published Sunday, January 1st, 2012

UTC grabs good thing with Scuffle

The Southern Scuffle was someone else's brainstorm, but Heath Eslinger recognizes a good thing when he sees it.

So the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling coach was ready within hours to pounce when Scuffle sponsor UNC Greensboro announced that it would no longer field a wrestling team, thus leaving the tournament's future in jeopardy.

His pounce -- reserving McKenzie Arena and selling UTC athletic director Rick Hart and associate athletic director Matt Pope on hosting the event -- resulted in Chattanooga's first major collegiate wrestling event in three decades taking place today and Monday.

"A lot of the credit belongs to Tom Shiflet, the guy who started the Southern Scuffle eight or nine years ago and slowly developed it," Eslinger said. "We're getting something that's already pretty darn good, and we want to make it better by bringing it to a community that really loves wrestling."

The 22-team Southern Scuffle, boasting such national powers as defending NCAA champ Penn State, third-ranked Minnesota and fourth-ranked Cornell, begins at 10 this morning and carries through Monday's 6:30 p.m. championship finals.

Getting it here was a labor of love from Eslinger and his staff.

"Part of it was having our ducks in a row," he said. "We reserved the arena and went to the administration."

Mocs assistant Rocco Mansueto said jokingly that Eslinger was the only guy in the world stupid enough to say, "Let's do it," and then figure it out once UTC acquired it.

"I am a guy that sometimes puts the cart before the horse, which in a lot of cases isn't such a good thing," Eslinger said. "This time it was. I did a lot of things that might have been in vain, but I figured I'd be kicking myself the next 10 years if I didn't."

He began calling coaches and asking if they would come if Chattanooga landed the tournament. He outmaneuvered North Carolina and North Carolina State because he had done the early groundwork.

"The first thing Rick [Hart] asked was, 'Who owns it?' There wasn't an owner, but he wanted to check all probabilities before just jumping in," Eslinger said.

Pope, who had worked at the 1994 NCAA tournament at North Carolina, was on board fairly quickly.

"Heath came bouncing in the office -- he's always bouncing and we really ought to nickname him Tigger -- with the idea of going after the tournament," Pope said. "He was disappointed that UNCG was dropping its program, but his wheels immediately started turning. Rick and Heath and I had numerous meetings and eventually felt it was financially viable.

"At first I was worried because of what I'd learned at UNC about the logistics of having a tournament. By the second meeting I was sold, and by the fourth meeting after he'd had a chance to review the finances, Rick was sold."

Because UNCG had dropped its program, few teams that had attended previously were interested in returning. Eslinger got on the phone and began lining up teams.

"If we get this tournament, will you come?" he asked.

The calls began with Missouri coach Brian Smith and moved along quickly from there.

"Once I got 10 head coaches on board, it was going to be our tournament," Eslinger said.

He sold it because several had wrestled here previously, including Missouri and Cornell.

"It's fun to wrestle in Chattanooga," the Mocs coach said. "These guys know that we want to put on a premier event. We want coaches to feel really good about being here, and we have started that by giving each a participant guide and a tournament host.

"We'll have top-notch, wrestling-savvy adults working at every scorer's table. We want every team to feel valued. The sport of wrestling is unique. It's a brotherhood. We know that we need each other to be successful, and we want this to not only be a great wrestling event but also a social event."

Although UTC got a late start on actual planning, a steering committee met for months to organize everything from parking, hospitality, volunteers, entry fees and referees to tournament director and bracket master.

"I know there are little mat monsters that might reach up and grab us by the foot this year, but we really want to wow participants and fans like when we hosted the national golf championship a few years ago," Pope said. "Many of the participants there talked about the wonderful hospitality in Chattanooga. We want people to look forward to coming back."

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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