In one sense, you could say the South is rising again. In another, you could say it's falling under a succession of duck-unders, leg sweeps and high crotches. Dixie, you see, is in the midst of a collegiate wrestling boom.
For years, the only Deep South team of merit was Arnold (Swede) Umbach's Auburn Tigers. Umbach, who grew up in Oklahoma, a wrestling hotbed, ended 30 years of coaching in 1973 with 25 Southeastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association team titles, two Southeastern Conference championships and a 249-28-5 record.
"The only wrestling many Southerners knew for a long time was the professional kind," Umbach says. "When we got the sport into the SEC in 1970, we polled the schools to see how many would have teams. I still remember Mississippi's reply: 'Never.' I wanted to build the sport throughout the South, so I put on clinics everywhere. But I 'spect people from the Midwest and the North laughed at Southern wrestling."
Well, the joke is over. During the 1960s, only seven wrestlers from Southern schools placed in the top six at NCAA tournaments. In the '70s, 16 have earned that distinction, nine in the past two years. What's more, four coaches—all from up North—have led their SEC teams into the top 20 this season: Fletcher Carr ( Erie, Pa.) at Kentucky, Gary Schneider ( Massapequa, N.Y.) at Florida, Tom Milkovich (Maple Heights, Ohio) at Auburn, and Larry Sciacchetano ( Teaneck, N.J.) at Louisiana State.
The main reason for this meteoric rise is a 2-year-old NCAA ruling that limits colleges to 11 wrestling scholarships. That has curtailed the stockpiling of talent by teams such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa and Iowa State, which often signed good prospects just to prevent them from going elsewhere.
Vital, too, has been the all-out effort by Southern schools to improve their wrestling programs. LSU Athletic Director Carl Maddox says. "When the SEC gets into a sport, it goes all the way. The SEC only recently got into swimming, but at last year's NCAAs, three of the five top teams were from our conference." And then there have been hordes of high school seniors from wrestling-rich New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, who have flocked South to join in the empire building.
Being given the coaching job at a Southern university used to be akin to being handed a rotten apple—"Sorry, Al, you're the wrestling coach this season"—but now it's more of a juicy plum. When the LSU position opened up two years ago, more than 50 applicants were screened before the then 33-year-old Sciacchetano (pronounced Shack-uh-tan-oh) was chosen.
Shack had a 137-31-5 record in 12 seasons at New York Maritime and Montclair ( N.J.) State. He also has a knack for recruiting, an invaluable asset in the suddenly furious skirmishing among SEC teams for the top high school prospects.
"I left LSU because I disagreed with the administration about recruiting," says Shack's predecessor. Dale Ketelsen. "The way to build the program, I felt, was to recruit the local boys, not to bring in a lot of outsiders."
"One reason I came here was because the administration committed itself to letting me recruit from coast to coast," Shack says. "I got the job in May of '76. By then all the blue-chip high-schoolers were signed. I decided to save most of my scholarships, suffer through the first season and hope for a good recruiting year the next time around. Last year I spent an awful lot of time on the road. High school wrestling in the South is in its infancy, so I had to travel to where the best prospects were."