Josh Newberg was coming out of class late Tuesday afternoon at Boise State when he checked his text messages.
The wrestler, a junior last season, had quite a few. They all told him that the Broncos were planning to cut the wrestling program immediately.
“I was like, ‘This is a joke, right?’” Newberg said.
When Newberg made his way to the wrestling room, he knew it was true. The team met with the coaching staff and tears fell amid a combination of anger, frustration and shock.
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With the news of the wrestling program’s end, Boise State intends to pursue baseball, which had been dropped as a varsity sport in 1980.
“This was not an easy decision, but one that needed to be made as we consider the long-term vision for Bronco athletics,” Athletic Director Curt Apsey said in a news release. “We will continue to honor the scholarships we provide our student-athletes, and will do all we can to help those who want to continue their collegiate wrestling careers elsewhere.
“Additionally, current coaching contracts will be honored.”
Requests from the Idaho Statesman for additional comment from Apsey and Boise State president Bob Kustra were declined Tuesday.
The wrestling program has been part of Boise State athletics since 1959, but it has fallen on hard times in recent years, going 11-35-1 in duals the past four seasons. The Broncos went 2-9 this season and have not won more than three matches in a season since 2012-13.
Coach Greg Randall, who had been at the helm since 2002, was fired in April 2016 and replaced by Cal State-Bakersfield coach Mike Mendoza.
“I’m really kind of beside myself, still letting it settle in. That kind of news takes a while to process,” Mendoza said. “My first thought goes to my guys on the team. Obviously they came here to Boise State with some goals, some plans. Not being able to see those through is tough.”
According to the Idaho State Board of Education’s most recent athletics budget report, released Monday, the wrestling program had $115,705 in revenue for 2015-16 and $467,655 in expenses. Fourteen of Boise State’s 16 sports lost money, but were buoyed by the revenues of football (primarily) and men’s basketball. The Mountain West currently has seven baseball-playing schools. Those include Nevada’s budget of $1.3 million and Fresno State’s of more than $1 million.
BSU: Baseball will bolster the brand
In an additional release, Boise State gave explanations for shutting down wrestling and why it intends to pursue baseball. The school did not provide a timeline for adding the team, but in January 2016, Kustra said it often is a five-year plan. However, with wrestling being cut, the timeline could be expedited. The last varsity sport cut by Boise State was skiing in 2007.
“The elimination of wrestling alone will not be enough from a budgetary or structural standpoint, but it was the first step that needed to be taken to build the future structure of the athletics department,” the release said. “When it became clear that the university could not support both baseball and wrestling from a budgetary and structural standpoint, it was decided to simply make the tough decision in hopes of giving our coaches and student-athletes ample time to pursue their careers elsewhere if they choose.
“Baseball is the only Mountain West-sponsored sport not offered by Boise State. Additionally, we believe baseball will strengthen the long-term brand and reputation of Boise State at a national level.”
‘I need that scholarship’
Current wrestlers are free to transfer from Boise State and will receive help in the process, according to the statement. Wrestlers’ scholarships will still be honored. Newberg said he may forgo his final season of eligibility and complete his degree if he doesn’t find a new school.
“It’s just pretty cold-hearted,” Newberg said. “... You let us recruit 12 new guys or so, then we’re done? It’s just evil. I don’t know what to do about it. We thought maybe it could happen when they let go of Greg Randall, but they hire new coaches, keep signing guys, you think it’s going to be around five more years at least.”
The Broncos were still signing newcomers to National Letters of Intent last week, including Fruitland’s Sammy Eckhart, who signed Thursday. The team’s roster this past season featured eight Treasure Valley natives, including Centennial grad Austin Dewey, who was the Broncos’ lone representative in this year’s NCAA Championships. One current wrestler said an unsigned recruit was on a campus visit when the news broke.
“Right out of the gate, all these thoughts went through my head. I wondered if I would even go to college,” Eckhart said. “My family lives paycheck to paycheck. I need that scholarship. I’m just in shock.”
‘A sacrificial lamb’
Charles Burton was a Boise State wrestler from 1991 to 1996 who became the first Olympian in Boise State history when he competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He was upset with the news and believes it was motivated by a desire for the school to compete in a bigger conference. Wrestling teams, either for Title IX or budget reasons, have been cut across the country, many in the West. There were 117 Division I teams in 1988-89, but 76 this past season.
Fresno State dropped its program in 2006, but will revive it this fall, while Oregon cuts its team in 2008, UC Davis in 2010 and Cal-State Fullerton in 2011. Arizona State announced it intended to in 2008, but soon after brought it back because of some large donations.
“To cut men’s wrestling to go after baseball, there’s some political aspirations ... In my opinion,” Burton said. “Wrestling is a sacrificial lamb.
“One thing that’s very unique about wrestling ... young men create skills to be leaders and cope with adversity. ... You have a lot of alumni that are successful and are leaders in the community. It’s sad.”
Former Boise State wrestler Kam Henson was shocked by the news and disappointed in the decision, especially given where the program started. The Broncos competed in the Big Sky until 1987, when the conference dropped the sport. Boise State joined the Pac-10 in 1988.
“(We were) a Big Sky team being thrown to the lions basically. ... You talk about the persistency and the grit of these athletes,” said Henson, who wrestled at Boise State from 1985 to 1989. “Show me another athletic team that has more championships than the wrestling team.
“I think it’s a slight on the Bronco community.”
The Broncos have won six Pac-10 team titles and 10 Big Sky team titles. There have been 22 NCAA All-Americans and two NCAA champions, Kirk White (1999) and Ben Cherrington (2006).
Eckhart, a four-time state champion, said he is exploring every opportunity, but many teams have filled up their scholarships. He said he could compete at North Idaho College and later transfer to a Division I school. Wrestling teams are allotted 9.9 scholarships; baseball teams have 11.7.
“It never crossed my mind this would happen,” Eckhart said. “It hurts, and I get that things happen, but the shock would’ve been the same if it came a month after I signed, two months, whatever.”
Former coach Mike Young (1970-2002) said that even though the sport did not always bring in money, its supporters and athletes are passionate, which he heard from his former wrestlers.
“It is difficult,” Young said. “It might be more difficult tomorrow when the shock (hits). I honestly thought after last year that wrestling at Boise State would not be gone in my lifetime, which I hoped was another 20 years.”
Mendoza said he found out Tuesday afternoon like everyone else. He said there is no animosity. The toughest part was telling his current athletes, then calling the parents of those who had just signed.
“I’m disappointed in the decision. Am I upset, am I mad at the administration? No,” Mendoza said. “... I was their coach. Even though it was a short time, it was a time where we rooted ourselves with some great memories. ... It’s deflating.”
Stadium plans uncertain
It is unknown where the new baseball team will play, but speculation that Boise State would seek a baseball team intensified recently when a proposal for a new multi-use stadium in Downtown Boise came to light. The stadium would be the home of the Boise Hawks, the local minor-league baseball team, and potentially a minor-league soccer team.
Proponents of the stadium have said they hoped BSU would be a tenant, too. Recently, the university had downplayed its interest in starting a baseball team that would use the stadium.
“Wish there was a baseball team when I was at Boise, woulda made things a lot easier. pumped for the program though that's big!” former Boise State football player Joe Martarano, who left in March to pursue pro baseball, tweeted.
The Idaho Statesman’s Sven Berg contributed.