CI Sports Report with Elise Menaker: Wrestling returns to Millikin University

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In the 2015-2016 season wrestling will return to the university.  Millikin is one of 120 college wrestling programs that has been added throughout the country since 2001.  So WAND's Elise Menaker finds out why this decision was made and what it means for the bottom line.

No one has seen Millikin wrestling in seven years, not after it was dropped.  So why bring it back?

“We are running a small business,” explained Craig White Director of Athletics at Millikin.  “A small college at this level, we are running a business.”

A $100,000 donation from a Millikin wrestling alum made that business decision a lot easier.

“It made us say okay, now we got it all,” White said.  “And let's use that $100,000 and invest it in personnel.”

Enter Ryan Birt.

“Dr. White is handing me a program that there's nothing there and I get to pretty much construct and build a championship program the way that I've seen it,” said Birt, the new head wrestling coach.

It was at Loras College in Iowa where he was the associate head wrestling coach.  Birt helped a team go from about 87th in the country to as high as 8th over a three and a half year period.  Birt hails from Urbana but had never seen Millikin until he interviewed for the job.

“First impressions are everything,” he expressed.  “The buildings are beautiful.  The people here are wonderful, talking to the coaches, and just the support you feel when you walk in here that hey, these guys are going to have your back.”

And there's one additional key piece.

“Illinois is a great wrestling state,” Dr. White said.

In fact, it's one of the greatest wrestling spectator and participation bases in the country.  That's according to Mike Moyer executive director of the national wrestling coaches association.

“They have upwards of 17,000 high school wrestlers in the state, and with the addition of Millikin University's wrestling program we now have 12 intercollegiate wrestling programs,” Moyer explained.

According to estimates from Moyer, start-up costs for a Division III program are fairly cheap.

Wrestling mats cost around $10,000, so if Millikin orders a couple, they're looking at spending around $20,000.  Uniforms and practice gear add up to about $10,000.  An operating budget is usually between $35,000 and $50,000 plus coaches' salaries.  There are no athletic scholarships in Division III, so all of that adds up to at most $150,000 in start-up costs.  And don't forget in this case, Millikin has the $100,000 donation.

“We have case studies out there that show a Division III, a brand new Division III wrestling program, by year number three can actually net over one million dollars for the institution through the additional tuition dollars that come to the school,” Moyer said.

No mats yet but it's at this gym in the Griswold Center where the wrestling team will be competing.  This facility is where all indoor sports and outdoor practice and play.  But first thing's first.

“First thing we have to do is get a team,” Birt said with a laugh.  “So recruiting is right away what we're doing.”

Two-sport athlete Paul Selman is just who Birt is looking for.

“I started wrestling in seventh grade and that helped me keep focus in school and I just love the sport,” Selman expressed.

“I'm excited to get my hands on kids like Paul and kids who really want to establish themselves in the sport of wrestling,” Birt said.

And on a team that's taking off.

“I think three, four years when we look back and we are leading the CCIW and top three in the country, we're going to look back and say, ‘hey, this is where it started,'” Birt said.

“The world's a better place with more wrestling, I feel, because it's one more challenge for young men to have to go through to continue their education,” Dr. White expressed.

That challenge begins this fall.

To balance adding the men's the wrestling program under Title IX, athletic director White says the school is studying what women's sport to add next.  They're considering triathlon, lacrosse or bowling to name a few.

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