Weaving between people and under arms, I ran back to the bleachers with Swedish Fish in hand to sit by my mother. My brother’s match had begun, and as I entered the gym I could see him on the mat. His opponent was on his back, shoulder blades almost to the mat. James has him! His shoulders are down. One second…two seconds…pin!
From the age of five, much of my time was spent around wrestling, and the scene described above became common occurrence. As the years passed and the matches continued, my family became wrestling enthusiasts. When my mother called recently to announce they got tickets for the Bucknell vs. Penn State match on November 30th, I began to wonder about the history of the sport here on campus. What I discovered was a story of trials, support, and success.
Wrestling became an intercollegiate sport at Bucknell in 1944. The team had three matches that first season, winning two of the them. As the years passed, the team began to improve, having more matches, longer practices, and dedicated coaches behind them to support their success in Division I competition. One of those coaches was Robert “Bob” Ferraro, who coached at Bucknell for 25 years, having four athletes become NCAA All-Americans and several athletes wrestle in NCAA championships.
For years, the team did well, and when Bob Ferraro left, he was succeeded by John Hangley and then Tim Wittman. It was Wittman who had to see the temporary end of Bucknell’s wrestling program. In May of 2001 it was announced that Bucknell wrestling would be eliminated from the athletic program to remain in compliance with the Title IX Education Amendment. This amendment stated that institutions that receive federal funds cannot discriminate between men and women, which is determined by proportionality: the number of female athletes at a university must be proportionate to the number of female undergraduate students. At Bucknell in 2001, 41.9 percent of its athletes were women, but 48.7 percent of its undergraduates were female. As a result, the school decided it needed to have fewer male athletes, and the wrestling team was eliminated.
It remained this way until 2004, when Bucknell wrestling alum, William Graham, made a generous donation of approximately $8 million, which led to the installation of Graham Field for field hockey and women’s lacrosse, created an endowment to support women’s varsity sports, and allowed the wrestling program to regain varsity status in time for the 2006 – 2007 season. Dan Wirnsberger was hired in 2005 as the wrestling head coach to guide Bucknell’s new wrestling program back into national awareness and achievement. Wirnsberger has succeeded and currently ranks second on the Bison career wins’ list with 113. For four-straight seasons from 2013 to 2017, the Bison reached the double digits in dual victories for the first time in school history and earned third-place finishes at the EIWA Championships in 2015 and 2016, leading the Bison through one of their most successful stretches in program history.
Some of this success was through the support of William Graham, who contributed another $7 million to construct the Graham Building. This building contains a world-class training facility for the Bison wrestling team on the top floor and the Bucknell Student Health and the Counseling & Student Development Center on the ground floor. Completed in 2016, the state of the art facility has helped the bison wrestling program improve and thrive. I encourage all Bucknell students, faculty, and staff to go out and support the Bucknell wrestling team! I hope to see their opponents shoulder blades down…one second…two seconds…pin!