What Was Good
Mourning the imminent loss of a storied wrestling program
ESSAY BY MICHAEL COPPERMAN
Oregon wrestling is nearing its last days, and as the clock runs down, the efforts to save the sport are desperate and valiant. Former Oregon Coach Ron Finley fundraises millions from a room in the Athletic Department while Athletic Director Patrick Kilkenny hovers outside, waiting to close the door quietly.
Oregon wrestlers, present and past, don tie-dye and their lettermen jackets and ride the Kesey Pranksters’ “Further” bus to the basketball game, wave their arms and whoop and whoop, imagining they might be heard. At the Civil War at Gill Coliseum, former UO and OSU wrestling greats stand to be recognized, all those broad-shouldered men there on the edge of the mats, ghosts of dual-meets past. Some are graying now at the temples and gone to fat while others still look fit enough to don a singlet, and all of them are there together to recall the rivalry that will be no more. Fans pack Mac Court for the Pac-10 Championship tournament and cheer Ryan Dunn’s effort to bring home one last title. Yet the clock may finally be out.
|UO wrestler Dan Chandler at the 1984 Olympics. coached by Ron Finley (standing) and Brad Rinaghaus
|Duck wrestler Ryan Dunn in control
Coach Kearney says that in the Oregon wrestling room, you fight a takedown until the down-man concedes, the implication being that until you cry “uncle,” there’s still a chance for reversal. Yet this battle isn’t being fought in an Oregon wrestling room. For years now, the team has had to practice wherever the mats can be put down, the warm, padded room in the Casanova Center inexplicably claimed for football. The values of the sport don’t apply when there’s no mat beneath you. Wrestlers don’t give up, but when the takedown’s to bare ground, the landing is unforgiving. Perhaps even final.
Former Oregon Coach Ron Finley, “Fin” to his friends, is the grand old man of Oregon wrestling. He long ago put on the padding that old wrestlers always do — goodbye scale, hello bacon — but he always wore it well, still had the squat, powerful frame of a Greco-Roman wrestler good enough for fourth at the Olympics. He’d done it all with the “Fin spin,” a move better known as a flying mare, which he taught me and a couple dozen other young wrestlers at a summer training camp my eighth grade year. Here was an older man with elven, cauliflowered ears and a rounded belly, legs protruding white and spindly beneath sagging sweat shorts — uncompelling compared to the lean, muscled counselors who’d been instructing us before. We were told he’d been the Greco-Roman Olympic coach, but that meant little to us in the presence of more youthful celebrity.
His voice was curiously high and gentle, and he was too kind, too enthusiastic. “You get your opponent moving, make him push just a little,” he said, demonstrating on his 184-pounder, who towered over him by half a head. “When he does — ” there was a pause, a push and pull, and Fin was gone, bending back toward the mat, and his partner following in a long, clean arc, heels over head, slamming to the mat before us.
In a moment, wrestling had me hooked: I wanted to throw like that, to be ordinary one moment and suddenly something more.
Fin’s Oregon program was like the man — hard-nosed but unassuming, free of the swagger and swank you might see on the football field or the basketball court or even at other Pac-10 wrestling programs like Arizona State or Cal State Bakersfield. He attracted the dedicated, scholarship athletes and walk-ons alike — the Kevin Roberts, Jeremy Ensruds and Chael Sonnens, but also the Ken Keseys and Kevin Lists, in it less for championships than for love of the sport. Oregon wrestling had its diehard fans, the familiar faces along the bleachers at Mac Court — often the same folks who ran the local prep tournaments and club practices. The sport never made much money (or cost much), and so three different times in Fin’s 28 years as head coach the program was threatened as being too “small-time.” Each time, Finley successfully rallied support.
This time Finely has come out of retirement for one last go, and he has already raised nearly half of the $6.5 million needed to permanently endow Oregon wrestling — enough to pay for a room to replace the one that was taken, and to ensure that the program costs the Athletic Department nothing in the future. His efforts meant little to Kilkenny, who expelled him from his office — he’d evidently been too successful in his work. When I asked Finley what the state of Oregon would lose, he choked up for a moment, then spoke quietly, firmly, in his soft voice: “We’d be losing tradition. All the guys who competed here. We’d be losing future teachers, coaches, doctors — wrestling is an individual sport that teaches discipline, teaches you to give something back … 33,000 young men and women wrestle in the Northwest. All those folks would have nothing to look to. It would damage the sport itself.”
