Kevin Dresser, right, has the Hokies in the top 20 after guiding 13 Virginia… (Courtesy Of Virginia Tech )
BLACKSBURG, VA. -- When Coach Kevin Dresser arrived at Virginia Tech in 2006, he taped a quote next to the door of the Hokies' wrestling room. The line was supposed to be a motivational tool, but it has instead come to define Virginia Tech's program.
"Adversity weakens the weak and strengthens the strong."
Virginia Tech wrestling was in disarray when the resignation of its coach in 2006 led five wrestlers to sue the university after it denied their request to transfer. Administrators discussed scrapping the program, which started competing in 1920. Four seasons later, the Hokies are ranked 19th nationally and have built a talented foundation that should keep them there.
"I walked into basically starting a Division I program from scratch," Dresser said recently while sitting inside the Hokies' wrestling room. "It really took us about three years to where we felt like we were at ground zero. We're there and making progress. We didn't take this job to get second place. We want to be national champions."
Although Dresser already has had success, he said Virginia Tech is far from its potential because it has not built depth through years of recruiting. The Hokies, who won the first five bouts at No. 7 Lehigh on Friday night before falling, 24-12, have been competing this season without four injured starters and another who quit the team.
But with his brand of straight-talking, no-frills leadership, Dresser already has started to rebuild Virginia Tech's wrestling program.
"A lot of people doubted Dresser, but four years down the road, we're ranked in the top of the country," said Matt Epperly, who is ranked 20th nationally in the 165-pound weight class. "There's not much doubting you can do about that."
Virginia Tech was in shambles after its former coach, Tom Brands, left after two seasons to take over at his alma mater, Iowa, where he was a three-time national champion from 1989 to 1992. Since returning to Iowa City, Brands has led the Hawkeyes to national tournament championships in 2008 and 2009 and has coached five all-Americans.
The divorce between Brands and Virginia Tech was ugly. After Brands departed, five wrestlers tried to follow him to Iowa but were not released from their scholarships.
The wrestlers petitioned the university to no avail before suing the university and the athletic director, Jim Weaver, alleging a breach of commitment made to the wrestlers when they were recruited that would have allowed them to transfer without penalty or loss of eligibility. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2006.
Brands spoke highly of Virginia Tech and Weaver, saying the administration was committed to wrestling and the decision to leave was not easy because he enjoyed the community. But Brands did not like how the five wrestlers were treated after his departure.
"Those kids were wronged," Brands said in a recent telephone interview. "It was done for one reason, and that was to get to me. It hurt me, but it hurt those kids more than me."
The university asked the wrestlers to spend one year under the Hokies' new coach before being allowed to transfer. All five ended up transferring to Iowa, including star Brent Metcalf. As a sophomore in 2008 for the Hawkeyes, Metcalf won the NCAA championship at 149 pounds and claimed the Dan Hodge Trophy as the nation's top wrestler.
"There was a lot of insecurity in where we were going next," said Jon Jaudon, the associate athletic director for administration who oversees wrestling at Virginia Tech. "Most of the young men that were in the program had joined Virginia Tech at some point during Tom's years as our head coach."
Asked if university officials discussed folding the program, Jaudon said: "I won't deny that there were conversations regarding that issue. But we never crossed over the line to make a decision that would have ended wrestling at Virginia Tech."
The Hokies hired Dresser to pick up the pieces.
Dresser had also come up through Iowa's legendary program under the tutelage of Dan Gable, who coached the Hawkeyes to 15 NCAA championships from 1976 to 1998. But Dresser, a two-time all-American and the 1986 NCAA champion at 142 pounds for the Hawkeyes, had also established his name as a successful high school coach in Virginia.
From 1988 to 1996, Dresser led the powerhouse Grundy High School, in a small, impoverished coal-mining town in southwest Virginia, to eight state titles in as many seasons before taking over at Christiansburg High School. Dresser led Christiansburg, which is minutes from Blacksburg, to five state titles in 10 seasons from 1997 to 2006.
"I'm a real goal-oriented person, and I felt like I had reached every goal that I had set at the high school level," Dresser said. "I was bored when I left Grundy, and I was getting bored at Christiansburg. So the timing of it was really, really good."
In an interview with three university administrators, Dresser articulated a plan for how he could build the program. The school officials were sold.