Updated December 3, 2018 - 11:18 pm
After UNLV dropped its wrestling program during the 1980s, Mark Churella, the former Rebels coach, interviewed unsuccessfully for similar jobs at Brigham Young, Notre Dame and Indiana.
Not used to having his shoulders pinned to the mat, Churella chose a new career. He built his father’s small insurance business in Novi, Michigan, into a boutique industry which employs 150.
Being spurned also has served Churella well as director of the Cliff Keen Invitational.
Ohio State topped a 43-team field at the Las Vegas Convention Center to win the 2018 installment of the college wrestling extravaganza, which on Saturday marked its 37th year, making it one of the city’s longest-standing annual sporting events.
Churella says Cliff Keen is the stealth bomber of Las Vegas sports. It has a low profile and flies under the radar.
The invitational, named after a celebrated wrestling coach at the University of Michigan, also is like that old Johnny Cash song: It’s been everywhere, man. Like a chameleon, its longevity is tied to an ability to adapt.
It started at the iconic Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion in 1982.
“Bob Halloran was vice president of Caesars World Sports, and he was friends with a guy from Iowa named Roy Carver, who the arena (Carver-Hawkeye) is named for,” said Churella, a three-time NCAA wrestling champion at Michigan during the late 1970s.
Amateur wrestling is bigger than a grain silo in Iowa, so Caesars bought the farm on an invitational tournament. It was packaged with three prizefights and sold to ESPN, when ESPN needed programming.
“The first year, it looked liked it was going to be easy,” Churella said. “That was an anomaly.”
The Caesars people thought the wrestling crowd was going to be like the boxing crowd and spend a like number of dollars on table games and high-limit slot machines.
So the big wrestling tournament moved to the Thomas &Mack Center. Which would have been ideal, had the Thomas &Mack Center actually been open.
“They said the opening act at Thomas &Mack was this big thing with Frank Sinatra, but we were there before,” Churella said. “There was a temporary certificate of occupancy, so we used it.”
When UNLV began playing basketball at the new arena, the wrestlers accepted a limited engagement at the Hacienda. “The plans showed (the venue) much larger than it was. We had wrestlers rolling up against the walls,” Churella said.
There was lots of room at the old Aladdin.
Hearing pins drop
When Wayne Newton co-owned the Aladdin and it fell into bankruptcy, the college wrestlers had the place all to themseleves. “There’s no porters, there’s nobody in the hotel. We had to haul in bleachers from the UNLV soccer field,” Churella said.
So Cliff Keen moved to the old tennis center on Swenson Avenue not far from the UNLV campus. Not so keen, Churella said. “The guy who owned it said they still had to play tennis while (wrestling) was going on. We had to pad the stanchions for the nets.”
The Showboat was next, and the Showboat was mostly fine. But the lighting was not. Except for the area above the boxing ring, it was like wrestling in a coal mine.
When the Showboat transitioned into a property that would be leveled by a wrecking ball — a recurring theme with Cliff Keen sites, Churella said — presidential kingmaker Sig Rogich steered the grapplers to the Star of the Desert Arena in Primm.
It would have been a great venue, Churella said, were it not 41 miles from McCarran Airport, and had they not scheduled a Muay Thai mixed martial arts fight at 7 p.m. when the wrestling finals were supposed to start.
So from there it was the Convention Center, and then to Cashman Center, and then back to the Convention Center, where the tournament seems to have found a home. Churella said a stipend from the LVCVA and Las Vegas Events may seem like loose change in the sofa cushions, but it has been invaluable to the wrestling tournament’s survival.
I have this theory that were Las Vegas to be obliterated in a nuclear holocaust, the only things remaining after the toxic cloud dissipated would be cockroaches, the El Cortez downtown and the Cliff Keen Invitational.
“Thirty-seven years and moving forward and as you can see, very resilient,” Mark Churella said Saturday as amateur wrestling continued on 10 mats in a breezy conventional hall. “If we hear ‘no,’ that’s just for now. That’s just a moment in time.”
Who was Cliff Keen?
Cliff Keen was wrestling coach at Michigan from 1925 to 1970. He led the Wolverines to 13 Big Ten championships and coached 68 All-Americans. He also invented the protective wrestling headgear. In 1976, Keen was one of the first inductees into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
He also spent 33 seasons as assistant football coach at Michigan. Keen coached Wolverines center Gerald Ford, who would become president of the United States.