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New-look NCAA qualifiers include ever-growing EIWA and possible merger of three conferences out west
By Bryan Van Kley, WIN Publisher
College wrestling on the Division I level may be seeing the beginning of seismic shifts in terms of conferences and NCAA qualifiers or regionals.
The dominos started to fall last year when Rutgers and Maryland announced they were leaving the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association and Atlantic Coast Conference for the already-loaded Big Ten Conference.
Also in 2012, Missouri announced it was leaving the Big 12 and joining the Mid-American Conference for wrestling. The school joined the super-power Southeastern Conference in sports because of football, but none of those schools have wrestling.
Also joining Missouri in the MAC was Northern Iowa, formerly of the Western Wrestling Conference. And starting in 2014, Old Dominion will join the league for wrestling, making it a nine-team conference.
And the moves continue to happen this spring. But thus far, they’re all on the East Coast.
Wrestling has seen the last qualifying tournament from the six-team Colonial Athletic Association. (Old Dominion still competed there this March and was ineligible). CAA members Binghamton, Drexel, Hofstra and Boston University will be joining wrestling’s oldest conference — the powerful EIWA. These four additions will make that an 18-team league for the 2014 qualifier.
First-year Binghamton head coach Matt Dernlan said he couldn’t be more thrilled with the move.
“On a number of different levels, it’s pretty monumental for our program, both from athletics and academics. To be considered academically aligned with the other EIWA programs speaks volumes to our school,” Dernlan said.
Binghamton finished second at the 2013 CAA conference tournament, taking two champs and four qualifiers out of the conference to the NCAA Championships.
In a similar scenario to Rutgers and Maryland, wrestling in a stronger conference and coming out of a qualifier with more automatic bids to the NCAAs helps programs a majority of the time.
Coaches are able to use their conference alignment and qualifier scenario as a recruiting advantage. And to land some of the top kids in their respective regions or nationally, that’s critically important. As always, kids love to be able to go back to their friends and family and brag about what conference they’re going to be wrestling in.
It also indirectly leads administrators to put more money and support into their wrestling programs. If programs don’t want to get lost in the shuffle, they need to make sure there’s adequate resources to fund scholarships, facility upgrades, academic support, etc.
Dernlan said he’s appreciative that his administration is being proactive, rather than reactive. He said plans were already in the works for a move to the EIWA when he took the job last year.
“On one hand, it seems we’re reacting to the fall out from football and basketball. The (college) landscape is shifting in regards to conference affiliation. In general, it seems (at Binghamton) we’ve been moving towards that (move to the EIWA) for awhile,” Dernlan said.
Dernlan didn’t feel that conference shifts like this would hurt college wrestling long term. He said the administrators and schools, which aren’t fully supportive of their wrestling programs, are at risk of being dropped no matter what conference they’re in.
“Being a bit skeptical and jaded about some administrations, if they want some excuse to downgrade a program, they’re going to do that. For us as an institution, we anticipated this as a coaching staff and administration,” he said.
There are still some unknowns here with the CAA now ceasing to have a wrestling championship. Rider and George Mason have yet to announce where they’ll be competing. (Pending legal approval, it appears they’ll be heading to the EWL.)
An even bigger shift is being proposed on the other side of the country, on the West Coast and in the Midwest. A recent proposal developed in the last month could bring together the Pac 12 Conference, Big 12 Conference and the Western Wrestling Conference in a qualifier. Each of the three conferences has only five members.
If the three conferences did join together and wrestle out of one “super regional”, it would greatly solidify wrestling on the West Coast and would make for a very competitive qualifier. Those three conferences accounted for 19 2013 All-Americans. In comparison, the 12-team Big Ten Conference placed 29.
Joining the always-tough Big 12 Conference would be consistent performing teams from the West, like Oregon State, Boise State and Wyoming from the WWC. The 15-team regional could be the start of a new qualification system where all colleges qualified each year through super regionals like this in a format similar to the way wrestlers qualify for the NCAA Division II and Division III national tournaments.
Stanford coach Jason Borrelli is excited about the potential realignment. He said numerous questions need to be answered through each of the respective conferences and the NCAA before anything formal could be considered.
One of the bigger questions being looked at is if tradition-rich conferences like the Big 12 and Pac 12 would continue to keep their conference championships. And if so, what would the format be and when would they be held?
“From the first time I was approached, I thought this could have been very good for the West Coast because it brings numbers together,” Borrelli said. “It’s stuck on the conference level. We are extremely happy with the brand of the Pac 12. We want to stay Pac 12 members. The only thing we would be doing different is how we get to the national tournament as individuals.
“If the NCAA says no (to also keeping a Pac 12 conference tourney), it would be real hard for us to go and do this. If they said no, I would vote no.”
Borrelli thinks moves like this can even create additional opportunities where Division I wrestling programs are scarce, like out West. Now if there’s a school who’s considering adding wrestling, they look at a strong conference or regional which they could be apart of and it makes it a more attractive scenario.
Borrelli didn’t feel the potential negative side effects of “forcing” schools to put more money and resources into wrestling would play out in a negative way.
“The reality of it is, if they’re quarter funded, we can’t do anything more to make them safe anyway. They’re at risk no matter what we do,” he said. “You want to give administrations a reason to step up.”
In my opinion, I think the conference realignment is a good thing for wrestling as well. Even though the dominos started to fall because of football’s realignment over the last couple years, wrestling should benefit from getting additional resources in a majority of the situations over time.
Long term, that’s a very good thing for wrestling. Now college wrestling needs to continue to reexamine itself to make sure athletic administrators are seeing a good product when they attend wrestling events and evaluate the program as a whole.
It should be a very interesting next couple years to see how the conferences and qualifiers evolve.