MOUNT PLEASANT — Just over one year ago, Iowa Wesleyan University was teetering on the brink of extinction.
Strapped with financial difficulties, the university pondered closing its doors before getting some financial help.
Seven months ago, in an attempt to reach more potential student-athletes, Iowa Wesleyan Director of Athletics announced the school was adding men's and women's wrestling for the 2020-21 school year.
Just a couple months later, Robert Powell was named head coach of both the men's and women's programs and Powell hit the ground running.
It is the irony of ironies. Just a few years ago, wrestling was in a fight for its very existence. The Olympic Committee was considering dropping the sport from the Olympic Games. The wrestling world rallied, thanks in large part to former University of Iowa head wrestling coach Dan Gable, himself an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling. Thanks to Gable's tireless effort, wrestling remains a vital part of the Olympic Games, just as it has from the very start.
Gable was on hand Monday night at Ruble Arena on the Iowa Wesleyan University campus, signing autographs for fans, giving a speech at halftime of the women's basketball game and mingling with VIP in a social meet and greet afterwards.
Gable came to show his support for the fledgling wrestling programs at Iowa Wesleyan and to raise interest and awareness. Having the worldwide face of wrestling on hand was the kind of shot in the arm the sport — and Iowa Wesleyan University — needed.
"Mount Pleasant has always been on my radar, but when they added men's and women's wrestling, they are officially a capitol now," Gable said. "I've been here before. When I came here before I gave them a speech. It's been a few years ago. I think I even said something about, 'Well, you guys probably need to add wrestling.' If a college doesn't have the sport, I think they need to have it. That's just the bottom line. At the time I didn't really think it was realistic. But then all of a sudden I find out they're going through some tough times and they are kind of reorganizing and they tried to figure out just how they can make this thing go. Their plans for making it go was to get more people on campus and they felt like starting a wrestling team would be a way because this is Iowa. Iowa has a tradition of over 100 years of wrestling."
"This day means a lot to me. It's a big moment for us to have the community here and available. To have a lot of alumni available. Everyone who support Iowa Wesleyan. Especially Dan Gable. He's a legacy in the sport of wrestling in the state of Iowa. What we have going on here in southeast Iowa is very amazing. It's very special. It's something that we're building and we're growing and we're adding to what our university does for this small community," Powell said.
The night also included a big announcement that Iowa Wesleyan University received a $250,000 gift from Mark and Sandy Willis. Mark is a 1970 graduate of Iowa Wesleyan and a 2017 inductee into the Tiger Athletics Hall of Fame. This gift will be used toward a building remodel to create a state-of-the-art wrestling training center.
The building, located at 205 E. Taft Street, was donated to Iowa Wesleyan in 2007 by the Randy and Karly Beavers Family. It will be named the 'Willis Wrestling Facility' and will house a training area, locker rooms, a weight room, and other wrestling specific amenities. It also will house offices and a film room for the wrestling program and other athletic staff.
"The impact of this gift from Mark and Sandy is significant for our community, from our athletics program to our enrollment management efforts," said Iowa Wesleyan President Chris Plunkett. "This facility will also have an immediate and positive impact on our recruiting efforts for future Tigers."
The Mark and Sandy Willis gift was given as a challenge to other alumni and wrestling fans to help grow a solid foundation for the program's future. Renovation is expected to begin in late spring following the completion of a successful fundraising effort for the new wrestling program. The facility should be completed by the fall of 2020.
The night also included a tour of the new facility, led by Gable, a visionary who sees big things ahead for the Iowa Wesleyan University wrestling programs.
"I was looking through the trophy cases and they've had an astronaut and they've had three or four other famous people," Gable said. "They could use some good wrestlers. They could use a good support system. You just never know what one sports system can do for the other ones. Just a national champion. I remember when I first came to Iowa there was a football player named Tim Dwight. He became a pretty darn good football player. He says to me, 'We weren't winning many football games when you were winning national title. But we really looked up to that and that instilled a desire in us to be even better.' That's what you have to do. You have to find something that is going to excel and that helps everybody within the system."
"We have eight recruits on campus right now — seven who came just for the Dan Gable Night and one who was up here for a visit. Both guys and girls. It's great for them to get to see Coach Gable and get autographs and know that they have the support at Iowa Wesleyan, that this school is completely behind the sport of wrestling and they are going to want to come here and feel welcomed," Powell said.