When Landon Jackson arrived at the Georgia State University Sports Arena in Atlanta for his team's wrestling match against visiting Tennessee- Chattanooga on Feb. 1, he was exhausted and hungry. The day before, Jackson had lost nine pounds to make weight at 190.
What he found upon entering the arena did nothing to quell the rumbling in his stomach. The aroma of lasagna was overwhelming. A piano player in a corner of the gym set the mood for an elegant dinner. Tables with floral centerpieces had been positioned alongside the mat. Lights had been dimmed. Candles flickered.
This was Georgia State's version of Wrestling Dinner Theater, at which Panthers fans pay $15 apiece to sit matside and watch a meet while enjoying a full meal, including cheesecake for dessert—not exactly make-weight dining for calorie-conscious wrestlers. "I was trying not to think about all that stuff," Jackson said later. "I just wanted to get out there and wrestle."
"You've got people here all dressed up, eating, and just a few feet away guys are rolling around, sweating, bleeding and beating the hell out of each other," said Todd Lambert, who redshirted for the Panthers this year and is also sports editor of the Georgia State newspaper, the Signal. "This is great."
Such quirky moneymakers are not unusual for the Georgia State wrestling program. "The big schools fund-raise for fun money," says second-year Panthers coach Keith Walton, 33. "We do it to ensure that we're going to stick around."
It's the only way that the lone NCAA Division I wrestling team in the Deep South can survive. Georgia State's program bucks a depressing trend in the sport. The team was started in 1991-92, and according to the NCAA, it was one of perhaps only two new Division I wrestling programs begun in the past five years. That would be impressive enough in this era of belt-tightening throughout collegiate athletics. But college wrestling itself has been devastated over the last 25 years: More than 250 schools at all NCAA and NAIA levels have dropped varsity wrestling since 1972, the year that Title IX, which mandates equal opportunities for men and women in college sports programs, went into effect.
In creating a wrestling team, Georgia State had a lot of help from off campus. In fact, there were wrestling boosters before the school even formed a squad. "We saw that our local boys were leaving the state [to wrestle in college]," says Gary Jira, the founding president of the Atlanta Takedown Association. "We just wanted to give them the chance to stay home."
In the winter of 1990 the association approached Georgia State athletic director Orby Moss and pledged $60,000 to help fund a wrestling team. The start-up money came from local businesses and individual donors. Moss took up the cause, stressing the fact that wrestling would help balance Georgia State's athletic programs. In 1992, in fact, the school was rated by the NCAA as sixth-best nationwide for gender equity at the Division I level.
With the green light from Moss, the Takedown Association took up its next challenge, which was to find a coach who would quickly bring credibility to the Georgia State program when it changed from club status to Division I. The association's members invited former Iowa coach Gary Kurdelmeier, who happened to be visiting Atlanta, to advise them. Kurdelmeier's subsequent hiring to coach the Panthers was as quick a way as any to take the program to the big time. Kurdelmeier had led the Hawkeyes to the first two of their 16 national titles, in 1975 and '76. He was also a former executive director of the USA Wrestling Association. "I was basically kidnapped off the highway," Kurdelmeier says, laughing. "My advice to everybody was to wait three years. It was terrible wrestling. And I say that now with all fondness."
Kurdelmeier ignored his own advice and signed on at Georgia State in the early spring of 1991. Walton, an assistant at Arizona State who had wrestled at Oklahoma, joined the coach as an unpaid assistant a year later. He quickly concluded that he had made a horrible mistake.