"We had to raise money just to get the kids shoes here," Walton says. "I hadn't bought a pair of [wrestling] shoes for myself since I was in the seventh grade. Those types of things were just taken care of. Coming here from those big programs was like coming to a Third World country."
The payoff came in 1994-95, the Panthers' fourth season, when the team won the NCAA East Regional and sent four wrestlers to the national championships. Kurdelmeier retired following that season and was succeeded as head coach by Walton.
With limited scholarships (the NCAA maximum for wrestling is 9.9) and a modest operating budget of about $100,000, Walton needs all the help he can get. "I love working out with the team," he says, "but at the same time I have to figure out how to put people in the stands and new uniforms on the kids' backs. I used to just worry about singles, doubles and high-crotches [takedowns]. When I came here I was just a wrestler. Now I'm a student of the sport from the marketing end. I want to raise an interest in my sport."
If collegiate wrestling has attracted much interest lately, it is primarily because the sport is foundering. The latest Division I school to eliminate wrestling is Syracuse, which announced in January that it would drop its 75-year-old program at the end of this season.
Georgia State, on the other hand, says that it is committed to the sport. This was a rebuilding year for the Panthers, who struggled to a 3-9 record in dual meets. (The team's overall record in duals since its inception is a respectable 52-49.) Georgia State did shore up its future by signing blue-chip recruits Ben Iker and Nathan James, both of El Reno ( Okla.) High, and Rufus Baldwin of Lowndes High in Valdosta, Ga. All three wrestlers are high school state champions.
But the Panthers have few wrestlers who might qualify for this year's nationals, which take place March 20-22 at Northern Iowa University in Cedar Falls. Jared Ezzell, who transferred to Georgia State from North Carolina, is the only remaining NCAA qualifier from the '94-95 team. Ezzell won the 134-pound East Regional title" that year and was named the tournament's most outstanding wrestler. But he ran into academic trouble and was ineligible for the '95-96 season. Now a business management major, he has made the dean's list with a 4.0 GPA in each of the past two quarters. He rejoined the wrestling team in December, has had a 10-1 record and is ranked fifth in the country in his weight class.
Jackson also figures to go far in the East Regional and, perhaps, move on to the nationals. His 4-2 sudden-death overtime win against Pete Herold of Tennessee- Chattanooga was one of the Panthers' few highlights in their 26-13 loss the night of the candlelight dinner theater. It was also Jackson's 16th win of the season, a team high.
After joining his fellow Panthers to help remove the dishes, glasses and silverware from the tables, Jackson gave in to a pressing thought. "Everybody here wants to eat," he said, surveying the gymnasium as if looking for a lost piece of lasagna. "Cutting weight is just a minor part of wrestling. We lost, and I'm disappointed, but I'm going to get something to eat."