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Under The Mat: Title IX, and the end of Auburn wrestling

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The 1980-81 Auburn wrestling team won the SEC championship, and was the first SEC team to finish top 10 in the country. It was also the last wrestling team Auburn ever fielded. (1980 Glomerata)

Karen Hoppa sits behind her desk on the second floor of the Auburn Soccer and Track & Field Complex, in an office that could only belong to a head women’s soccer coach.

She’s surrounded by memorabilia representing her past teams, from photos across her desk to a line of soccer balls covered in player signatures on top of her computer desk’s cabinet frame.

Behind her is a window overlooking a shining green field, where her current team will continue spring practice later in the afternoon.

It’s the Tigers’ home pitch, featuring a small video scoreboard and a bleacher stand that comfortably fits 1,500 members of Auburn soccer’s cult fan base. The turf is strong enough to hold its shape through Tiger practices and games. It’s the perfect home for a rising soccer program in the South.

If it wasn’t for Title IX, which helped jump start women’s athletics programs across the country 41 years ago, it’s possible none of these soccer facilities would have even been built.

Unfortunately, also thanks to Title IX, the women at Auburn don’t have anyone to share it with.

“That is the negative side of Title IX, and I hate that part,” Hoppa says. “I think there’s got to be a different solution than cutting men’s sports. They cut Vandy men’s soccer a few years ago and I just think that was terrible, because they had a really good program and those guys need a place to play.”

There is no varsity men’s soccer team at Auburn, just like how there is no wrestling, men’s volleyball or men’s gymnastics team.

Title IX, a part of the United States Education Amendments of 1972, demands that no one be discriminated against due to sex in consideration of federal financial assistance. In effect, the law requires schools to award a proportionate number of athletic scholarships to females as it does to males.

The easiest way for programs, thus far, to meet that criteria has been to lower the bar on the number of scholarships it offers to men by cutting men’s varsity programs.

While women’s soccer participation has grown from just 22 Division-I schools supporting teams in 1981 to 315 programs featuring teams in 2011, other men’s sports have fallen off, with wrestling dropping from 146 Division-I teams in 1981 to 80 Division-I teams in 2011.

It’s a threat that men’s teams in non-revenue sports at every school operate under every year, and it dampers any hope of more men’s programs being added until the law is tweaked.

There is a men’s soccer presence on Auburn’s campus outside of the student club team. Hoppa sees what might have been members of a varsity men’s soccer team almost every day, in a group of male scout team players. Given their anatomical advantage, Hoppa invites them to practice to push her girls’ strength and athleticism.

But they have no game to practice for. There is no conference championship to chase. There are no Friday nights under the lights.

“A lot of them were really high level players,” Hoppa says. “Some of them even got scholarship offers to play, but they wanted to come to Auburn. So those guys got left out.”

Even sitting in her office atop a first-class facility devoted to her team, the soccer community-member in Hoppa sees that something is still missing.

“I hate that side of it.”

 

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Tom Milkovich (1978 Glomerata)

Tom Milkovich came south to Auburn in 1977 to build a program from the ground up.

Milkovich was an all-time wrestling great in the Midwest, hailing from the First Family of wrestling in Ohio, winning three state championships in three undefeated seasons in high school under his father, Mike Milkovich, Sr., at Maple Heights High.

In college at Michigan State, Tom Milkovich was named a three-time All-American, a national champion and four-time conference champion.

Milkovich inherited a team at Auburn that had just finished last place at the SEC tournament in 1976-77. But by the end of Milkovich’s fourth season of coaching on the Plains, in 1980-81, the Tigers had finished the season ranked No. 9 in the country, becoming the first SEC team to ever crack the top ten.

“We had it going on,” Tom says. “Not only did we have a good team, but we had a great following. One crowd was 6-to-7,000 people that we had at a wrestling match. It was just growing by leaps and bounds.”

Tom Milkovich didn’t come down to Auburn alone. He brought Jamie Milkovich, his younger cousin, fresh out of his high school career at Maple Heights under the tutelage of Mike Sr., to spend his four-year college career at Auburn.

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(1978 Glomerata.)

“I was on an All-Star team when Tom came to the All-Star match and said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to get the job at Auburn,'” Jamie says. “So I got all the guys from Cleveland around me and said, ‘Listen, my cousin’s getting a job in the South. How many of you are with me?’ And like seven guys raised their hand — and those were our first recruits.”

By the end of his senior year, Jamie was Auburn’s all-time wins leader, amassing 98 career wins in four years on the Plains.

“One of the things we really did was make wrestling glamorous,” Jamie Milkovich says. “We put cheerleaders out there; we never had cheerleaders before. The prettiest girls on the campus, and we gave them cheerleading outfits. We made it a show. And it really caught on.”

Wrestling was booming in Auburn, thanks to a set of cousins from Ohio — one the young, upstart head coach and the other a star on the team.

