Thursday, 3 May 2018

U of Regina Cougars wrestling program cuts are startling

The Cougars wrestling in the Carillon from 1997.
    There has to be a comeback like the one Josef Tesar Jr. made at the 1998 U Sports wrestling nationals.
    Back when U Sports was known as the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union, Tesar from the University of Regina Cougars trailed Chad Pearson of the University of Guelph Gryphons 10-2 in the gold medal match of the men’s 61 kilogram division. Pearson was one successful move away from winning the bout on technical superiority.
    Tesar miraculously battled back and earned enough points to win the match 15-10. In the process, the Cougars men’s wrestling squad won a national team title for second straight year.
    That one moment symbolizes the fight, the competitive drive and heart athletes have shown during the storied history of the Cougars wrestling teams in both men’s and women’s squads. Due to those efforts, the University of Regina was traditionally viewed as a wrestling school. Culturally, that aspect gives the U of R something that makes it distinct from most other post-secondary schools in Canada.
    Squads like the U of Regina Rams football team and the U of Regina Cougars women’s basketball team may get the majority of the spotlight, but it is always in the back of minds of locals in Regina that the sport the school is really good at is wrestling. When you saw the members of the Cougars teams hit the mat, you were quickly impressed by the skill they displayed.
A Cougars wrestling team feature from the Carillon in 1997.
    The Cougars men’s team has won 10 Canada West Conference championships, with the first coming in 1989 and the last in 2012, and two U Sports national titles in 1997 and 1998. They finished second in the team standings at nationals four times and placed third four times.
    The Cougars women’s team has finished second twice in the team standings at U Sports nationals.
    Both the men’s and women’s teams have had numerous individual conference and national champions. The women’s side doesn’t have as lengthy a history only becoming an official sport in U Sports in 1998-99.
    Bob McDougall claimed a U Sports national individual gold medal in the men’s 57-kilogram class in 1987 to become U of Regina’s first national champion in any sport.
    Lease Bertram, who was the U of R’s male athlete of the year in 1998 and was once part of Canada’s national team program, was in my opinion the best male athlete that school has ever seen and was a key member of both Cougars men’s team national championship winners. Individually at nationals, he won silver in the 65-kilogram class in 1997 and gold in the 61-kilogram class in 1998.
    Ali Bernard became the most decorated out of any of U of R women’s athletes compiling a lengthy resume of accomplishments that includes four individual Canada West titles and four individual U Sports championship gold medals from 2004 to 2008 with the women’s wrestling team. She was named the U of R’s female athlete of the year for three straight years from 2005 to 2007. 
The Carillon after the Cougars men’s wrestling team’s second national title.
  Bernard came from New Ulm, Minnesota, to be a member of the Cougars wrestling program.
    This past season at U Sports nationals, the Cougars women’s team finished fifth in the team standings, while the Cougars men’s team placed eighth. At the school’s athletic awards night in April, Lucas Hoffert of the Cougars men’s wrestling team was named the winner of the U of R’s highest individual honour in the President’s Award for outstanding achievement in athletics and academics.
    With how decorated the Cougars wrestling program is, it was shocking that both the men’s and women’s teams were cut from the U of R’s athletics program on Monday. The U of Regina Cougars men’s volleyball team, which is one of the school’s original six teams with men’s wrestling, was cut from the athletics program as well.
    The moves were made in response to a review of the U of R’s athletics department that was released in January of 2017, which suggested cutting teams in order to concentrate the saved funds on the remaining athletic squads.
    In a written response to the review from March 16, 2017, Vianne Timmons, who is the president and vice-chancellor at the U of R, said the portion of the review the pertains to the number of teams won’t be considered until a permanent head of athletics develops a “robust performance evaluation process.”
Lease Bertram accepting the U of R’s male athlete of the year award in 1998.
    At the time of Timmons’ letter, Tanya Reynoldson, who is an alumna of the Cougars women’s hockey team, was interim director of athletics. In July of 2017, Calgary, Alta., product Lisa Robertson was named the U of R’s new director of sport, community engagement and athlete development.
