Star-studded support sparks Binghamton's resurgence

An e-mail address is printed at the bottom of this feature, and each week a few wrestling fans take the time either to say thanks for a certain article, expand on a topic that was written about or suggest another story idea.

Upon opening an e-mail Sunday morning that was sent Saturday night -- one from sender "WB" with a subject line of "Binghamton University Wrestling" -- it was natural to assume that someone was pitching a story. That assumption was correct -- but there was far more to the story than could have been expected.

WB turned out to be actor William Baldwin. He became fairly well-known in the wrestling community a few years back when he was part of a group that fought to save -- and eventually did save -- the Binghamton wrestling program. He attended the school and wrestled there in the early 1980s, and his passion never waned -- not through a tumultuous time for the program, and not now, as it has started to turn a corner.

Shortly before sending the e-mail, Baldwin had attended a pair of dual meets at Binghamton -- victories over Sacred Heart and James Madison that improved the team's record to 8-9. That might not sound like much, but considering the squad did not win a dual last year, and that two years ago, Binghamton didn't wrestle at all -- well, it was enough to make a proud alum a little giddy.

"With the new coach, Pat Popolizio, this is his first year and things are going well," Baldwin said in a follow-up phone conversation. "Very few kids stayed, and he's started from scratch. But he has a couple really good kids in the wrestling room. I think if they have three or four good recruiting seasons, I wouldn't be surprised to see them in top 25 or 30."

And that, of course, is a far cry from where Binghamton was just a few years ago.

The short version of the story is that Binghamton's athletic director made a recommendation to the school's president that the wrestling program be dropped. Baldwin and others began a campaign to save the team, using various means, including soliciting letters of support from some of the biggest names in wrestling such as John Smith, Dan Gable and Rulon Gardner.

"I don't want to give the impression that I want a disproportionate amount of credit for this," Baldwin said. "There was really a group of about 25 or 30, and a core of about six or eight that led the charge."

But the initial attempts failed, and the program was shut down for the 2004-05 season. Binghamton backers stayed vigilant, however, and just when all hope seemed lost, funds were allocated by New York Governor George Pataki to reinstate the program for the 2005-06 season.

"When I got the phone call telling me the team was back, I was on Wilshire Boulevard [in Los Angeles]," Baldwin said. "I screamed so loud that literally three or four shop owners came out thinking something terrible had happened."

Instead, it was a rebirth. Last year's squad struggled mightily, but when Popolizio was brought in this year, things started to change. He comes with a winning pedigree, having wrestled at Oklahoma State, and he helped lead a resurgence as an assistant coach at American University.

"Mark Cody, the head coach at American, said, 'There's no reason you can't do the same things at Binghamton that we've done at American,'" Popolizio said. "When you can build a program that's been down and out, it really says a lot."

How long it will take to truly build is anyone's guess, but Popolizio now thinks at least modest success could come sooner rather than later.

"At first, I thought it was going to a take a few years," Popolizio said. "But we have two guys right now, Kyle Fried (149 pounds) and Josh Patterson (174), that if they continue to improve, time is on our side. Those two guys right there have the potential to be All-Americans this year."

Popolizio has proven to be a quick study as a head coach. Another thing he has learned quickly is that Baldwin is among his biggest boosters. Continued funding will be key for the program to achieve success. Baldwin has written checks, but perhaps as important has been the support he's provided in other ways.

"I followed Binghamton and I knew Billy was a huge advocate, but now that I'm here, I see how important it is to have him involved. He's a huge reason this program is up and running again and having the success it's having," Popolizio said. "He came up to watch the James Madison and Sacred Heart duals, and anytime he comes around, it lights a fire under the guys when they're wrestling."

Baldwin, of course, is one of four acting Baldwin brothers -- along with Alec, Daniel and Stephen. He's primarily been making independent films lately, including a supporting role in the critically acclaimed 2005 film "The Squid and the Whale." When he's not working or spending time with his family, Baldwin often finds himself looking for an excuse to attend a wrestling match -- not that it takes much.

Baldwin was introduced to wrestling as a boy while growing up in Massapequa on Long Island. By the time he reached high school, he said, the bond with his wrestling teammates made them seem like his own family.

"I just have great appreciation for what the sport did for me and has done for so many people. I have respect and reverence for the sport," Baldwin said. "Even though I wasn't a great wrestler, it's definitely part of who I am and has contributed to my success in life, as a husband, father, public servant and an activist. You're a product of your environment and the major influences in your life, and wrestling played a pretty significant role for me. It's something I've always been interested in."

Michael Rand is a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He can be contacted at mrand333@yahoo.com.