When Heath Eslinger decided six years ago to chase after the Southern Scuffle, the only major college wrestling tournament in the South, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach found he was supported almost from the outset.
With host UNC Greensboro dropping its wrestling program, the Scuffle was in jeopardy of being mothballed, joining the trend at the time of school administrators who believed they had better ways of using shrinking funds.
Before Eslinger even secured the tournament rights, he had assurances from the heads of two perennial top-10 programs that they would come to Chattanooga.
"It was a plus," he said. "It was a selling point to attract other teams."
So the Scuffle, which Sunday morning begins its sixth year and a two-day run at McKenzie Arena, owes much to Cornell's Rob Koll and Missouri's Brian Smith.
"I remember switching from UNCG. When Heath said he was going to take it, I told him we'd be there," Smith said. "I suggested moving it further away from Christmas — into January."
Missouri, ranked No. 5, and Cornell, No. 8, are among 13 of the nation's top 31 teams taking part, according to the latest USA Today/NWCA poll. The group includes Oklahoma State, which stands atop the Dec. 28 national rankings, and ninth-ranked Lehigh.
"There are 10 teams from the Top 25 that will be in Chattanooga," Smith said. "Heath said the numbers are down, but I don't see it based on the competition. We don't get to see Lehigh that often, and I think Oklahoma State's backup team won the Reno tournament."
Penn State had won five straight Scuffle championships, but because of scheduling difficulties the Nittany Lions were forced to opt out of this year's tournament.
"They were looking at wrestling four days in seven and being on the road five days out of eight," Eslinger said. "I'm 100 percent certain they'll be back next year."
Missouri, Cornell and Lehigh figure to be Oklahoma State's strongest challengers, but 13th-ranked Minnesota, No. 16 Stanford, No. 21 Appalachian State, No. 22 Northern Iowa, No. 24 Virginia and No. 25 Drexel are also in the 24-team field.
The Nittany Lions' scheduling dilemma will cost the Scuffle a handful of defending individual champions, but the field is loaded, including a trio of NCAA champions: Oklahoma State's Dean Heil (141), Cornell's Gabe Dean (184) and Missouri's J'Den Cox (197), an Olympic bronze medalist.
Dean, who has won back-to-back national titles, will have his sights set on becoming only the third four-time Scuffle winner — he would join former teammate Kyle Dake and Minnesota's Cole Konrad — and Heil and Cox are defending Scuffle champions as well.
There are close to two dozen All-Americans in the field.
"It's a mini national tournament. It's been successful, and it's awesome the way the tournament's run," Smith said. "They have good volunteers and a good crowd."
Missouri was one of the teams that arrived Friday.
"We treat this tournament like we're going into the NCAAs, from the hotels to arriving a day and a half before and who's rooming with whom," Smith said.
Doors open at 9 a.m. ET each day with wrestling beginning at 10. The finals are at 7 p.m. Monday.
This article is written by Ward Gossett from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.