Off the Mat

Collegiate wrestling makes a quiet, coeducational return to MTSU

by Bill Lewis

Freshman Jasmine Cothran is proud that she made MTSU sports history this year. Her only disappointment is that no one seems to have noticed.

“Even up until this day, people don’t believe me,” says Cothran, the first female MTSU athlete to win a collegiate wrestling match. “A lot of people say they didn’t know that girls wrestle.”

She doesn’t take their skepticism personally. Most of the doubters are unaware that the University even has a successful wrestling team, much less that it includes four women. Perhaps that lack of awareness is understandable, since the team doesn’t use University facilities and has never held a match on campus. When Cothran scored her historic victory, it was at a match held in a rented high school gymnasium in another city.

Adding to that confusion, volunteer wrestling coach Bryan Knepper is not a University employee, and the team is not governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), as are the football, baseball, basketball, and other sports teams that are part of MTSU athletics. Instead, the wrestling team is recognized as a sports club and competes with similar student clubs from other schools.

After an absence of more than three decades, wrestling’s quiet return to MTSU has been, if not a secret, at least cloaked in anonymity and more than a little irony. The sport was cut from the Athletic Department in 1980 amid concerns about budgets and the effect of Title IX, the federal law that requires parity between men’s and women’s athletic opportunities and scholarships.

Now that law, intended to prevent discrimination against women, could be standing in the way of a return to NCAA status of a wrestling team that for the first time includes women.

For every scholarship or opportunity to participate in sports reserved for male athletes, Title IX requires similar opportunities for female. The idea is to create chances for women to participate, not to restrict opportunities for men. But with 85 men’s football team members and no budget to create that many offsetting women’s positions on sports teams, the University found itself playing a numbers game. Certain exclusively men’s sports—think wrestling—were eliminated.

The numbers still stand in the way of wrestling’s return to NCAA status. The team has four female members, but it also had 22 men on its roster last season. That means returning the sport to NCAA status could require the creation of at least 18 positions for women on sports teams.

Knepper, a one-time collegiate wrestler with a passion for the sport, is content to stay below the radar.

“I want to make it clear that our intent is not to return to NCAA status. Our fear is that people start talking about that, and the school eliminates us altogether,” Knepper says.

“In order to return to NCAA status, one of two things would need to occur,” he continues. “Title IX would have to be revoked by Congress or revised to reflect current collegiate trends, or MTSU would have to revive the NCAA [wrestling] program, which would require an additional two or three women’s sports at approximately $150,000 [per] year cost for each team.”

As a club supported by the private MTSU Wrestling Scholarship Foundation, the team is able to provide scholarships to certain members. Ten of the men have scholarships, which Knepper describes as “partial books to a full ride.”

Pat Simpson, a star MTSU wrestler who graduated in 1979, recalls the atmosphere on campus as Coach Gordon Connell struggled to shield the team from being eliminated.

“He was just starting to build the program,” Simpson says. “Title IX was starting to take effect.”

He applauds Knepper and his assistants for returning the sport to MTSU and creating opportunities for both men and women to pursue their dreams.

“Look at the roster. These are Tennessee kids. Middle is giving kids an option to wrestle,” says Simpson, who has been the wrestling coach at Nashville’s Father Ryan High School for 32 years.

There are no girls on the Father Ryan team, but Simpson sees growing interest. Jasmine Cothran wrestled in middle school and high school in Nashville before Knepper recruited her.

After her arrival, she used her Facebook page to recruit the team’s three other female members: Danah Tatum, Keyonna Jones and Kellsey Smith.

Cothran was unaware of the (to her) ancient history of wrestling at MTSU. Instead, she’s focusing on next season. Disappointed in her fourth-place finish this year, she’s training as much as possible while pursuing her studies and working a part-time job.

“That’s not good enough for me,” Cothran says of not being number one. “I hate getting beat. That’s the one thing that bothers me, somebody being better than me. I’ve always been a competitive person.”

The same can be said of Knepper and all the athletes who have, for the love of the sport, established a new wrestling tradition at MTSU.