Given the stakes he perceives, Finley’s efforts have been vigorous. In addition to his goal of making wrestling self-sustaining, he’s had lawyers look into the Title IX compliance issue, has rallied the local wrestling community to the protest bus and has former Olympians putting on benefit clinics. He’s even turned the competition up the road in Corvallis to the program’s support. This fight is familiar to him, and he’s won it before; yet this time his best hasn’t seemed enough, not even when the national media (including The New York Times) widely reported the Kesey bus rally. What Finley failed to anticipate is the nature of the new UO Athletic Department and, indeed, the values of today’s university.
Finley might have seen trouble coming: Here was a new AD who dropped out of college for the promise of the dollar, who was Oregon athletics’ second-biggest donor and bought his job for $2 million from his own pocket. Kilkenny was hired with an unspoken understanding that his first responsibility was to keep deep-pocketed donors (like himself) happy — especially ones named Knight. Swoosh-stamped dollars have bought tremendous influence at the UO, and in the fever for prominence, some degree of autonomy — one might also argue integrity — has inevitably been lost. When Knight said the UO couldn’t support an organization critical of Nike’s overseas labor practices, President Frohnmayer couldn’t move quickly enough to reverse the students’ decision to the join the Worker Rights Consortium.
When Knight decided the track coach didn’t focus enough on distance runners, a focus he needed to support Nike’s mythic Bowerman-Prefontaine roots, the track coach was shortly shown the door, followed by Bill Moos, who hadn’t jumped quickly enough to satisfy Knight. Kilkenny would have no such problems remembering what money could buy. In a highly publicized event in his first weeks, he met with Knight to show just how well he understood his role; days later, he announced that now, Knight had $100 million for the basketball arena.
It took Kilkenny only two weeks in his position to announce he was cutting wrestling in favor of baseball and cheerleading, and his justification was specious at best. Title IX compliance wasn’t an issue at the UO until Kilkenny reinstated baseball — in other words, the justification came from a situation he’d created. That there was no wrestling room is similarly circular — the beautiful, dedicated facility the wrestlers had in the Casanova Center had been claimed for football game day under an explicit promise from the AD that they’d soon get a nice, new place.
That baseball was going to be really, really “fun” — well, there’s the real argument, though baseball lust doesn’t explain why wrestling was the only sport considered for the axe. In fact, such an argument is a logical fallacy, setting up a false dilemma between baseball and wrestling when the either should be or, and then a list of a dozen other sports. Baseball and cheerleading actually balance each other, so that the situation with wrestling is equal to before. Regardless, there’s no immediate problem — Oregon must add another women’s sport in three to seven years with or without wrestling to demonstrate to the NCAA that they’re moving toward gender parity. That they cannot do so now is due the skew of an 85-scholarship football squad, not wrestling, with its eight scholarships.
Yet suppose we let go of the ethical argument for a moment, and consider the motivation behind the reinstatement of baseball. Recent national championships at OSU have boosters jealous, and in every interview since his hire Kilkenny has mentioned his deep affection for baseball. In other words, Eugene cannot let Corvallis have anything it doesn’t, not if it brings publicity. The men with the moola, Kilkenny most prominent among them, want their share of that attention. Today’s UO is about towering billboards in Times Square and Verizon-sponsored scoreboards, about an Autzen of metal arcs and back-lit O’s and a new basketball arena sent from the future, about cherry-wood lockers and spiral staircases and winning at all costs. It will soon enough be about a 5,000-seat baseball stadium, or if we heed lobbying from Oregon booster Steve Sylwester, a stadium twice again as large, luxurious enough to draw a triple-A team. Everything is about becoming bigger, better, and brighter. What they say about all that glitters has been ignored. If it shines like gold, form it into an O. Ask questions later.
In the state of Oregon, wrestling has always been popular at the prep level, and some 6,000 boys and girls participate in the sport each winter. The level of in-state competition is so high that the UO’s squad is some 70 percent Oregon-bred, in marked contrast to its other teams. Wrestling is not so much popular in the cities but in the backcountry, mountains and desert. It thrives in the Crook Counties and Newbergs, the blue-collar fishing towns of the Coast like North Bend and Marshfield, the snowy basin of Crater.
