Wiedmer: Scuffle a credit to Eslinger, city

Wiedmer: Scuffle a credit to Eslinger, city

January 3rd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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Alex Dieringer of Oklahoma State overtakes Ian Miller of Kent State.

Alex Dieringer of Oklahoma State overtakes Ian Miller...

Photo by Maura Friedman /Times Free Press.

The way Cornell wrestling coach Rob Koll sees it, there is no longer much choice to be made between attending the Midlands Championships in Chicago or the Southern Scuffle at McKenzie Arena.

"I like the fact that you're not wrestling in a blizzard," Koll said when comparing his sport's top two midseason events, which are both staged the week after Christmas.

"I like the fact that they make you feel special here instead of acting like they're doing you a favor letting you in. This is a very warm, welcoming city. Why wouldn't you want to come here?"

Koll isn't just any coach. He's guided the Big Red to 11 straight Ivy League titles and four top-five finishes in a row at the NCAA tournament. He wrestled in Chattanooga as a collegian for North Carolina in 1985 and at the World Cup in 1993. And former Baylor School standouts Jordan Leen and Corey Manson have wrestled for Koll at Cornell.

"To see how this city has transfomed itself since 1985 is amazing," he said Thursday afternoon during the semifinals. "The downtown is incredible. We've taken our kids to the Aquarium and Lookout Mountain. I wish they'd make it a three-day event (instead of two) so our kids and their families could do a lot more."

This is the third year the Scuffle has called Chattanooga home after beginning its run in Greensboro, N.C., from 2003 through 2010. And Koll isn't the only one who wants to expand it to a third day.

"I'm really intrigued with the possibility of making it a three-day event," University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Heath Eslinger said. "I'd like to see it more like the NCAA tournament."

It's already like the NCAA tournament in quality. Penn State 184-pound senior All-American Ed Ruth was attempting to win his Scuffle weight division for the fourth time in four years Thursday evening. He also is the reigning NCAA champ.

Asked what makes the Scuffle so special to him, he quickly replied, "It's a lot of the same guys I'm going to see at the NCAAs. This is a pretty big deal."

But in echoing Koll and Eslinger, Ruth also sounded like someone who would very much enjoy having the tournament spread out over a third day, if only to make the trip not all about wrestling.

"There's really not much time to see anything or do anything," he said. "I wish we had more time to do stuff, but it's pretty much all wrestling. You do get some good teammate quality time, though. It's a good team-building trip."

How much is it pretty much all wrestling? Koll pointed to one member of the Big Red who already had wrestled five matches Thursday before the finals. Forget time. These guys have no energy to visit the Aquarium or Ruby Falls after a schedule like that.

But that doesn't mean the Scuffle isn't a huge success.

"This is all about Heath and his team," noted Chattanooga Sports Committee president Tim Morgan. "They do all the work. They're amazing. I love their vision. And any time we can steal an event from Greensboro, that's big for our city."

While Eslinger's chief priority is to stage a tournament that pleases visiting coaches, players and fans alike, Morgan is at least as much concerned with the Scuffle's economic impact on the city.

"When you can bring 30 college wrestling teams in here, many for almost a week's worth of hotel bookings, that's a serious economic impact," Morgan said. "I can't speak more highly of the growth and success of this event."

Look around and it's not just the Scuffle that's fallen in love with the Scenic City. The Ironman has signed on for five years. Cycling loves us. And softball. And rowing. Maybe we lack the facilities for big-time football playoffs or NCAA basketball, men's or women's, but basketball tournaments usually drop by only once every five or six years.

The FCS football championship was quite dependent on which schools reached the title game. If it was Appalachian State or Georgia Southern, great. If it was UMass or Western Kentucky, not so much.

In events that require three- and four-night stays, Chattanooga has an advantage, due to both locale and expense as compared to much larger sites.

"I've seen things that were bigger," said developer Mark Smith of Wheeling, Ill., just outside Chicago. "But what they've done to this downtown they've done incredibly well. They're really turned revitalizing this community into an art form."

Smith isn't just a tourist. He specializes in developing waterfront life systems when he isn't watching his son Lucas wrestle at 157 pounds for Central Michigan.

"We're probably no more than 20 miles from the Midlands event," he said, "but the difference in that event and this one is night and day. Some of the amenities here are the best I've seen anywhere. It's public and private partnership at its best. And the Southern hospitality is incredible."

What's incredible is that the Bradley Central product, Eslinger, had the vision and determination to bring the Scuffle here. Now we all need to hope those with the power to make such things happen will expand it from two days to three, if for no other reason than that all those athletes deserve a chance to experience the city their coaches and parents rave about.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com