Finn: Duals will help college wrestlers embrace full effect of their sport

Updated: October 10, 2017

The following column by Mike Finn appeared in the Oct. 10, 2017 issue of WIN.

By Mike Finn

When it comes to college athletics, no sport’s fan base is as engaged as that of football; simply because of the sheer number of fans in attendance.

I was reminded of that Sept. 16, when Neil Duncan of ASICS and I presented the Dan Hodge Trophy to 2017 winner Zain Retherford during Penn State’s home football game with Georgia State.

It was inspiring to see the two-time NCAA champion raise the trophy above his head while over 100,000 Nittany Lion fans honored him with cheers.

But an even bigger highlight happened when Retherford left the football field while countless Nittany Lion fans literally reached out to touch the Benton, Pennsylvania native for his mat success. Walking behind the 149-pounder, I could see the joy in the faces of fellow college students, many of whom had never met Retherford before that night.

It also made me realize what college wrestlers miss compared to other college athletes: crazy fan celebrations.

I’ve had a chance to cover countless college football and men’s basketball games, including those where fans storm the fields and floors after their home teams produce stunning victories … which allows fans to jump around together in celebration, often times patting their heroes on the back.

But I’ve never seen such a moment in college wrestling … even in the most packed houses like Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena where the noise can be deafening because of a buzz created by fans when their Hawkeyes win a big match.

Those moments also come at events like the NCAA Championships, including last March. Think about the 165-pound title bout when Penn State’s Vincenzo Joseph pinned Illinois’ two-time national champion Isaiah Martinez … or two championship matches later when PSU’s Bo Nickal edged Cornell’s two-time champ Gabe Dean.

Oh yes, Penn State fans were happy, but I wonder how much happier and expressive they would have been had that Nickal victory also given the Nittany Lions a team win.

Of course, there are limits to fan celebrations at national tournaments, where some of the memorable victory moments for champions come when those winners leap up into the stands to hug their families and friends.

Would it be different in a national dual championship?

Perhaps we may find that out someday if the NCAA adopts a recent recommendation by a Blue Ribbon Task Force that a separate national dual tournament should take place a month after the traditional tournament, which will continue to be held in mid-March as college wrestling becomes a one-semester sport.

Oddly, the National Wrestling Coaches Association had finally given up trying to sponsor a dual championship this year after trying so many different formats. But while no time line for an NCAA dual championship has been determined, it appears such an event could happen.

“There’s great momentum,” Ohio State coach and Task Force member Tom Ryan told Trackwrestling’s Andy Hamilton. “There’s more momentum right now than I’ve seen in 25 years.”

A quarter of a century ago, college wrestling dealt with its battle against Title IX implications and failed while holding on to old-fashioned ideologies.

As college wrestling contemplates its future, it needs to do so with an open mind and welcome such ideas of a dual championship … which is a great opportunity to give the sport another chance to reach its fans. n