By Gary Abbott
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Two hours before the finals of the 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Cleveland, the ranks of NCAA Division I wrestling has grown by one.
Administration leaders from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which has a college athletic department in the Sun Belt Conference, announced that it will add a varsity men’s wrestling program, pending board approval.
Wrestling will be the 15th varsity sport for the Trojans, who plan to begin competition in the fall of 2019. It has not been determined what wrestling conference the school will compete in.
“We are here to talk about men’s wrestling and a really generous gift from a local supporter Greg Hatcher, a $1.4 million gift to launch Division I men’s wrestling in Little Rock,” said UALR Director of Athletics Chasse Conque. “We are awfully excited about it. We are in Cleveland today to experience first-hand the excitement of the championships in Division I wrestling.”
Hatcher, who received the Order of Merit award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2017, has been the father of wrestling in Arkansas, helping develop youth, high school and college programs across the state. In just over a decade, Arkansas went from having little or no wrestling to having a vibrant program at all levels, including nine college teams and up to 100 high school teams. UALR will become the first Division I wrestling program in the state.
“We have it. We finally have Division I wrestling in Arkansas,” said Hatcher. “We will attract wrestlers from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, all the border states. UALR has been working with me and Mike (Moyer of the National Wrestling Coaches Association) for three years.
“We have a new Chancellor, Andrew Rogerson, who is a risk taker, and a new athletics director, Chasse Conque, who is going to get it done,” he added. “Loretta Lynn said you have to be first, best or different. They are ready to be the first and make a big difference for Arkansas.We are going to build a fantastic facility with four mats and make it as nice as anywhere in the country.”
A coaching search will begin soon, in order to have a person in place to build a strong program from scratch. Hatcher and UALR administrators said that they plan to have the maximum 9.9 scholarships with the program.
Wrestling is not new to UALR’s Jack Stephens Center, which has served as host venue for the Arkansas State Wrestling Championships since 2008.
“Over the last two or three months, the discussion has really escalated,” said Conque. “When someone is willing to put a generous commitment like Greg has, it was something for the university to consider. It is something we took seriously, and we acted quickly. The Chancellor has been 100 percent on board with this. We see this as an enrollment management strategy and a tool to continue to enhance our profile,”
UALR becomes the second Division I university to add men’s wrestling this year. Presbyterian College in South Carolina announced a new men’s and women’s program this year, which will start in the fall of 2018 and will be coached by Mark Cody, the former Oklahoma and American head coach.