NCAA team champ may be decided at National Duals

Updated: August 30, 2012

By Mike Finn

Who was the best college team last year?

Based on the results of the annual NCAA Championships, which has been the norm since the first national tournament was held in 1928, the answer to that question was Penn State, which out-distanced Minnesota by a 143-117.5 margin last March in St. Louis.

Penn State left St. Louis last March with a second straight NCAA team championship.

But while the Nittany Lions were the most dominant program for a second consecutive postseason, an argument could be made on behalf of Minnesota … because of the Gophers’ dual-meet performance during the regular season.

After all, Minnesota defeated Penn State, 23-14, in an early-season dual meet, and then avenged losses to Iowa and Oklahoma State at the NWCA National Duals a few weeks before the start of the NCAA’s traditional postseason tournament for the championship of the duals event.

Before the start of the NCAAs, Minnesota captured the title at the NWCA National Duals in Stillwater, Okla.

“It comes down to how to you define team?” quizzed J Robinson. “In a dual meet (format), we were (No. 1) because we beat everybody. As an all-star team (at the NCAAs), we weren’t.

Robinson was referring to the fact that not every team features all ten weight classes at the NCAAs because wrestlers must first qualify for the national tournament.

“How many guys are on a wrestling team? Ten,” he added. “If you go to a national tournament and you don’t take your 157-pounder, how can he contribute? He can’t. But what if he’s wrestling in a dual championship and he wrestles a guy who beats him 15-0. He actually has contributed by saving a team point, which might be the margin for a dual championship.”

“You can’t say it’s a team championship if not every one on the team participates. Right now, we don’t have a true national champion. We have an all-star tournament that creates a team title.”

So what should determine the best team in college wrestling?

In the near future, that question might not be so easy.

On Sept. 10, the NCAA Championships Committee will meet to decide on whether to accept a proposal made by the NCAA Wrestling Committee and the National Wrestling Coaches Association to make its annual National Duals an NCAA event. And in doing so, the NCAA team champion would be determined at the National Duals and not at the traditional tournament which also produces individual champions and All-Americans.

(A team champion would continue to be honored at the NCAA tournament but the championship trophy would be presented by the National Wrestling Coaches Association, similar to how the Coach of the Year is honored at the NCAAs.)

Brian Smith, the head coach at the University of Missouri and current president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, believes the NCAA will agree to this proposal … with the first official NCAA National Duals championship held in 2014.

But there are other coaches who are not on board with this plan, which was first adopted at the NWCA Convention in early August. This is an idea which has actually been discussed for several years as the NWCA has sought to promote dual meets but has struggled to get ever major program to compete in its annual event which grew out of the Virginia Duals in the late 1980s.

In the last five years, powerhouse programs like Iowa, Oklahoma State and Penn State have turned down invitations to compete at the National Duals and the Nittany Lions have once again scheduled dual meets the weekends of Feb. 17 and 24, which is when the NWCA’s 2013 National Duals will be held.

(Last year, the NWCA changed its format when the winners — Minnesota, Oklahoma State, Iowa and Illinois — of four regional sites advanced the next week to a Final Four where the Gophers defeated both the Hawkeyes and Cowboys for the championship. In prior years, the Duals were held on one weekend at one site.)

“We have to do something to help our sport,” said Smith. “Every year we keep looking we are losing programs. If we have a chance to have two major tournaments, why wouldn’t we do this?”

With only 77 schools offering Division I wrestling, half as many as there were a decade earlier, the NWCA has been trying to change those numbers. The association, under the leadership of executive director Mike Moyer, believes that promoting dual meets — with the chance of the best dual teams competing for a national championship — will draw more fans to the sport and make it less likely for athletic programs to drop wrestling.

“I remember when we were ranked No. 1 (in dual rankings in 2006) and the place (Missouri’s Hearnes Center) was packed,” recalled Smith, who is beginning his 15th year at Missouri. “I remember talking to a fan who was 70 and he talked about how he cried to see so many people excited.”

“The biggest question is whether it’s good for wrestling,” Robinson said. “Coaches are always saying, ‘I have to do what’s best for my program.’ Well, that won’t help wrestling. Just because something may be good for your program doesn’t mean it’s good for the (college wrestling) as a whole.”

For many coaches, they believe their programs are measured — including by college administrators — by how many All-Americans and individual national champions they produce. And those without large budgets put their focus on producing individual honors instead of the entire team and program.

Smith, who has produced 26 of the school’s 48 All-Americans and the program’s first individual national champions (from Ben Askren, Mark Ellis and Max Askren) since arriving in Columbia in 1998, does not want to hear that as an excuse.

“That’s (those coaches’) faults and that’s a sad attitude. I’m angry about that,” said Smith. “When I got to Missouri, I was laughed at and people wanted to know why I took this job. They would say, ‘You are never going to beat Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State.

“Or they’d say, ‘You don’t have the budget or it’s too tough academically.’ There were plenty of excuses on why I couldn’t.

“I didn’t take that attitude. If your budget is too small, find a way to make it bigger. You have to work and make the community realize you need more scholarships. That attitude is hurting our sport. And if that’s their attitude, then we have to get new coaches in those programs.

“If I had that attitude at Missouri, we would never win. Our budget has improved and our facilities have improved.”

Robinson believes the excitement created by last year’s National Duals championship match was similar to that of his three teams (2001, 2002, 2007) that have won the traditional NCAA team championship.

“They were ecstatic,” said Robinson of his team last February when the dual victories came down to the final match of each bout. “A lot of it came down to the heavyweight match. That NCAA (tournament) doesn’t do that. It’s anti-climatic.”

Robinson, who has been in Minneapolis for over 25 years, is not totally sold on the idea but believes something needs to happen.

“I have a plaque on my desk,” he said, “that reads something like this: Do not wait. The time will never be just right. Work with whatever tools you have at your command and better tools will be found as you go a long. Do something.”