Jamie remembers how the two would drum up interest, throwing an old wrestling mat up on the roof of a van and driving around to all the fraternity houses. They’d gather up the guys, unroll the mat in the yard, and show them all wrestling moves.

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(1977 Glomerata)

Later, they’d organize intramural wrestling tournaments between all the fraternities, and the sororities would show up to cheer. They had the auxiliary gym rocking, Jamie recalls.

Throughout the Milkovich cousins’ four years at Auburn, the sport grew immensely on campus, and the program made several breakthroughs, including facing Tennessee in the first ever nationally televised wrestling meet, broadcast by an upstart ESPN.

But the biggest moment of the Milkovich era came in an upset win at home over Oklahoma.

“In 1980, the University of Oklahoma was ranked No. 1, and we hosted them at the Memorial Coliseum back then, and we beat them,” Jamie says. “The place was packed and everybody ran onto the mat, and it was really the pinnacle.

“A team from Auburn was never supposed to even be in the same gymnasium as the University of Oklahoma in wrestling.”

The Tigers went on to win the SEC championship. They finished the season ranked in the top 10 nationally. Tom was continuing to bring in star recruits from wrestling hotbeds up North, while helping to build the local high school programs in Alabama. Jamie, with his collegiate career finished, was preparing to stick around and join Tom’s coaching staff as an assistant.

The stage was set. Auburn was going to become a wrestling powerhouse in the South for years to come.

Then, suddenly, it all disappeared.

 

The first time Meredith Jenkins heard about Title IX, she was a junior at Melbourne High School in 1987 in Melbourne, Fla.

“I played soccer, and we didn’t have girls’ soccer in the high schools growing up in Florida,” Jenkins says. “But we had a really good program. We played a lot of club teams and won a lot of tournaments. So we went to the school board and asked to have soccer, and they didn’t want it. But we had a lawyer as a father and he suggested that this might be something under Title IX.

“We got girls soccer,” Jenkins laughs, “and we won the state championship that year.”

Now, Jenkins deals with Title IX almost every day, as a Senior Women’s Athletic Director at Auburn.

Jenkins says that program budgeting comes down to financial restraints as much as it does Title IX compliance, but she admits that Title IX’s impact may have resulted in some unintended consequences.

“I worry about some sports,” Jenkins says. “Look at wrestling. And men’s swimming; We have a great men’s swimming program and you look across the country at how many have been dropped in the past 10 years — That was not the intent of Title IX. It wasn’t to drop men’s sports and cut opportunities to men. It was just to make sure women had opportunities. But, I can’t speak for those places, but I’m sure it comes down to dollars.”

Either way, Jenkins has seen Title IX have a tremendous effect on the women’s side of college athletics during her career, as has Auburn soccer coach Karen Hoppa.

“The good thing is, from a career standpoint, it’s really helped,” Hoppa says.

After graduating high school in 1987, Hoppa played out her college soccer career at the University of Central Florida. Upon graduation, she joined the UCF coaching staff as the Golden Knight’s top assistant — but was only paid $2,500 a year, and had to work other jobs, like coach high school boys’ soccer and club teams, to get by until she was named UCF’s head coach in 1993.

Now, Hoppa says, thanks to the growth in women’s sports spurred by Title IX, there is a more viable career path in place for women to navigate in athletics.

“You have an opportunity to have an entry-level position at a college and then work your way up, just like (former Auburn assistant) Amy Berbary,” Hoppa says. “She left to be the head coach at Indiana. She was a high school coach for a couple years, then she got the assistant job at Dayton, worked her way up to here, and now she’s the head coach at Indiana.

“When I graduated high school, you couldn’t even fathom that. But that was always her career goal, to work her way up. And I couldn’t even fathom that. It wasn’t even an option. So I do think that it’s really neat that now we do have those types of opportunities for women.”

 

“I was offered the job at the University of Michigan,” says Tom, going back to the spring of 1981. “So I came back to Auburn, and the athletic director at the time was Lee Hayley, and I told Coach Hayley, ‘Coach, they’ve offered me the head coaching position at Michigan.’ I knew some of the other SEC schools had dropped the sport, and I wanted to know what was going to happen at Auburn.”

Tom says that Hayley reassured him in that meeting that the athletic department was excited about the wrestling program, and that Hayley promised Tom and Jamie that no one would touch the wrestling program as long as he was the athletic director.

With that reassurance, how could they leave the Southern paradise they had found?

“We had a lot over there by Chewacla State Park,” Jamie says. “We had two lots over there. I said, ‘Tom, do you really want to leave this to go back up to Michigan? Just because it’s the Big 10?’ He said, ‘Jamie, you’re right, we can’t leave this.’

“And we went and told Michigan we weren’t coming.”

But winds of change were blowing on the Plains.

