Jason Bryant: Why is wrestling “out East” different than in Iowa?

Updated: February 10, 2011

Column by Jason Bryant

Where exactly is the center of the wrestling solar system? Where is the powerful start that brings the celestial energy that feeds the sport with light and power?

The 6,686 fans who attended the sold-out Iowa-Penn State match in Rec Hall, Jan. 30, was the most since the mid-1990s.

It depends on who you ask and what exactly you mean if you’re trying to encompass wrestling as a solar system. While not exactly a straw poll, several wrestling fans were surveyed with this column in mind. One of the questions was simply, where is the center of the college wrestling universe?

The most common answer: Iowa City.

Sure, Oklahoma State has won more NCAA championships than any other program, but the Iowa Hawkeyes are the New York Yankess of Division I wrestling. You either love them or you hate them. There is no middle ground.

And as heated as the Cy-Hawk Series gets in Iowa, Eastern programs seem to lack that type of intensity and fandom… or do they?

The message boards aren’t exactly the most even-handed places to test the waters of college wrestling opinion. Some people are there to hear themselves talk. But there was a good point brought up recently.

I don’t recall exactly what it said, but it was something to the effect about if Pennsylvania was the center of the wrestling world, why did Penn State draw just over 6,600 for top-ranked Iowa, when the Hawkeyes drew more than that against current club program SIU-Edwardsville … on National Duals weekend? (The meet would have drawn more if held at the Bryce Jordan Center.)

I thought it was a good question, honestly. But growing up “out East,” (a term I only recently started using), it’s a different landscape. While the solar center of the post-scholastic world might just be in Iowa City and the state in general, high school wrestling is still king in the Keystone State.

So what’s the difference? Why are there no stellar duals out East? One has to look, not at geography, but other demographics that can impact a draw.

Here are a few things to note for those who aren’t from the Eastern time zone. These are more observational and are no way concrete:

1. While Pennsylvania routinely puts out (arguably) the deepest group of Division I qualifiers and All-Americans, people from states which border the Atlantic typically don’t consider the great wrestling state of Ohio as “Eastern.”

2. The University of Iowa is a large state school with a large alumni base still living within a reasonable driving distance. Penn State is a large state school with a large alumni base … not exactly calling State College home after they graduate. The state’s capital, Harrisburg, is two hours away. Pittsburgh is two and a half, and Philadelphia is nearly four hours away.

3. Cornell and Lehigh are smaller programs that don’t have the large alumni base to draw big crowds like in Iowa.

There is a bit of a contradiction here. This might read like an excuse, but private colleges don’t draw like the state schools do. Northwestern in football might be an exception, but on the other side of the coin, where are the monster crowds in wrestling-crazy Stillwater or Norman? Oklahoma confuses the idea entirely.

Those are just three minor points. Another point that might be lost on those outside of the Eastern seaboard is geography and time zones don’t immediately make fans. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Lehigh fan ready to root for Cornell just because they’re from “out East.” I remember being called “biased towards smaller Eastern programs,” by someone on the boards because of a recruiting class headed to Rutgers.

A quick check would show I’d previously only been to New Jersey twice in my life and grew up seven hours away from Rutgers. That’s like growing up in Des Moines and being called a Kansas State fan because you’re in the same time zone and 400 miles away. “Out East” isn’t just one group.  Those things don’t jive.

You’ll find pockets of growing fan bases out there. But as the saying goes, you have to crawl before you can walk. Programs that don’t have the vaunted history of an Iowa can’t expect to draw 8,000 fans overnight. Virginia Tech hopes that 2,000 is enough of a crowd to make fans and the local media notice. The same can be said at Rutgers. Penn State is not an easy drive to check out a dual. It’s definitely an all-day/night affair if you’re heading to State College.

Other things to consider when you grow up as a wrestling fan “out East.” There’s more to life than wrestling in the Big Ten and Big 12. Perhaps that’s why some Eastern fans are more prone to root for one individual from several schools along with their alma mater, than just root blindly for one team.

I wonder how many wrestling fans from Iowa State, Oklahoma State or Iowa can quickly name a single wrestler on the Drexel roster? Wrestling fan and Iowan Stephen Stonebraker is not eligible to answer that question.

Regardless of the outcome in Philly this March, Eastern fans won’t just huddle into masses rooting for anything that wears black & gold or orange & black — they’ll pull for their chosen program, and a few guys along the way from other schools, maybe it’s a solid kid like Kevin LeValley from Bucknell or Jason McCroskey from Chattanooga.

Does Lehigh root for Cornell? Well, does Yale root for Harvard? There are deep rooted rivalries that don’t get the exposure in wrestling circles.

Why? Well, have you ever thought about the center of the wrestling media? Where is it? Oklahoma, Iowa and Minnesota.

• Note: This column appeared in the Feb. 16, 2011 issue of WIN magazine. To subscribe to WIN, either click on the “Subscribe to WIN” button or call the WIN office at 1-888-305-0606.

(Jason Bryant is the coordinator  of grassroots and social media for USA Wrestling and was named WIN Journalist of the Year in 2007. He can be reached at jbryant@usawrestling.org.)