Wrestling is more Springfield than Eugene, more cowboy hats than rasta caps. It is weigh-ins in icy, echoic locker rooms, cold mats at morning meets in rural gyms with wooden bleachers. I remember well: I was a three-time state finalist, and with my coach, a blond bear of a man named John Scott, I sought out the competition where it was. We’d drive to Lowell to train with their team every afternoon in the off-season, Coach’s meathook hand draped over the wheel as we wound the sharp curves of Hwy. 58. If there was a tough tournament over the mountains, or clear to Reno, we’d be in a van at midnight en route, Coach philosophizing in the dim van. “You take the fight where you can find it,” he’d say, gesturing to the sliding dark, the tree-lined edge of road and sky. “To be the best, you challenge the best. You seek them out. That’s how the brotherhood of wrestling works.” Coach Scott knew: he was a former Oregon All-American, a Canadian Greco-Roman National Champion. I was a slim-shouldered, innocent 16 and believed whatever Coach Scott told me — you don’t question a grizzly, however good-natured it seems. I came to believe there was no greater glory than the good fight, that win or lose, all that mattered was walking from the mat knowing you’d left nothing behind.
Of course, life finally wasn’t a wrestling match. My college wrestling career at Stanford was marked by injury, and an ACL surgery and rotator-cuff injury later, I was done with formal competition. I was never the Olympian talent of Mr. Finley — too little latent ability. With words, on the other hand, I might do something, and so I took a degree in English, went to teach in the black public schools of the Mississippi Delta. I found there were greater causes than national championships, greater injustices and inequalities, greater need. I found I could battle for those children — and despite my best efforts, still watch the world take away a deserving kid’s last chance. When I returned to this community seven years after leaving it, I found it changed — or else I had changed. Perhaps both. Gone was the Autzen I’d known, replaced with a behemoth, and at the UO all anyone cared about was football and new facilities. My students text-messaged during class on $600 iPhones bought with their parents’ money and earnestly asserted that racism was gone from the world and the poor were poor because they were stupid and unwilling to work.
Three days a quarter I taught to an empty class, all my students in line for the football tickets the Athletic Department inexplicably released on weekday mornings. The classroom I taught in had broken moulding and flaking paint and was so small we couldn’t circle the desks, but Knight was giving $100 million for a new basketball arena. Football players I taught told me how their coaches had made them change their majors to communication — sociology and English were taking too much of their time and attention.
Guys I’d wrestled with in high school came back broken from the war, threw themselves to the ground at loud noises, wept for no visible reason and picked fights in bars. I took the 11-year-old boy I mentored to an Oregon football game, where the drunken tailgaters beneath us chugged beer from cans in their coats and bellowed “Fuck that nigger!” when Dennis Dixon threw an interception. I began to wonder what sort of students chose a university for its football program. I began to wonder what had happened to the ideal of sport, that unequivocal striving for excellence. I found no answers.
Little wonder wrestling is on the chopping block at the UO: It has become hard to reconcile the sport with the excesses of today’s Athletic Department. The slap in the face hurts — the addition of varsity women’s cheerleading (we already have a recent national champion squad; we’re only the second school in the nation to have varsity cheerleading; cheerleading isn’t even an NCAA sport) cheapens everyone associated with UO athletics, so thin is the pretense that the UO thinks women’s competition has importance.
What hurts more is knowing that future Oregon wrestlers won’t have heroes to look to like I did, men who stood with straight backs and gave their all in front of a few hundred fans, not for the flashbulbs and fame and product placement, but because that devotion was its own glory. I used to live by that gospel, was naïve enough to believe that dedication and heart were all you needed. Many days of my adult life, I’ve wanted to be 16 again, driving through the dark with Coach Scott at the wheel and nothing ahead but a wrestling match, that pure, uncompromised good.
Just as that past is out of reach, Oregon wrestling may not be resurrected. When Kilkenny was asked by Coach Kearney if he felt the Athletic Department had any responsibility to supporters of the sport, especially in rural areas of the state, Kilkenny grew red in the face, gestured with a pointed finger: “I can do what I want,” he said, and then, as if realizing the poor choice of pronoun, added, “We’re privately funded.”
Finally, the truth: Wrestling is stamped with no swooshes, offers few donors, and so is irrelevant to a university whose god is the dollar. The UO was never an unsullied ivory tower, free from the complications of the real world, but it has less integrity than ever before. It has become the Knight-Kilkenny nouveau-Vegas, a place of shiny surfaces and false heights, of short-skirted girls kicking bare legs high for the boys with the bucks.
Wrestling is too decent for today’s UO. We should mourn its loss.