BY M.A. MEHTA
The news tiptoed along the electronic superhighway, a few paragraphs lost on the Montclair State University Web site 11 days ago. Three months after the second largest university in New Jersey reinstated its wrestling program thanks to a comprehensive fund-raising effort, the administration quietly cut ties with the man behind it all.
Joe Sabol, the Montclair wrestling coach last season, was passed over for the head coaching position by university administrators July 18 despite raising more than $100,000 the past six months to save the tradition-rich wrestling and men's lacrosse programs. The school hired James Torres, former head assistant coach at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., for the full-time job.
"I'm disappointed and shocked, "said Sabol, 36, the reigning Metropolitan Conference Coach of the Year. "I really think this was retaliation against me for looking out for the best interests of the student-athletes at Montclair. They told me they thought (Torres) meshed better with the athletic department."
The Montclair wrestling community already has expressed outrage at the university's decision not to retain Sabol. Holly Gera, the school's athletic director in charge of the hire, did not return calls for this story.
"It was a travesty, "said Ted Levine, the largest individual donor who made a $50,000 contribution to help save the wrestling program. "(The administration) was angry that Joe did the right thing by working to bring back wrestling. Their decision not to hire him was totally done out of anger."
Said junior wrestler Sean Hayes: "He definitely got cheated. He's the single reason Montclair has a wrestling team. (The administration) created this big fiasco, and he fixed it for us. I think they hated him for it. They never thought anyone would go to the extent he did to bring back the program."
Karen Pennington, the vice president of student development and campus life, said she wasn't surprised by the reaction of students and alumni because "they're not privy to the information we have. "Pennington would not discuss the criteria for the job or elaborate on the decision to hire Torres, who coached at a lower level NAIA school. She did, however, clarify Sabol "wasn't the incumbent."
"His position was a one-year temporary appointment, "Pennington said. "This is a different position as a full-time coach. One thing that is difficult for people to understand is that the search process is very involved and very complicated. It's not a matter of handing people a position. Sometimes people disagree."
Anthony Rodriguez, a junior wrestler, was among the frustrated who reached out to Gera without much luck.
"She said she couldn't talk about it because of legal reasons, "Rodriguez said. "Basically, she wrote me an e-mail filled with nothing. Anybody that knows anything about wrestling knows Joe is the most qualified for this job. His qualifications are unheard of for a Division 3 job. Everybody respects him."
Sabol, a four-year assistant before being promoted last season, clashed with administration last winter over campus security after the arrest of a man who allegedly videotaped members of the wrestling team getting dressed in Panzer Gym.
"He worked extra hard to get that program back, "said New York University wrestling coach Bruce Haberli, a finalist for the Montclair job. "I don't know why they didn't offer Joe the job. Quite frankly, if I'm applying for that job and he's applying for that job, I'd still pick Joe before me because of everything he's done for that program. I don't know what happened. I kind of find it unusual. I'd be happy to have Joe working in my athletic department. He's a class act."
On Jan. 20, Montclair State announced plans to demote wrestling, men's lacrosse, women's cross country and men's and women's tennis to club status due to financial constraints on the athletic department. Sabol, who quit his job to focus on fund-raising, worked with everyone from alumni to local politicians to reinstate a program with two Division 3 national championships. He secured donations from all over the country, working around the clock to save the program.
Sabol's fund-raising efforts played a significant role in the university's decision to reinstate wrestling and men's lacrosse on April 25. The athletic budget was increased by an estimated $400,000 through private donations and a raise in the student athletic fee, allowing the school to hire three-full-time coaches for wrestling, women's soccer and women's lacrosse and an athletic trainer.
"My primary goal was to get the program reinstated, "Sabol said. "As long as the kids have a place to wrestle, I'm happy. I felt I won that war. But unfortunately in wars, there are causalities. In this case, my coaching staff and I are those causalities."