NCWA hopes Tarleton State program helps others ‘Fast Start’ to varsity level

Updated: November 1, 2023

Photo: Former Missouri All-American Grant Leeth became the first head coach at Tarleton State University, located in Stephenville, Texas, with an enrollment of 13,000 students.

By Mike Finn

Jim Giunta, the founder of the National Collegiate Wrestling Association, still has the same mission and passion he had back in 1997 when the NCWA first provided college wrestling opportunities that the NCAA and NAIA could not.

“We have created a legitimate national championship for these schools and have men’s and women’s programs fully funded by their athletic departments,” said Giunta, who also does not want wrestling fans to look at the NCWA as a college club wrestling association.

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One of the NCWA’s main goals is to help these programs reach varsity status. And with the help of the Texas Collegiate Wrestling Foundation, which he also oversees, they hope to make Tarleton State the Lone Star State’s first NCAA Division I program in what the NCWA has called a “Fast-Start Plan.”

Giunta, who lives in Dallas, is from a state that has over 10,000 boys and over 5,000 high school girls competing in wresting, but there are no NCAA Division I programs. He believes that can happen with Tarleton State, a smaller NCAA Div. I school that competes in the Western Athletic Conference.

“Our plan is designed to allow us to get athletes on the mat immediately, rather than wait a couple seasons,” said Giunta, adding that the 100-year-old school in Stephenville, Texas, could be that program.

“We started the TCWF as a way to raise funds so that when we went to a college, we could show we are serious about building a program. There are so many false starts, not only in Texas, where people say they are going to have a program, but nothing happens.

“We wanted to stop that trend, so we asked what it would take to get this program started at Tarleton, which was super open to talking about this. Their president (Dr. James Hurley) is very forward thinking and is kind of a visionary in what he sees that college becoming.

“He sees athletics as a big part of moving to the next level and becoming a larger school. Wrestling is one of the sports they are considering as part of that plan.

“But they are also honest in saying, ‘We need some money to help us get this thing off the ground. The agreement was that we would come up with $5 million as a foundation to do that, including $2 million for them to do the launch.”

Giunta admitted that the TCWF had a “pretty short run” to get this all together.

Jim Giunta

“We had about three months so they could announce it in August,” he said. “That was a pretty short runway for us to go find big donors. Normally, you have to develop a little bit of a relationship before they are going to give you a half a million bucks.

“We weren’t able to reach the Aug. 15 deadline, but (Tarleton State) was very nice and said they want the wrestling program but can’t do it until we get $2 million.”

Giunta said the school gave them an extension to raise the money and agreed to first start an NCWA program and find a way to make it an NCAA Division I program. The TCWF then hired Grant Leeth, the former Missouri All-American and Stanford assistant coach as its first head coach.

“He is someone who not only can coach, but will be fundraising as well,” Giunta said. “Rob Koll (the former Cornell and Stanford coach, who returned to North Carolina this season) taught Grant how to fundraise. “We believe that part of our (TCWF) system will help these coaches with the fundraising.

“Once we have coaches and athletes on the mat, donors will look at this and say, ‘This is going to happen.’

The 2024 NCWA National Championships for both men’s and women’s wrestling will take place March 14-16 at the Brookshire Grocery Arena in Bossier City, La.

“The ‘Fast-Start Plan’ begins with a NCWA program that will morph into an NCAA Division I program.”

As a very positive person, Giunta believes they will be able to announce that Tarleton State will be an NCAA Division I program by the end of this college wrestling season.

Giunta also believes that NCWA programs can serve as “feeders” to schools’ varsity program and believes this Tarleton State story can help other NCWA programs.

“We’ve already got schools earmarked. This is not a one-shot baby,” Giunta said. “We think we can launch four NCAA Division I or II programs in the state of Texas in the next five or six years.

“All I can say is ‘This is the model and we are going to do it.’ We aren’t just going to tell people about it. We are going to do the model. We may have to adjust once we have to adjust and figure it out. We are going to build programs. This is not a one-trick pony.

“I also believe if we can create a successful foundation in Texas, we’re going to have a national wrestling foundation where someday we can do this in a state like Alabama and springboard a wrestling program in Alabama.”