O’Donnell’s Bold Move: January 1 Season Start

Updated: June 27, 2014

The Inside Trip, by Bryan Van Kley

I applaud Dickinson State coach Thadd O’Donnell for being a trailblazer in regards to a controversial issue in college wrestling: its schedule. The 19-year Blue Hawk coach has set his schedule for next year — and it will not start until after January 1!

Coaches and administrators have been considering making wrestling a one-semester sport for a few years now. Most proponents of the idea want to see the national tournaments moved back into April out and away from basketball’s March Madness, with the main season starting in December or January.

But traditionalists have continued to rule the day, and college wrestling’s calendar has stayed the same. NAIA coaches voted unanimously recently to move the sport to the second semester only for a multitude of reasons. But when the dust settled, administrators decided to stay with NCAA Division I and keep the schedule the way it’s always been.

“To be honest I have thought of this for 15 years and never had the guts to take the step,” O’Donnell said. “This year as I tell my athletes to get outside their comfort zone, I realized I needed to do the same thing.”

With a senior-heavy team in 2013, O’Donnell’s Blue Hawks finished fourth in the country and were region champions. Then with seven freshmen in the line-up in 2014, Dickinson State fell to 15th place. O’Donnell said helping his young student athletes adjust to college life and wrestling this year was a steep challenge.

So he decided to do something about it.

Beginning in 2014-15, Dickinson State will be a great pilot program for a second-semester model. I would predict it will go very well, wrestlers will love the change and the program will have better results because of it.

I’m not in favor of this exact change for the Division I programs. But having wrestled in the NAIA myself, it make so much sense for all the other collegiate divisions.

Younger college wrestlers have such an incredibly steep learning curve the way it is, throwing them into heat of battle two to three months into school is overwhelming for many of them. Think about what 18-year-old freshman has to adjust to all at once.

They’re likely living away from home for the first time. They’re asked to study harder than they’ve studied in their lives. They’re likely taking their lumps in the college wrestling room after being “big man on campus” on their high school team.

And then throw in weight cutting, more intense training, as well as the normal temptations and time management needed on a college campus, and many college wrestlers simply don’t make it.

Now think about the alternative of them having that first semester to focus on academics and getting their feet on the ground, so to speak.

“In General Psychology class, they talk about stress and the stress levels of certain things,” O’Donnell said. “A freshman wrestler who is competing in the line-up for a college team would be one of the highest.

“That’s if everything is going well. Throw in getting homesick, girlfriend issues, struggling in a class, roommate problems, school finances and you have a 100 percent chance of breaking the confidence of a young man with a promising career.”

O’Donnell knows his wrestlers will have some rust to knock off those first couple weeks in January and will be lower in the rankings because of their schedule.

But he’s certain the benefits will far outweigh the costs. Good for him on being bold enough to do what he feels is in the best interest of the kids in his program.

O’Donnell, who’s led his program to top-10 finishes in 15 of his 19 years at the North Dakota school, as well as coaching six national champs and 86 All-Americans, has written an article about his decision. It is a great read and can be found in its entirety on www.WIN-magazine.com.