Little Rock wrestling hits the big time at 2024 NCAAs

Updated: March 20, 2024

Photo: Minnesota coach Brandon Eggum listens to Little Rock coach Neil Erisman Wednesday afternoon before their teams begin action at the 2024 NCAA Division I Championships in Kansas City.

By Mike Finn

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Neil Erisman did not tell wrestling reporters that he had a five-year plan when he was part of the creation of the Little Rock (Ark.) program in 2018-19.

But there the fifth-year head coach sat at the T-Mobile Center, less than 24 hours before the start of what could be the greatest moment in the short time of the Trojan program at the 2024 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, which will be held Thursday through Saturday.

“Seems like not just a short time ago we didn’t have a program, and now we’re bringing five guys to the NCAA Tournament, winning the regular season Pac-12 championship and putting three conference champions,” said Erisman, a former wrestler from Oklahoma State, who has steered this relatively-new program to great success in a state that did not even feature a high school state tournament until 2008. “It’s been a really incredible season for us,” he added. “We’ve had a lot of things that have made us really grateful and humbled us in the process.”

So, what were the humbling moments for Erisman and the Trojans the past five years?

“Little things like not being able to completely throw a lineup together in year one,” said Erisman, who also spent time coaching at North Carolina as an assistant before moving to Little Rock. “And then just in the recruiting process, just a lot of student-athletes that didn’t choose your school, that chose others.

“There’s just a lot of different situations that when you start from scratch, it’s completely different than rebuilding that you have to go through. And getting your head kicked in for so many years and keeping a smile on your face and celebrating the little things, that will humble you really quick. And that will make you grateful for these types of moments.”

Would he recommend that future new programs go through the tough times his program did?

“That’s a tough question, but absolutely, during the middle of it, you’ve got to have perspective, you gotta have a strong foundation in your life to continue to live on to go through that,” he said. “This is very much a great sport for new programs. If you can come in with a strong message, a strong value system and be able to communicate effectively, you can grow pretty quickly, I believe.”

Erisman also knows that his battle is not over, especially if his wrestlers perform well in Kansas City and catch the attention of other coaches at a time when the NCAA’s transfer portal and N.I.L (Name. Image. Likeness) financial opportunities lead to other programs recruiting his wrestlers.

“I would say I’m a little torn (about the N.I.L),” he said. “Some people (coaches) are already circling our program. Obviously, there are a lot of positives in (the N.I.L), but when you’re a program like our size, we’re kind of primed for the picking. This is where I have to step up and make sure that we’re doing what it takes to take care of our guys and show them they’re valued here.

“I think that’s going to be the next big piece is athletes need to feel valued more than just the dollar sign in your program. I think that’s what we’re doing well, and we’re going to do our best to compete at such a high level at that level of N.I.L. if we can and hope for the best there.”

Erisman is also aware that Little Rock may have to find a new conference to compete in as the Pac-12 faces an uncertain future after several schools left for other conferences, including a strong wrestling school like Arizona State, which will soon join the Big 12 Conference.

“We actually have a one-year waiver with the Pac-12,” Erisman said., “So the Pac-12 will exist for at least one more season. We hope to see kind of where the landscape of college athletics goes to make better decisions for wrestling in the West.

“It’s important that we keep wrestling in the West, and we allow more regional competition out there by not disbanding. But I think we’re all going to do what’s best for wrestling first and then try to focus on us afterwards.”

Erisman, who grew up 40 miles west of the T-Mobile Center in DeSoto, Kan., takes pride in the growth of wrestling in his state and the KC area.

“Wrestling has really exploded,” Erisman said. “It’s always been great here. There’s always been a lot of great talent, a lot of national champs coming out of this area and World Team members and things of that sort.

“I think that this place is, if you don’t know already, a hidden gem for wrestling and recruiting and there’s always talent coming in and out.”