Van Kley: NC State, OSU battle in historic international dual

Updated: January 30, 2018

(Photo: Organizer Frank Popolizio (left), Italian Olympian Michele Liuzzi and Italian Olympic champion Andrea Minguzzi.)

By Bryan Van Kley

Former University of Minnesota wrestling coach J Robinson said “if nothing changes, nothing changes.”

If you’re a regular reader of WIN or in a leadership capacity of any kind in the sport, you know wrestling people talk often about how to grow the sport. People are challenging each other to “think outside the box” and be willing to innovate to grow wrestling’s fan base, increase participation numbers and promote the sport in new ways.

I 100 percent agree. It’s essential that wrestling is willing to evolve to help itself get to the next level. The most recent historic example is the sport’s first-ever NCAA dual meet overseas called “Tussle for the Troops”. On January 5, wrestling’s most storied college wrestling program, Oklahoma State, won the final match at 174, 7-2, against North Carolina State for a 19-16 win at the U.S. Naval Support Activity Support Site in Naples, Italy.

Cowboy coach John Smith said wrestling is in its golden age and needs to both appreciate where it’s at and say “yes” to opportunities to innovate.

“We need to focus on how great our sport is. I really believe we’re living in the ‘good old times of wrestling.’ Look at the great wrestling in the last 10 years, the crowds, the diversity in our sport … there’s no automatic teams (in college) for now. When you see all that, you need to recognize we need to grow and to say yes (to new promotional opportunities). We don’t need athletic directors to say no. We need to make sure we’re doing things that wow the wrestling public,” the six-time Olympic/World champion said.

Thank New York wrestling promoter Frank Popolizio for making the dual happen. A brother to NC State coach Pat, who wrestled for Smith at Oklahoma State, Frank has a lot of overseas connections and relationships. And many of those connections are in Italy because of the family’s Italian heritage. Frank is friends with seven-time Italian World/Olympic Team member Michele Liuzzi. The duo had been working on the idea of putting together an international dual in an Italian amphitheater for a couple years. Then Pat had the idea last year to make that dual an actual in-season NCAA dual.

After running into numerous roadblocks logistically on the outdoor dual idea from the Italians who run on “European time,” Frank’s plan-B option of having the dual on a U.S. military base became the obvious best choice. In addition to the dual, the trip was a week-long, cross-cultural experience where the two teams could experience life overseas.

The teams flew over to Italy on January 1 and spent the week training together and taking in cross-cultural experiences, which included traditional Italian three-course meals while trying to manage their weight. The teams stayed at the same hotels, ate a couple meals together each day, would flip flop times in the same wrestling room and weight room during the week, and had similar sight-seeing schedules.

The group stayed in mostly urban, non-tourist areas. The trip forced the wrestlers to be flexible throughout the week with a much different schedule than the student-athletes are used to on things like meals, training and daily schedules. Pat said he thought there were a lot of benefits you might not first think of about the overseas experience.

“I like the fact that my team got to spend a week together. There was a lot adversity throughout the week. It was a little bit more go with the flow. You’re not in your typical training facility. Everything was a little different and off, how do your guys handle all that? I like what our guys were about in that situation,” he said.

The NC State head man added that his team grew a lot closer throughout the week too, possibly because some of the normal distractions of U.S. life were gone.

“The highlight of the trip was getting to spend a whole week with my guys and the staff. There was nowhere to go other than spending time with each other,” Popolizio said. “We didn’t have cell-phone service and internet here and there. We had to go back to 15 to 20 years ago of having to communicate the right way and getting to know each other.”

Both coaches also pointed out that the Italy trip might be the only overseas experience that some of their wrestlers will ever get.

The teams were able to visit Pompeii, the well-known city that was covered by ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. They also spent time in historic Rome, got to see the site of the 1960 Olympics and NC State attended a professional soccer game with over 55,000 people.

The two teams split the ten-match dual five apiece. Oklahoma State got the three-point team score edge on the strength of bonus points from Kaid Brock (at 133), Chandler Rogers (165) and Derek White (Hwt).

Frank said the servicemen and women who were in attendance were so incredibly appreciative that the dual was held on their base. The entire crowd stayed nearly an hour after the dual to talk to the wrestlers and coaches, getting pictures and expressing their appreciation for what Frank called a little “taste of home” in the U.S. dual-meet experience.

Frank agreed with Smith and said the sport becomes “stagnant and stale” if it doesn’t try new things like the dual.

“Different sometimes gives you a breath of life. Maybe it’s better, maybe it will attract more attention and spread the word of wrestling. When you do these things, that’s the only way you’ll be able to see the impact (of the sport). I’m at a tournament in upstate New York, walking through the crowd, and I can’t go more than a couple feet without someone referencing the Italy match. It did its job. It had an impact. That’s why it’s important to continue to be innovative,” he said.

Popolizio said innovative ideas are only the first part of the equation. Key people still have to say “yes,” and be willing not be stuck in tradition and unwilling to change.

“Hats off to John Smith and Pat Popolizio. You can have an idea, but without people willing to trust and willing to try something new and different, the idea falls flat and doesn’t become a reality. Both of them did that.”

And now, Frank looks ahead to his next opportunity to innovate.

For the second straight year, he will host the Journeymen/Cliff Keen World Classic on May 19-20 at the historic Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid. Popolizio is putting on a week-long training camp in freestyle for the Junior and Cadet age groups for top U.S. wrestlers, and has commitments from contingents from eight other countries: Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Italy, France, Mongolia and Canada.

At the end of the week of training, Popolizio is putting together a dual meet pitting an all-star U.S. team vs. the best of the international competitors. Then on the final day, the second annual round-robin World Classic tournament will be held in the historic arena where the 1980 “Miracle on the Ice” happened when the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics.

Keep up the great work Frank, the sport needs more people like you!

(Editor’s Note: Those interested in the World Classic can reach Frank at