How do Division I programs join the elite club?

Updated: November 2, 2010

By Kyle Klingman

History says it won’t happen.

History says that 10 different schools have won an official NCAA Division I team title in wrestling. History also says that overcoming tradition takes a monumental performance — and some luck.

In 17 seasons at Cornell, Rob Koll has led the Big Red to 11 Ivy League titles and crowned six national champions, 35 All-Americans and 32 individual EIWA champions. His program’s best national finish was second last year.

At the 2009 NCAA tournament, Ohio State was in position to dethrone an “unbeatable” Iowa team. The Hawkeyes eventually won by 4.5 points, but three Iowa wrestlers — Daniel Dennis, Alex Tsirtsis, and Dan Erekson — received wins throughout the tournament by injury default when Ohio State didn’t receive any. That’s six total bonus points without wrestling a match.

History was on Iowa’s side.

Even Dan Gable’s first NCAA title in 1978 came down to Harold Nichols, Gable’s coach at Iowa State, literally throwing in the towel. Iowa State’s Frank Santana was too injured to continue in his final’s match at 190 pounds and had to default. The loss gave Iowa the team title by half a point over Iowa State.

But what if another team found a way to win? What if a team other than Iowa, Oklahoma State, or Minnesota — the only three schools to win a team title in the past 22 years — could break through? What would it mean to wrestling, and what would it mean to the university that won?

Three teams — Cornell, Boise State, and Wisconsin — have preseason line-ups that could buck that trend. And the three head coaches of those teams — Rob Koll (Cornell), Greg Randall (Boise State), and Barry Davis (Wisconsin) — know that winning an NCAA tournament takes time, timing, and support.

“Really, only a handful of teams can win the national championship,” said Davis. “There are some teams that are never going to win. Some schools are going to have a hard time winning because they don’t have all the things you need to win.”

Koll can tell you exactly what he needs: administrative support and alumni support. The intangibles needed for a championship — recruits, marketing, fans, coaches, a club program, athletes training for the Olympics — are branches of those two support groups.

Getting that kind of support can take years though. Davis and Koll began as head coaches in 1994, and now, after 17 seasons, they have their best teams. Cornell placed second last season and Wisconsin placed fourth, the best NCAA tournament finish for both coaches.

“At schools like Wisconsin and Cornell and Boise State, you’re not going to have the opportunity to win it every year,” said Koll. “Hopefully in ten years I can take that back, but it is hard to have the right environmental factors at the right time: enough good kids in your program, affordability, and the right kids all at the same time. It’s a little harder at certain places.

“I’m not crying the blues because we certainly have more advantages than other teams, but certainly less than many, many others. We want to make sure this one opportunity, we don’t blow it.”

So boosters are the hidden link to winning an NCAA team title, right?

“Sure,” said Davis. “That’s where your money comes from. But if you don’t have the work ethic and the will to win it isn’t going to matter.”

And then there is Boise State. How could a school with five home meets, a team that can’t get a top 25 school into Boise for a dual, be in contention for a national title?

Two reasons: talent and timing. The Broncos have five wrestlers ranked in the top eight, including two ranked first. Boise State, with a large Mormon contingent, had several wrestlers return to the team following mission trips. So if Boise State won it could mean something extra to the Church of Latter Day Saints.

“Timing is important for a team like Boise State where this could be one of our shots,” said Randall. “For Boise State this might be a one shot deal for now and then we’ll have to rebuild and reload and remember what we went through to get to where we are now.

“In my experience you can’t count on just the top guys in the program. You have to have young guys come through for you. From my experience at Iowa, each and every year we had young guys step up and do really well at nationals.”

So what would it mean if Cornell, Boise State, or Wisconsin pulled it off this year?

Cornell, located in Ithaca, NY, would likely get the most national exposure. An Ivy League school winning an NCAA championship might warrant major media coverage — especially since the NCAA tournament is being held in Philadelphia.

“(Winning an NCAA title) would be huge for Cornell, and I’d like to think we’ve been able to lead in a lot of ways,” said Koll. “I think the last couple of years people have looked at our model. We’ve made it acceptable to spend money on wrestling. That’s probably Cornell’s biggest contribution to the sport. I think we’ve changed how people relate to their alumni as far as being very open and candid.

“President Rawlings was the former president of Iowa and when he came here he said we have three goals in athletics: beat Harvard in hockey, beat Penn in football and beat Iowa in wrestling. I think I got the short end of that stick by the way.”

Davis and Randall know beating Iowa will be tough. Davis started for four championship teams at Iowa and Randall started for three. Both were on multiple team championships as athletes, and both think they have the right personnel to make a run at the title as coaches.

“Winning an NCAA title would be huge,” said Davis. “It would be the first team to win a national championship in the sport of wrestling in Wisconsin. I think it would be all over the state.

“It would be great for Badger Nation. Everyone that went to school there. Everyone who supported wrestling. Everyone who supports the university. Everyone who wrestled here. They’re part of the national title. Everyone from the past who helped build the program is as much a part of the team as the ten guys on the mat.”

So what about all those titles Davis helped Iowa win? Does that mean he feels part of Hawkeye Nation when Iowa performs well?

“I’m taking a leave of absence right now,” joked Davis.

In the end, winning the NCAA tournament is simple: “You have to have enough points to win,” said Davis.

History says it’s not that easy.