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The Center Circle by John Fuller SIU Edwardsville Shouldn t Reward Benford s Work By Dropping His

By John Fuller | Dec. 13, 2002, 12 a.m. (ET)

On November 27, Southern Illinois Univ. at Edwardsville made the announcement that the school will drop their wrestling program at the end of this season. Citing budget problems, athletics director Brad Hewitt said that numerous options were considered, "including across-the-board cuts and the opportunity for additional revenue sources and decided that discontinuing the wrestling program was the most realistic option consistent with our guiding principles and strategic plan," he said. School officials have also stated that other factors played a role in the dropping of this program, including the number of teams in SIUE's conference that have wrestling, academic performance of athletes, media interest, community involvement, facility conditions and recent success. An $8 per student fee for athletics each year for the next four years is expected to garner over $100,000 each year. The wrestling program's budget was projected to be $108,000 this year year. That is way up from the actual expenditures over the past two years by the wrestling program, $69,000 in 2001 and $80,000 in 2002. In other words, the projection of $108,000 is more than coaches and boosters could have expected. If it comes down to dropping the program or working on $80,000 every year, rest assure this program would choose to work and succeed on the same budget every year. The budget deficit in the athletic department is projected to be about $110,000 this year. The problem is that most of this money is expected to be spent on the men's and women's basketball teams. Historically, the wrestling program is far more entrenched in NCAA Division II success than either basketball squad. The men's team has captured only one winning season in the last nine years. The team's record so far this season is 1-5. The program has not had a postseason win since 1989 and has never captured an NCAA Division II regional title. Are they competitive? Well, the program has recorded two wins ever over NCAA Division I opponents. Both of those came in the 1982-83 season and were against St. Louis and Hardin-Simmons. The women's team is a different story. The program was started in 1979. The program has been over .500 for the past 18 seasons after starting the program off with five losing seasons. 18 straight years with an even or winning record. The team posted 20 or more wins in four of those seasons. Since 1990, four women have earned NCAA Division II All-American honors. The wrestling team has existed since 1969. It took only a short period for this program to become a national powerhouse at the Division II level. In 1975, the squad earned team runner-up honors at the NCAA Division II Championships. From 1984-86, Edwardsville owned the NCAA Division II team title. Head coach Larry Kristoff had built a top-notch program in a very short time frame. Kristoff was used to being on top. He was a two-time NCAA Division II national champion at Southern Illinois Univ. at Carbondale. He was also an NCAA Division I national runner-up back when Division II and III wrestlers could compete at the Division I Championships. He was also a member of the 1964 and 1968 U.S. Freestyle Olympic Teams. But shortly after those championship years at Edwardsville, the program began to nod off. The school's last winning season was in 1987. 1999 was Larry Kristoff's last season as the head coach. The team went 1-10. In came Booker Benford as the head coach. Benford was a four-time Division II All-American (1982-85), two-time Division II national champion (1984-85) and a Division I All-American (1985) at Edwardsville. Benford was a member of those great Edwardsville teams that won three national team titles. In fact, he was the main catalyst in that winning streak. Benford struggled his first two seasons as he looked to clean up a seemingly diminished program. An 0-9-1 record was all to show after his first season, and his second season was worse after the team compiled an 0-16 mark. But last year, Benford found a way to float this sinking ship. The team posted a 4-9 dual record, and at the time of this article, the team was 2-0 to start this season. In 2000, Titus Taylor won the 165-pound national title and in 2001, the team placed 15th in the nation. Interest in the program is rising, both in the community and the media. Edwardsville is basically a suburb of St. Louis, Mo. The states of Illinois and Missouri are wrestling states. Some of the world's greatest wrestlers have come from these two states. But for the school to punish the team because of a lack of media interest, community involvement, facility conditions and recent success is ludicrous. The school is responsible for helping gain media interest (it's called Sports Information), community involvement (it's called Alumni Services) and facility conditions. How can these hard-working wrestlers and their hard-working coach be blamed for any of these? What about recent success you ask? I can't remember the recent success of the school's men's basketball team either, but I assure you the school has helped gain media interest, community involvement and has helped improve the facility conditions in recent years. Basically, the Edwardsville administration doesn't want to put hard work of their own into the wrestling program, which is improving at a steady rate. The school's regular athletic conference is the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Only two other schools in the 11-team conference carry wrestling: Indianapolis and Wisconsin-Parkside. But historically, no program at Edwardsville has been better. 19 Division II national champions, the last in 2000, 52 Division II All-Americans and three Division II team titles are what this program has accomplished. Throw in the team's Division II runner-up years in 1975 and 1987, and no other program is even close to the national recognition the wrestling program has given this school. But now the blame has all been placed on the shoulders of Benford. Now, if the school has its way, this program, the most historic at the school, will no longer exist. Since Benford's arrival, student academic marks are up. Two years ago, 19 wrestlers were on academic probation. This year, none of the top 15 wrestlers that were studied by Hewitt are in jeopardy of being placed on academic probation. Accurate statistics will not be available until the end of the semester, but this shows a heavy improvement in academics with this program. Next week, Edwardsville booster and supporter Mark Mestermarker plans to meet with Hewitt and the David Werner, the school's Chancellor, to convince them that keeping the wrestling program is the right thing to do. Mestermarker will propose using fundraisers to help fund this program, but he and Benford are in agreement that they do not feel it is fair for the university to ask them to self-fund the program. Supporters of the Edwardsville program have asked that people send letters to the athletics director in support of this historic program. Fans can go to to contact Brad Hewitt, the school's athletics director. If we have our way for once, this historic program will be allowed to rise to national prominence once again. Note: The Center Circle will appear on on Thursdays.