“It wasn’t two months later or so that Pat Dye was then hired as the athletic director,” Tom says, “and the first thing they did was they dropped the wrestling program.”

The Michigan vacancy had already been filled.

Tom hasn’t found a coaching job at the collegiate level since.

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(1979 Glomerata.)

And Auburn hasn’t competed in varsity wrestling since. Auburn hasn’t given out a scholarship, awarded a letter, or competed in a match in varsity wrestling in over 32 years.

That means Auburn can’t continue the legacy of former greats, either, like the legendary Arnold “Swede” Umbach, who laid the foundation for the Auburn wrestling program well before the short Milkovich renaissance of the late 1970’s.

“We had 37 years of wrestling at Auburn,” Tom says. “We had a guy named Swede Umbach who gave his entire life to that university, and the development of the wrestling program, and it meant nothing to them. Swede Umbach was the dean of wrestling in the South. A lot of those colleges started because of Swede Umbach.

“There isn’t a single thing left except for a trophy for Ray Downey. That’s it. And you had all these great kids that went to the school there.”

 

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“Swede Umbach was the dean of wrestling in the South.” — Tom Milkoivch (Plainsman 1973)

Now, Tom Milkovich lives in Florida, close to his legendary father, Mike Sr., for whom the Maple Heights school system back in Ohio has since named a middle school after.

Tom has retired from teaching and coaching full-time in Ohio, and now just coaches wrestling at nearby Coral Shores High School in Florida. With the rest of his time, he goes fishing in the Florida Keys. And diving for lobsters.

The Milkovich cousins and the Auburn wrestling community tried to save the program back when it was cut. At first, Auburn said the cut was due to a lack of funding, so Tom went out and found some funding.

“We raised close to $1 million from several sources,” Tom says. “We were going to operate off of the percentage in the bank that we had. Each year we could have raised about $120,000, I could imagine, to support the program, and they still wouldn’t do it.”

According to Jamie, supporters had pledged several fold of what the program would have required to sustain itself.

“Our budget back then was only $26,000,” Jamie says. “We had donors obligating over $100,000, and they still said ‘We can’t do it.’ I think they didn’t want to admit that it was a Title IX thing, because they couldn’t, but it was. That was really a sad thing for us, because we had really developed a good program.”

The next year, most of the team with eligibility remaining transferred to other schools and continued to wrestle. Several would find success at other schools, and two of them would go on to win national championships.

According to Tom and Jamie’s math, if that team had stayed together in 1981-82, based on the points the wrestlers earned elsewhere during that season, Auburn would have finished No. 2 in the country.

“I don’t blame Pat Dye at all,” Tom says. “I blame the fact that women’s sports needed to be added — and I have nothing against women’s sports. I was very happy for them, but I wasn’t very happy that they cut my sport at the expense of women’s sports.”

When both cousins moved back to Ohio in 1981, Jamie took over the job at Maple Heights for his uncle, Mike Sr. He has coached there ever since.

“For me it wasn’t really just a loss for the wrestling program, because I really grew to love the South and specifically Alabama and Auburn and I really thought I’d be spending the rest of my life there,” Jamie says. “Then all of a sudden, I came back up to Cleveland, and still for 32 years I’m coaching at the high school I went to. So it was a loss to me on a lot of levels.

“There was this beautiful place in the South, and it was like I discovered paradise down there.”

The old wrestling team had a reunion in Auburn in 2002. That’s the last time Jamie has been back to his alma mater.

“There’s nothing to come back to,” Jamie says. “There’s no match to meet up at. It’s one thing meeting at a football game. That’s fun. But you’re wrestlers. There’s no big match against Alabama that we can come back to meet at. It’s really a loss.”

Still, both have kept fond memories of the time they headed to the Deep South on a mission to rebuild a struggling program — and ended up finding a second home in the process.

“Even though people feel like Auburn did us wrong by dropping it, those were the best four years of my life and I still love the university,” Jamie says. “I rooted for them when Cam Newton was playing, all that.”

Both Milkovich cousins return to the state of Alabama every year for a high school wrestling clinic hosted by former Auburn wrestler Mark Snider at Hewitt-Trussville High School. It is there, at the high school level, that they hope to see a resurgence of wrestling talent and interest in the South.

Currently, one Southeastern Conference school, Missouri, supports a varsity wrestling program.

“I have never forgotten my time at Auburn,” Tom says. “I love the university, and I love the people that were there. They made it my home and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was the greatest place I thought I had ever seen in my life, and I’d have taken Auburn University over any university anyway.”

Keep Reading:

* Coke was first sold in Auburn!
* Don Knotts, Auburn student
* Former AU homecoming queen starring in HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’
* Bama fan legislator introduced bill to abolish Auburn University in 1973
* Auburn wore green jerseys… for two seasons
* Gus Malzahn, 1989
* Jeff Foxworthy walking around Auburn

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