Mark Johnson is always waging an uphill struggle in supporting his sport of preference.
Wrestling has been repeatedly tossed on its back, the big blow coming from Switzerland last month when a 15-member executive group for the International Olympic Committee voted to drop it in 2020.
Johnson coached the Illini for 17 years before stepping down four years ago to become CEO for the majestic new YMCA in southwest Champaign.
Over the years, he has fought the good fight. But as a 24-year-old captain of the U.S. Olympic team in 1980, he saw the U.S. boycott the Moscow event as a symbolic response to the Russians’ invasion of Afghanistan.
And since his days as a Michigan All-American, he has seen the sport dwindle nationally.
“There was a time when we had roughly 200 collegiate programs and 17 scholarships,” he said. “Now we have 80-plus and 9.9 scholarships. There are no teams at Auburn, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee, and the sport has been dropped at Kansas and Kansas State, and at Colorado and Colorado State. Oregon just dropped wrestling.”
Like gymnastics and volleyball, the mat sport is ruled by Northern states while warm-weather schools dominate outdoor sports like golf and baseball.
“It is still going strong in Illinois. We have 400 high school programs, and we just had attendance of 42,000 (42,665) for five sessions of the state meet,” Johnson said. “The Big Ten tournament here this weekend will be outstanding. In this conference, you have to be competitive or you’ll be embarrassed. For me, the first session of the Big Ten is more intense and nerve-racking than the NCAA tournament. There aren’t many mismatches. No chance to breathe.”
The Assembly Hall shootout this weekend will resemble the NCAA tournament. Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa are rated as national contenders, and eight conference members have been listed in the Top 20 poll.
“I still stay involved,” Johnson said. “We have a reunion in the Bielfeldt Building at 2 p.m. Saturday. I recruited and coached Jordan Blanton (174), Conrad Polz (165) and B.J. Futrell (141). It’s unfortunate that B.J. is sidelined (bulging disk in his back). It hurts a team to lose a team leader.”
Can wrestling, an original core sport in the modern Olympics, be saved in 2020? Johnson is hopeful but not entirely optimistic.
“This decision transcended the sport and became national news,” he said. “I have a sick feeling that it will impact college and high school wrestling.
“I’ve been around the international governing body (FILA) a lot. They’ve had opportunities over the years to present their case, and they haven’t done it. I’m told they’ve been arrogant in thinking they weren’t on the chopping block. Obviously, that’s not the case.
“Wrestling is still popular around the world. In the last Olympics, 29 countries shared in 58 medals. That’s what they want, medals spread among many countries. In Europe, it actually became more competitive with the breakup of the Soviet Union. In Iran, it is second only to soccer.
“Truth is, we’re not very good for TV. If a guy who wrestled 20 years ago watches now, the rules have changed so much that he won’t understand the scoring. They’ve tried to make it more appealing for TV, and it’s really different. If a match is scoreless at the end of a period, you walk over and reach in a bag for a colored Ping Pong ball. For wrestlers, this is embarrassing. These rules will be torn apart after the World Championships this year. We’ll have different rules in 2016.
“The 2020 decision will be appealed. I just hope it is not too late. There is a meeting in May and another in Russia in late summer.”
Business is good
Johnson’s friends were surprised to see him step out of coaching after 30 years.
He dove right in, spearheading a fundraising campaign that brought in more than $17 million to replace the aging YMCA building on Church Street (since sold).
“My wife walked into the old place and she’s crying, thinking I’ll be miserable,” Johnson said. “I asked our consultant and he said, ‘If you can raise the money in three years and build it in four, you’ll be doing good. I said, ‘We’ll have this sucker done in three years,’ and we opened 35 months from the day I was hired.”
Within one year, they’re claiming 10,000 members. If you haven’t seen it, your jaw will drop.
“The building is fine. We still have room for more equipment upstairs,” Johnson said. “But with so many members, we now have a problem with the (already-large) parking lot. I don’t want people forced to park on the street. We have engineers looking at it, and we’ll spend several hundred thousand for 70 more spots. When you add in drainage, concrete and everything, one parking spot costs between $4,000 and $5,000. In the afternoon, when kids get out of school, we are packed.”
For Johnson, it’s been an entirely new challenge, about which he says: “I miss the guys, but I have no regrets.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.