Fresno State president Joseph Castro says he'll consider reinstating wrestling

The Fresno BeeNovember 8, 2013 

Fresno State's defunct wrestling program may be reborn after a six-year hiatus, university President Joseph Castro announced Friday morning.

Castro said he plans to assemble a team early next year to review all of Fresno State's athletics programs -- including men's soccer and wrestling, two programs that got the ax following tough budget years and a string of gender equity issues in the early 2000s.

"I think there is a compelling case that's being made for wrestling," he said, "and I want to make sure that information is all part of the review and the discussions."

Castro revealed his plans at a news conference where he also announced plans to launch a tablet program and seek $2.5 million from California State University trustees to help expand student enrollment next year by 800. The news conference marked his first 100 days in office.

To date, Castro has said he hopes to increase graduation rates and boost the school's academic profile but has otherwise been silent about his vision for the university.

Friday was the first time he outlined major proposals, many of which could come into place over the next year. For example, he said he's planning to invest in deferred maintenance projects like fixing antiquated electrical systems and filling two open administrative slots -- including the provost position -- by early 2014.

But wrestling was the attention-grabber. Castro said it could cost up to $500,000 annually to keep a new wrestling program afloat, which is why he's looking to the community and donors to raise cash.

He said he'd need campus dollars but noted a big push from community leaders -- and cash flow along with it -- is the only way to make the wrestling program possible.

Clovis High wrestling coach Steve Tirapelle said Castro would be considered a hero among the wrestling community if the sport comes back. "There's no doubt in my mind" the community will back the plan, Tirapelle said.

"The financial support will come if he's serious about supporting the program," he said. "I think there would have to be a commitment on the part of the administration that, 'We're in, we're in the game, we're bringing this back and we know it could be a successful program.' "

Castro offered few details about the plan but said bringing back wrestling wouldn't necessarily require making cuts in other areas. Even so, he didn't reject the possibility of scaling back.

"I think the emphasis will be more on growth but I don't want to close any (doors)," he said.

Dennis DeLiddo, who ran Fresno State's wrestling program from 1981 to his retirement in 2005, was ecstatic to hear the news. Since retiring, he's spent his time traveling to wrestling tournaments around the country and actively campaigning for reviving Fresno State's program.

"The rest of the community and throughout the country will go crazy, it's a big, big deal if we get Fresno State wrestling back," he said.

He said a new program could help keep talented local high school wrestlers -- some who've been wooed out of state by promises of scholarships at other big wrestling schools -- closer to home. For example, two-time state champion Nick Nevills, a senior at Clovis High, is headed to Penn State.

"These are the kind of kids we might be able to keep here," DeLiddo said. "We've got a pretty big brand here in California, why are we letting them go?"

Fresno State's decision to drop wrestling in 2006 blindsided both fans and athletes who'd watched the school trim its sports program since the early 1990s. At the time, university officials said the cuts kept costs in check and helped the school get in line with federal Title IX regulations requiring schools to balance men's and women's athletics.

Fresno State had wrestled with several gender equality issues since 1992, when the federal government launched an investigation after finding the school was out of Title IX compliance in several areas.

In response, Fresno State added women's equestrian, soccer and golf but cut men's programs like water polo and soccer.

The decision to cut wrestling, which produced 33 All-Americans and 2004 Olympic silver medalist Stephen Abas, angered even one of the most outspoken Title IX advocates.

"I don't think wrestling should ever have been dropped," said Diane Milutinovich, a former Fresno State associate athletic director who won a sex discrimination lawsuit against the university in 2007. "My major concern is men and women are treated equally and we're providing sports that are used in the San Joaquin Valley that there's support for."

Milutinovich, who got a $3.5 million settlement from the university after being fired twice, said there's community support for starting other programs, too. Women's water polo and bowling, which are now Fresno State club sports, are two options Milutinovich suggested.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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