UTC Wrestling

By Andrew Shaughnessy
Photos by Michael Hampton

As UTC’s Wrestling Program enters its 70th season, its head coach is rallying Chattanooga to the mat and making us rethink the way we build athletes.

Just down the hall from UTC Wrestling Head Coach Heath Eslinger’s office in Maclellan Gym, the wrestling practice room is spartan, simple. Two climbing ropes hang from the ceiling, kettlebells sit stacked in the corner, and script on the wall reads “Chattanooga Strong.” Right now it’s quiet. But come practice time, it will  fill with the crashes and thuds and skids of athletes locked in combat. Mats will smear with sweat and blood, and life lessons will commence. It’s Coach Eslinger’s forge for athletes. 

Contrast this with his office. Past the former youth pastor’s bookshelf, where books on Christian living sit side by side with Foxcatcher and tomes on coaching, there’s a quote by Albert Einstein etched on a whiteboard: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” That’s what leading a Division I wrestling program looks like to Eslinger: breaking down complex ideas about competition and character into their simplest parts – the building blocks with which to build men and rally the Chattanooga community to his beloved sport.

Before signing on as head coach in 2009, Eslinger was a four-time letter winner for the Mocs between 1995-2000, as well as a three-time qualifier for the NCAA Championships and a four-year team captain. Since his heyday as a competitor, he has stood out as a leader: first as a youth pastor, then as head coach at Cleveland High School, and finally as assistant coach for the Mocs from 2002-2004.

Wrestling is a tough guy’s sport – an old school brawler’s game of speed and skill, strength, and pain. The best wrestlers, the ones who manage to excel in the crucible of training and making weight, compete at the college level for a few years of glory. And then, for most, that’s it. There’s no professional wrestling equivalent to the NFL or the NBA, so the college greats, some of the toughest athletes out there, have to love the sport for its own sake. They’re left with cauliflower ear and a crooked nose and war stories of the game that almost killed them. A few, like Eslinger, find their calling in the sport, no longer as athletes, but as teachers.

The Mothership of Area Wrestling

UTC Wrestling has a storied tradition dating back to 1947, when the Mocs first began competing in the Southern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (SIWA). In 1963, the wrestling program moved to Division II, qualifying as a team for the NCAA Division II Championships from 1972-1977 under Head Coach Jim Morgan.

Those DII years were, in some ways, a high point. The Mocs finished second at the NCAA DII Championships in 1976. Three wrestlers won six individual championships between them, and seven wrestlers made All-American 12 times collectively. And yet the same time period saw wrestling suffer with passing of Title-IX – the hotly debated federal law that prohibited gender discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity. As universities nationwide scrambled to modify their athletics, more than 450 wrestling programs went under.

UTC’s program, however, was among the 328 left standing, leaving it in a position of influence in the Southern Conference. In 1978, UTC moved to Division I. Since then, the team has won 186 individual conference championships, 28 conference tournament titles, and nine individual wrestlers have earned 12 All-American citations.  Meanwhile, it’s strength has rippled out, creating a base of enthusiastic wrestling fans, volunteers, and officials in our community.

Its impact is most evident in the success of regional high school teams. Today, area high schools Cleveland, Bradley Central, and Soddy-Daisy all have top Division 1 wrestling programs, and each have numerous state championship titles to their name. Chattanooga Central, Hixson, and Notre Dame are powerhouses among smaller schools in Tennessee, while schools like Heritage High School are solid competitors in Georgia.

“There’s no question our region is dominant in high school wrestling and a great deal of that has to do with UTC,” says Heritage High School Wrestling Head Coach Mike Craft, who has led multiple teams to the state championship in his 25-year coaching career. “We’re notorious for cranking out state champs. Sometimes we’ll even have two or three guys from the same weight class on the podium. Having a strong Division I college program right here where kids can go to matches, build skills during summer camps, and be exposed to college wrestlers makes all the difference.”

Wrestling programs from kids’ clubs all the way up through junior high and into high school snowballs into good high school teams made up of kids with years of practice and knowledge already under their belts. Many of these programs are run by former UTC wrestlers who settled in the area and stayed involved with the sport, either coaching, officiating, or volunteering at tournaments.

“UTC’s Wrestling Program has had a huge impact on area wrestling,” says Turner Jackson, a former All-American who wrestled at UTC under Morgan in the ’70s. “Just this morning I put together a list of about 20 coaches who came out of UTC. These guys love the sport and after college they continue it on and share their knowledge. It’s a cycle.”

“There’s a lot of tradition that you can see,” says Eslinger. “But there’s also a lot of UTC Wrestling’s legacy in action that you don’t see. Wrestling officials who give back. Volunteers who give back.”

