it strengthens my commitment to promote and support those colleges which do sponsor varsity wrestling, and to work hard to find creative ways to encourage other colleges to add our sport.

When I wrestled, there were over 150 Div. I college wrestling teams. Our number is now down in the 70s. Every one of these varsity Div. I teams that remain are precious to our sport and deserve our support. Every wrestling team is worth fighting for. The Save BU Wrestling effort did not succeed. But we need to continue to stand up for college wrestling programs, even if they are in colleges that we did not attend. Will there be a place for the future Gary Abbotts, Tod Gileses, Earl Walkers and Nestor Taffurs of the wrestling world to go?