Nine months after the decision to cut Boise State’s wrestling program left the Broncos’ athletes and coaches stunned, they have dispersed from coast to coast — but the sting remains.
Wrestlers who still had eligibility were able to transfer without penalty, and the nine incoming recruits who had signed with the program were able to choose new destinations.
After the decision was made April 18, it galvanized a passionate community that still is fighting for the sport’s return.
“There’s still part of me that can’t believe it happened,” former Boise State wrestling coach Mike Mendoza said. “… It could make you bitter, or you just move on and focus on what’s next.
“But there’s a definite thought of what could’ve been. I think the culture was going in the right direction.”
Mendoza spent less than a year as Boise State’s coach before the sport was cut. He was at Cal State Bakersfield for 14 years prior. Today, he is the head coach at Northeastern Junior College, a second-year program that was resuscitated after being cut in the late 1970s in Sterling, Colo., a city of approximately 15,000 about 100 miles from Denver.
Like his staff and wrestlers, Mendoza had to scramble to figure out his future in a short time frame.
“It was tough, moving from a place I’d been for quite some time and putting down roots in Boise, where I was hoping would be my last coaching stop,” Mendoza said.
One of Mendoza’s top wrestlers is freshman Sammy Eckhart, a Fruitland High graduate who had signed with the Broncos. He was among a handful of athletes who had to start the recruiting process all over again, like Bjorn Schroeder.
A Bozeman, Mont., native, Schroeder signed with Boise State a week before the program was discontinued. A late-blooming prospect, he initially had little desire to be far from home, but most schools had their recruiting classes in place. At Purdue, top assistant Tyrel Todd had gone to the same high school as Schroeder — convincing him to move to Indiana.
“I’d had to make the biggest decision of my life, then it changes a week later. It was a pretty drastic emotional change,” Schroeder said. “I was in such shock. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life until I visited Purdue. I wasn’t myself for about three weeks. Us freshmen, we’d been recruited, so we still had some contacts. The guys already here, they had to start from scratch.”
If Schroeder had wanted to attend Boise State, he still could have done so, as the school said it would honor scholarships for the signees and current student-athletes. The school paid for extra summer school classes for some to facilitate the transfer process.
Twenty-three wrestlers, including the incoming freshmen, transferred to other programs. One signee decided not to pursue wrestling and is enrolled at Boise State. Nine on last year’s roster opted to remain on campus.
Mendoza said he still keeps in touch with his former wrestlers and follows their teams. He and his staff made many calls on behalf of the wrestlers in the weeks and months after the decision, hoping to find them places to compete.
Of the 23 now elsewhere, eight are on the roster for top 25 teams. Demetrius Romero, a Mountain View High graduate, is ranked 16th nationally at 165 pounds for Utah Valley.
“The tough thing is that the Boise State wrestling program, we had a losing record, but we were on the way up,” said senior Carson Kuhn, now at No. 1 Penn State. “The attitude was right, from the problems we had before. It goes to show, there’s lots of people on that lineup having success at other places.”
Boise State quickly moved ahead with its plan to pursue baseball in the wake of wrestling’s elimination, hiring coach Gary Van Tol on Nov. 28, and already has landed player commitments for its 2020 debut season.
But wrestling’s supporters will continue to fight the decision. With Boise State President Bob Kustra set to retire June 30, there is hope the new president will consider the sport’s return.
For that to happen, the athletic department would require even more funding — and likely would need to add a women’s sport to achieve Title IX equality. Still, the Save Boise State Wrestling Facebook page, with nearly 9,000 followers, has updated fans on community listening sessions for the presidential search.
“There’s still a sour taste for me, because I loved Boise, and I want to come back there when I’m done wrestling,” said sophomore Fred Green, who starts for Virginia. “I think the change in leadership will be a good thing, and really interesting to see what happens.”
Said Kuhn: “The hurt will never go away, not until they bring it back, which I think they will.”
The wake of the bombshell decision sent the many wrestlers so used to being in the same room all across the country, but Mendoza said he’s glad to see they’re making the most of their new opportunities.
Kuhn finished his Spanish degree at Boise State in the fall and, after a “Hail Mary” to get transfer credits in order at the last minute, began his drive across the country. He was elated to pick up his wife and 16-month-old daughter Wednesday at the airport after not seeing them for three weeks since moving.
In the near future, he will return to Boise to finish a second degree, in finance, on scholarship. There’s hope in Happy Valley he will compete soon, boosting the top-ranked team in the nation.
Schroeder is redshirting for the No. 24 Boilermakers, and Green, who led the Broncos with 10 pins last season, is 10-10 for the Cavaliers. Both are happy to compete in challenging conferences (the Big Ten and ACC, respectively), which tend to place more wrestlers in the national tournament than the Broncos’ former home, the Pac-12.
Whether it’s via FaceTime, text, social media or even hanging out in team hotels at tournaments, the Broncos said they keep in touch and check results to see how the guys they expected to work with this season are doing elsewhere.
“There were a lot of resilient guys,” Mendoza said. “It was a decision that changed lives.”