The beauty of American University's improbable rise to wrestling prominence lies in how much effort it took to get the Eagles back off the ground and how blind faith took them to even greater heights.
The story begins nearly six years ago with a downtrodden program on the verge of extinction. American University was coming off a four-win season, didn't have a permanent head coach in place, and school officials threatened to eliminate the program until a Maryland businessman spearheaded a $140,000 fundraising campaign that saved the team he wrestled for three decades earlier.
"I just knew how much wrestling had meant to me and the values, the lessons in life that it teaches you," Alan Meltzer said. "You're not going to get rich wrestling. You're not going to go out and sign a contract to be a pro. But you learn lessons every single day in that practice room and in one-on-one competition and you just can't put a price on something like that."
But Meltzer insists he isn't the story here. He says it should be about Mark Cody, the coach who brought American a pair of top-20 finishes at the NCAA meet after nearly pulling his name from consideration for the job, or it should be about Josh Glenn, the wrestler who would one day make history at a school he had never heard of five years earlier.
Cody was an assistant at Oklahoma State in 2002 when his sister introduced him to a high school junior from New York at the NCAA Championships. The coach and athlete shared a link, growing up in neighboring communities in the southern part of the state. After hearing glowing reports about the wrestler's talent, character and leadership skills, Cody was preparing to recruit Josh Glenn for the Cowboys.
Those plans changed later in the spring when Cody became American's top recruit. The school contacted him about its coaching vacancy. He looked at the job, listened to his colleagues telling him not to take it and prepared to withdraw his name from the search until the school president announced American's plans went beyond just keeping the program. The school stated its intention to increase its support for the program, hire a prominent head coach and join a competitive wrestling conference.
"They talked about wanting to build a national wrestling powerhouse, and I said, 'If that's what their goals are, I'm in,'" Cody said. "I had been an assistant at two successful programs [Oklahoma State and Nebraska] for a long time and I thought Oklahoma State would be a good springboard to a major job. But [head coaching] jobs are few and far between out there and I went with my heart and took it."
It didn't take long before Cody wondered what he had gotten into. He came out of the locker room for his first home dual as American's coach and counted 12 fans in the stands, barely outnumbering the seven wrestlers on his roster. The Eagles went 2-16 during the 2002-03 season. They didn't win a first-round match in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association tournament and won only one bout in the consolations.
"I felt like I was physically sick all the time," Cody said. "I felt like I had a low-grade fever all the time. It was awful. Trying to get this thing off the ground and trying to get these people to realize what a commitment this was going to take from everyone else around, it's been a major undertaking. A lot more has gone into this than even I could imagine."
Cody needed to boost the program's talent level. He dug in his feet and went to work recruiting. He beat some of the top programs in the country for Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov, who joined the Eagles after winning two junior college national titles and three freestyle national titles in Uzbekistan. Cody went back home to New York and convinced a high school wrestler named Josh Glenn to sign with a school he "didn't know existed."
"I couldn't sell the history or the tradition of this program," Cody said. "I had to sell myself as a coach and my past as a coach. That's what I had to go off of and hoping he would buy into that. I told Josh, 'If you come here, you'll be a pioneer for this program.'"
Glenn had aspirations of winning a national title. Cornell offered him a chance to wrestle for a program on the verge of cracking the top 10. Arizona State gave him an opportunity to compete for a team that finished fifth in the country in 2003. North Carolina had a pair of top-10 finishes in the mid-1990s.
Cody offered Glenn a promise.
"He told me if I wanted to become a national champion that he'd do everything he could to make that happen, he would take care of me and provide me with all the resources I needed to become a champion," said Glenn, who double-majors in U.S. foreign policy and pre-law. "I took that to heart and took him up on his word."
Glenn could see the program growing around him after he arrived at American.
Daniel Waters, who spent six years with the Navy SEALs, became the school's first All-American in 2005. Abdurakhmanov and Glenn joined that list in 2006.
Part of Cody's plan to get Glenn to the top involved the invention of a training regimen similar to what wrestlers went through at the national powerhouses. Cody said he wanted somebody in his practice room "who could take it to Josh Glenn." He brought in Brad Vering, a 2007 world silver medalist in Greco-Roman who won the 197-pound NCAA title at Nebraska under Cody's watch.
Glenn prospered during Vering's first season as a regular training partner. He went 27-1 and became the school's first national champion in any sport since diver Ray Crowe in 1966.
With that, Glenn became the face of a feel-good program in a sport that often struggles to bring teams back from the chopping block.
The Eagles must raise $150,000 yearly to stay afloat. Cody said the annual $45,000 price tag to attend American makes it tougher for his team to stay competitive. What's more, the Eagles operate with half of the resources of some elite programs. American currently operates with 4.5 of the maximum 9.9 scholarships and its 19-man roster isn't yet set up for dual meet success.
Cody said the wrestling program has an agreement in place with the school -- if the team raises enough money for a scholarship, the university will match it -- that enabled him to hand out 9.5 scholarships for next year. But that means the team must raise another $100,000 a year.
"I think we play the biggest role [in the fundraising]," said Glenn, who is 5-0 after missing the first two months of the season while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. "Our success and our achievements are going to push that fundraising coming into us. The best thing we can do is achieve and continue to have success."
• Oklahoma State became the third program this season to take down the top-ranked team in the country on the road Saturday night. The Cowboys knocked off No. 1 Iowa 19-14 in front of 14,332 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena -- the seventh-largest crowd ever to watch an NCAA dual meet.
"It was the loudest I've ever heard an arena in my life," said Oklahoma State's top-ranked Coleman Scott, who scored an 8-6 victory against No. 2 Joey Slaton at 133 pounds.
The Hawkeyes surged to the top of the rankings after winning Dec. 9 at then-No. 1 Iowa State, which had won the previous week at top-ranked Minnesota.
• Undefeated Penn State, which won Dec. 9 at Oklahoma State, jumped to the top of the rankings with Iowa's loss and is seeded No. 1 going into this weekend's National Duals in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.