Superpower league gets stronger with many schools making improvements

Updated: November 2, 2011

By Roger Moore

Ten teams battled for the Big Ten championship in 1938 at Evanston, Ill. Now after 74 years later, 12 teams will meet in West Lafayette, Ind.

In a current world of on-again, off-again conference realignment talk, the Big Ten has remained steady. From 1951 to 1994 the league lived up to its name with 10 schools fielding wrestling programs. In 1995, Penn State — once considered an Eastern power — joined the mix. Next March in West Lafayette, Nebraska — formerly of the Big 8/Big 12 — will push the total to 12.

Stability has been the norm … as have positive results every March.

One of the more competitive weights could be at 184 where Penn State’s NCAA champ Quentin Wright defeated Iowa’s Grant Gambrall after losing to the Hawkeye during the regular season. This year’s team dual is again sold out.

“In my opinion, Big Ten wrestling has benefited from the long-time strength and support of high school wrestling in the Midwest,” said Big Ten Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia. “That combined with our schools’ national success, resources and commitment to broad-based programs have allowed the conference to stay at the top of college wrestling.”

An argument can be made that without Gary Kurdelmeier and Dan Gable things would be much different. Take away Iowa’s 23 national titles and the rest of the Big Ten has combined for just six NCAA crowns since 1928.

Since Oklahoma State grabbed four-straight NCAA trophies from 2003-06, three Big Ten schools have claimed championships: Minnesota (2007), Iowa (2008-10) and Penn State (2011).

In 2008, five of the top 10 finishers at the NCAAs were from the Big Ten. In 2009, there were only three among the top 10 but five of the individual champions represented the conference.

A year ago, the league had four of the top 10 finishers in Philadelphia. Only Ohio State and Michigan State finished outside the Top 25 in the final standings. But before you beat up on that pair, remember that the Spartans won the national title in 1967 and the Buckeyes were bridesmaids in back-to-back seasons (2008 and 2009) behind the Hawkeyes not too long ago.

It’s nothing new. In 1956, four of the top 10 finishers at the NCAAs — Iowa, Michigan State, Illinois and Purdue — claimed Big Ten affiliation. (Penn State, then a member of the EIWA, finished fifth three years after the Lions won the national crown in 1953.) Four of the individual champions wore Big Ten colors.

Standards still remain high as the 2011-12 campaign approaches.

“Talking with Coach (Jim) Heffernan and (Jeremy) Hunter the goals are to win a Big Ten and national championship,” said first-year Illinois assistant coach Mark Perry, who left Cal Poly over the summer to return to Big Ten pastures. “In order to do that you have to have the best recruits in the country.”

“It’s as competitive as it has ever been, in recruiting, in wrestling, in everything,” said Michigan head coach Joe McFarland, who brought in Donny Pritzlaff from Wisconsin and Sean Bormet, founder of the Overtime School of Wrestling in the Chicago area, to help coach the Wolverines.

“If you don’t bring your ‘A’ game every match you are going to get beat. (A Big Ten schedule) prepares you for the national tournament, wrestling tough, close matches pretty much the entire second half of the season.”

(The rest of this story can be found in the November 3, 2011, issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine. Click on “Subscribe to WIN” button or contact our office at 1-888-305-0606 to receive this issue and a one- or two-year subscription to WIN.)