By all accounts, Purdue assistant wrestling coach Tom Erikson had accepted the job to become Darton's next head coach and was making plans to move to Southwest Georgia. But Thursday, Erikson backed out of the job, leaving the program without a coach and reopening the search.
ALBANY — The Darton State College wrestling program suffered a take down this week.
But it wasn’t pinned, and it won’t tap out.
Cavaliers Athletic Director Mike Kiefer confirmed to The Herald on Friday that newly hired wrestling coach Tom Erikson — who was bringing a Division I pedigree with him after serving as a longtime assistant coach at national powerhouse Purdue — would not, in fact, be taking the job. Darton announced less than two weeks ago that an extensive national search had ended in the hiring of Erikson to take over for outgoing coach Chris Fleeger, who lasted just a year before returning to Indiana to, ironically, become an assistant at Purdue — the same job Erikson was leaving.
Kiefer, however, stressed Friday that this was nothing more than a minor setback and the one-time club program that was elevated to intercollegiate status three years ago will remain a viable sports program at the school. Kiefer added that there were no plans to shut it down, despite the inability to secure a coach who wants to continue building the rising junior college program.
Josh Watts was the team’s first coach in 2007, but he stayed just three years before leaving for an assistant’s job at another D-I powerhouse, Iowa, while Fleeger’s tenure was far shorter before also returning to his roots in the Midwest at Purdue, where he was an All-American wrestler in college.
“No, there hasn’t been any talk about (shutting it down). Our president (Dr. Peter Sireno) was really big on starting this program five years ago and he hasn’t mentioned anything like that,” said Kiefer, who added that because there were several other candidates who were close to being hired for the job — but were ultimately passed over in favor of Erikson — the lines of communication have been reopened and one of those candidates will be announced as the new coach soon. “We had some great candidates the first time, so we didn’t have to go very far (to find the next one after Erikson backed out). Our goal right now is to just find someone to bring stability to the program. That’s what our president wants, that’s what I want, that’s what our players want.”
Kiefer declined to elaborate on exactly what happened with Erikson, saying only, “He just didn’t work out. And I can’t really go into any more detail than that.”
Attempts by The Herald to reach Erikson were unsuccessful, although he did address the situation in a somewhat cryptic message on his Twitter account.
“It is with sadness that I have to turn down the Head Coaching Position at Darton College,” Erikson wrote Thursday morning.
Kiefer has watched the program grow from simply being a club sport into one of the top programs in the Southeast — junior college or otherwise. The NJCAA Cavs consistently hold their own at meets with NCAA Division I programs, and Darton has qualified wrestlers for NJCAA nationals for three straight seasons since making the jump from club sport to intercollegiate three years ago.
But Kiefer also wouldn’t downplay its issues in keeping coaches around and interested in building the program.
“It’s been a challenge, that’s for sure. We’re going on our third coach in three years, and it’s important that we find the right guy who can take the program where we’ve long thought it could go,” he said Friday. “The important thing is that we not only find someone with great ability, but also someone who wants to bring stability to our program.”
That statement, of course, begged the question as to whether the school was looking to hire someone with ties to the Southeast — or better yet, Southwest Georgia — rather than hiring three consecutive candidates from the Midwest with no connection to Georgia.
Kiefer, however, said there haven’t been any local applicants who fit that mold, but if there had been, they would’ve gotten serious consideration.
“One of the other challenges we face in hiring for this position and recruiting is that wrestling — in this region — is a second sport to most of these kids,” he said. “So it’s tough to find dedication to the sport, which is why I think we’ve had more success both recruiting and bringing in coaches from outside the area (where the sport is a lot bigger).”
Darton’s roster the last five years backs up that assertion.
Before signing reigning Herald Player of the Year Rashaud Anthony of Lee County this past season, the Cavs have had just one local product on its team in five years: Tifton’s Trey Hicks, who became Darton’s first-ever All-American this past season.