    With Robertson on staff for less than a full year, the U of R appears to have figured out a process to evaluate and reduce its number of athletic teams. The way decisions are made at universities are often convoluted, but with the brevity it took to make cuts, somewhere there might have been a pre-conceived decision at the start to cut the programs that were cut.
    The review suggested trying to get the ratio of male athletes to female athletes down to one-to-one for the overall athletics program as there were more male athletes on campus compared to female athletes. There were 18 members on the Cougars women’s wrestling team and 14 members on the Cougars men’s team last season, so cutting those programs did not get the ratio closer to one-to-one.
    Judging by the local media reaction in Regina and area, it appears the athletes from the three chopped programs were caught off guard.
    The Cougars men’s volleyball has struggled to post as many as four wins in any regular season for almost three decades. Since full-fledged regular season play between all western Canadian university volleyball teams happened in 1996-97, the Cougars have consistently finish in the bottom three in the overall standings.
The Carillon after the first national team title by the Cougars.
    Still, Greg Barthel, who became the men’s volleyball head coach in May of 2007, and his team have worked hard to make community inroads in the local Regina volleyball scene, and all that work seems for naught.
    Where the original release seems really heartless about the reduction in teams revolves around legendary Cougars wrestling head coach Leo McGee. He is not even mentioned at all.
    McGee became head coach of the men’s wrestling team in the 1985-85 campaign and has been the only head coach the women’s wrestling team has known since forming as a club team around the middle of the 1990s to becoming a full Cougars team in 1998-99.
    Saying he was instrumental is likely a descriptor that doesn’t begin to describe the impact and importance he has had on the wrestling teams. Beyond that, he is the school’s most veteran head coach and is tied to the fabric of university life at the U of R. It seems like everyone has at least one great McGee memory if they attended that institution.
    It felt like he knew who everyone was on the other athletic teams too. You would often see McGee making an upbeat pitch to athletes like Rams football star Jason Clermont and Cougars women’s basketball star Cymone (Bouchard) Bernauer about joining wrestling even just for conference or nationals. He would say he could help them win medals noting he wouldn’t have to teach either many moves.
    Those meetings always brought a chuckle from the athletes, and they also came away feeling better about themselves going back into activities involving their own sports.
    In the history of sports at the U of R, McGee was as important as Canadian Football Hall of Fame head coach Brian Towriss was to the University of Saskatchewan Huskies teams. Towriss had a similar rapport with athletes from other sports at the U of S like McGee does at the U of R.
The Carillon with a classic slogan for a headline.
    When Towriss departed and ultimately retired from his position at the U of S in December of 2016, that institution was criticized and hammered for how awfully that situation was handled, and at one point, his departure was the number two trending story in Canada.
    U of R athletics always has a drive to beat U of S athletics. If this is how McGee’s career at the U of R is going to end, U of R has trumped U of S in finding a worse way to handle a legendary coach departure.
    Braydon Johnston, who finished his second season with the Cougars men’s wrestling team, told Steven Wilson of Golden West Radio in Weyburn, Sask., on Tuesday that the coaches from U of R’s cut teams have been instructed not to talk to the athletes. As a result, Johnston hasn’t spoken to McGee since the announcement of the team cuts.
    Even when Towriss was going though bumps in his departure at U of S, his current and former players still threw a farewell party for him. These days, Huskies football has returned to having a family feeling.
    With the cuts that have happened in the mainstream media, it is easier to make the team cuts like the U of R did compared to when the Cougars won national titles in men’s wrestling in 1997 and 1998.
A couple of items of Cougars wrestling gear.
    The brand and prestige of U Sports on a national front is less now than it was back then. At the moment, the sports news cycle is consumed with NHL playoffs, the CFL Draft, and in southern Saskatchewan, the Swift Current Broncos quest to win their first WHL title since 1993.
Still, these cuts won’t likely be quiet in Regina and area.
    As news of the team cuts at the U of R spreads, you will likely hear from more and more alums of the Cougars Wrestling teams. Like the comeback Tesar made in his gold medal match at nationals in 1998, don’t expect the Cougars alums to go away because the experiences they went through were that great.

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