Toledo wrestling is “On the Rise” in the NCWA

Updated: November 30, 2023

Photo: Since 1997, the University of Toledo has competed in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association and will look to finish above last year’s sixth-place finish at the 2024 NCWA Nationals in Louisiana this March.

By Mike Finn

Bryan Knepper credits his love for the Detroit Lions as one of the reasons he has such a passion to rebuild a college wrestling program like few others could.

 “I’m almost an apologist,” laughed Knepper. “We are not really fans, but those who have been beaten down over the years.”

But that opinion of his beloved NFL team has changed as the Lions had a winning record last year and led their division this fall after eleven weeks. What’s more, the HBO-produced “Hard Knocks” series on the Lions inspired him to use such a medium in his higher goal to rebuild the University of Toledo wrestling program.

“It got me so pumped up about the Lions and believing in (Lions coach) Dan Campbell and his message,” said the 44-year-old Knepper. “I was so pumped up I said this is what we have to do for our program. We need to get the message out there and let people see what happened in the past, what we are doing right now and where we are trying to move in the future.”

That’s why Knepper (in association with LoudKid Films out of Toledo) is creating the documentary, “Rise: The Fall and Rebirth of College Wrestling” which spotlights Toledo’s program being cut and the misintended consequences of Title IX. And, uses their story of building it as a test case for growing the sport again at the NCAA level. The coach hopes to have it streamed on a platform like Netflix as soon as funds are raised. Until then, LoudKid Films has created a trailer:

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“I had that lightbulb moment that this is something we can do because so many more people watch these documentaries,” he said. “It’s real. It’s not just some scripted drama. It’s real pain, real people involved. Maybe that’s the way to get to people’s hearts is through this type of media.”

For those who do not know, the Toledo program now competes in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association (NCWA) and Knepper has served as its unpaid head coach for 16 years in two different stints since 1997, three years after the school dropped men’s wrestling as an NCAA program in 1994. Working as a structural engineer, Knepper left Toledo in 2005 to work at an Air Force base in Tennessee, but returned to Ohio in 2013 and eventually became the Rockets coach again in 2015.

Before the sport was dropped, Toledo had qualified wrestlers for the NCAAs in all but three years and produced 22 all-time NCAA All-Americans. Meanwhile, the Ohio community had served as the host site for many national and international events, including the first World Cup in 1973 and 17 of the first 19. This history is part of the documentary.

Knepper grew up in Toledo, and his father, Dale, wrestled for the Mid-American Conference school as a freshman in 1969 when it was a varsity program. He was teammates with Greg Wojciechowski, the two-time NCAA finalist at heavyweight, who became the school’s second national champion in 1971. (The other Toledo NCAA champ was 191-pound Harry Lanzi in 1952.)

“I grew up with these guys who became mentors and had heard all their stories of how great they were,” said Bryan, who has also created banners for those great wrestlers which hang in the Toledo wrestling room. “I like recognizing them and rebuilding our alumni base and getting them involved in our program.

The documentary “Rise” on Toledo wrestling will be
released once funding has been finalized. Individuals and companies interested in helping to fund the Rise documentary or Toledo wrestling should contact Bryan Knepper at

“I felt we needed to capture this history before it was gone, which was one of my main focuses with the documentary. We’ve got living legends walking around, who people might not even know.

“Ultimately, I would like to see us get back to where we were. Even though we had the World Cup here and we felt like we were the center of the wrestling world, we only had about a 25-year period where that was true. I believe we can be even better than that.”

Knepper restarted the team as an NCWA program when he was a freshman in 1997, the same year Jim Giunta started the NCWA to provide legitimate national competition for former NCAA programs … and perhaps help them regain varsity status.

That is not Knepper’s current plan, but he does not want people to think that Toledo is a club team.

“When I started it, I was naïve and wanted to start it as part of the school’s sports club department,” said Knepper, who was a member of the school’s club soccer team at the time. “I said we could do this for wrestling and my first goal was to bring back the program (in the NCAA) before I graduated. You go into college thinking you can change the world, but you realize the politics and the inner workings of bureaucracies, so by the time I graduated, we calmed down on the plan to become an NCAA Division I sport again. We decided to make this the best program we could with or without NCAA status.”

Over the years, the Rocket program has produced 24 NCWA All-Americans and finished as high as sixth in the NCWA (in 2006 and last year when Kaden Blair won the 133-pound championship as a sophomore to become the school’s fifth all-time NCWA national champion).

The 2024 NCWA national tournament will be held March 16-18 in Shreveport/Bossier City in Louisiana.

“I would love to see Toledo become an NCAA Division I program again. But, the reality of it is, if we were an NCAA Division I right now, I think we’d have less opportunity to affect the sport of wrestling,” he said.

“Right now, the MAC is huge with 13 schools and it’s really difficult to become an NCAA qualifier from the MAC. Let’s say we raise all this money to bring the program back, which would be about $10 million. But then after five years, we only get a couple qualifiers. I don’t think anyone is going to be satisfied with that.”

Knepper has 16 wrestlers on his current roster and has created a foundation to help finance his wrestlers and the program.

“Right now, I want us to be the best program we can be regardless of division,” he said. “As an NCWA program, we don’t have a limit on the amount of funds we give wrestlers. This gives us a greater ability to move the sport of wrestling than if we were in the NCAA.”

Despite not being paid to run the Toledo program, he is as committed to see the program excel in the NCWA as his peers are as NCAA coaches at the various levels.

“I think wrestling replicates real life more than any other sport because there is so much adversity that we go through in life,” he said. “Most people don’t know how to deal with that.

“I made a comment to the guys last week in practice like this is mutual suffering. There is something to be said about going through something difficult with other people and the brotherhood you get out of it. You will have that person backing you for the rest of your life and you don’t realize the affect you have on guys.

“That’s what makes this worth it.”

(Individuals and companies interested in helping to fund the Rise documentary or Toledo wrestling should contact Bryan Knepper at