Building and Branding

Since signing on as head coach in 2009, Eslinger has built the program athletically and academically, while simultaneously taking an aggressive and innovative approach to marketing wrestling in the community.

In the last seven years, the Mocs have set records in the classroom: going from a 2.4 to a 3.1 GPA and making the top 15 Division I wrestling teams with the highest GPA four times, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA). Their achievements on the mat are no less impressive, with the Mocs ranking among the nation’s top 25 Division I wrestling programs for the last three years, according to InterMat Wrestling, and winning either a share of or the whole conference title every year for the last seven years. This year, four current UTC wrestlers made WIN Magazine’s (Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine) preseason national individual rankings in their respective weight classes: Seniors Scottie Boykin (No. 11), Jared Johnson (No. 15), Michael Pongracz (No. 15), and Sean Mappes (No. 16).

Marketing-wise, Eslinger’s biggest contribution thus far is landing the Southern Scuffle – the largest in-season wrestling tournament in the U.S. outside of the NCAA. Brought to Chattanooga in 2012, the premier Division I tournament has one of the best attendance rates of any college wrestling tournament in the nation.

How did he do it? When Eslinger caught word that UNC Greensboro had dropped its wrestling program in 2010, and the Scuffle with it, he went all out to claim the tournament for Chattanooga. He recruited UTC’s athletic director to the cause, reserved the arena, and even entered into conversations with downtown hotels – and all this before the school had officially claimed the event. “I knew it might be in vain, but if I didn’t we wouldn’t have a chance,” says Eslinger. “If the opportunity presented itself, I wanted to be teed up and ready to swing. I had a vision for what the Southern Scuffle could be in Chattanooga. I believed in our community and our administration. I knew they wanted us to be successful, and I knew we could take it and do an unbelievable job.”

Today his gamble has paid off. Every year, the tournament brings the nation’s best wrestlers to Chattanooga, further cementing our position as a bastion for the sport. Beyond exposing young wrestlers to top talent, the Scuffle builds publicity for the school and creates opportunities for people to watch, volunteer, and immerse themselves in the tradition. “The key is to be an asset,” Eslinger says. “It’s a lot harder to cut something when it furthers your goals as a university or community.”

When it comes to marketing wrestling to a wider audience, Eslinger is fearless. This November, he plans to repeat an upscale event the team introduced three years ago, with great success – an elegant dinner with an unusual kind of entertainment. “It’s super fancy. There’s valet parking. People buy tables. We’re talking dining by candlelight and we wrestle right in the middle of everything.”

3-D Coaching

If you follow the sport, you know today’s wrestlers are more skilled than ever before. They’re stronger. They’re faster. They’re specialized. But in Eslinger’s perspective, athletic gains too often come at a cost. “We’re seeing more issues at the high school, collegiate, and professional level than we ever have before. And I think it’s because we’ve become so consumed with the great – the wins and titles and performances – that we’ve forgotten about the good.”

Enter: Eslinger’s emphasis on character development. “We want our guys to be tough, because that helps us win. But we also want to teach empathy, because that makes them great people,” he says. “I take communication and holistic development very seriously. In coaching collegiate wrestlers, we have an opportunity to help young men grow into what men should be.”

Both locally and nationally, Eslinger is well-known for championing “three-dimensional coaching” – a philosophy that emphasizes coaching the mind/motivations (2nd Dimension) and transforming the heart (3rd Dimension), in addition to teaching skills and strategies of the game (1st Dimension). “Our goal is to push these guys above and beyond wrestling to productive and meaningful lives. We want to see them grow emotionally, physically, spiritually…to look back at the four or five years they spent wrestling at UTC and say: ‘That was a great investment in who I am as a person.’ And when you multiply that, you start seeing the fruit of what Chattanooga wrestling is about.”

In an era when wrestling programs face the possibility of being shut down by schools, Mocs wrestling has not only survived, but thrived, establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with on the mat and a positive influence in the community. So, with so much going for it, what’s next for this 70-year-old program?

“From a competitive standpoint, I think we’ve got to put some guys on the podium. We want to get in the top 10. But what coach wouldn’t say that?” Eslinger says. “More importantly, we have to continue to make sure we’re measuring not just the great things but the good things too.”

And that, perhaps, is what sets UTC Wrestling apart: under Eslinger’s leadership, Mocs wrestling is not just about creating the toughest, winning-est athletes – though that matters too. It’s about developing whole people, forging men who graduate with a love for the sport, a dedication to character, and a heart for the community, such that they want to give back as coaches, volunteers, and officials. It’s that approach to building men and a local wrestling culture that has sustained and grown Chattanooga into the regional wrestling powerhouse it is today.