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By Mike Finn
Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the late-November issue of WIN Magazine. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to WIN Magazine.
Many college wrestling historians look at 1928 — the year of the first NCAA Championships — as the beginning of this great college sport that has averaged over 105,000 fans every tournament over the past decade and was scheduled to be held in Minneapolis’ NFL football stadium last March before the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the annual three-day event.
But college wrestling had already earned plenty of respect before Iowa State hosted the first national tournament … primarily because of what Ivy League schools had done since at least 1905. That was the first year that college wrestling’s oldest postseason event — the “Easterns” which are now known as the Eastern Intercollegiate Wresting Association tournament — was held in Philadelphia.
During those early days, Ivy League schools won the first 13 titles, including seven by Cornell University, which has tallied 25 all-time EIWA championships over the past 115 years.
Unfortunately, none of the six current Ivy League schools — Cornell, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Penn and Harvard — that wrestle will be part of the 2020-21 NCAA equation after the Ivy League announced on Nov. 12 that the league was canceling all winter sports seasons because of the pandemic.
Click here to view WIN’s updated national rankings without Ivy League wrestlers.
“In the last week, just the way the (COVID-19) numbers are up, we were still waiting to hear if we would be able to have kids on campus (for classes), so I was prepared for it and it wasn’t anything shocking,” Princeton coach Chris Ayres told NJ.com.
“I’m honestly kind of numb to it now, just like OK, more bad news. But our whole phrase is, ‘What’s next?’ So we’ll figure something else to work for, stay positive, sane and happy and prepare for whatever the next wrestling event is.”
Ayres’ Tiger team won the 2020 Ivy League dual championship; its first since 1986, but the Princeton coach had already planned to hold a season without his four returning national qualifiers, including All-Americans Pat Glory (125) and Quincy Monday (157) as well as fellow Tigers Grant Cuomo (165) and Travis Stefanik (184).
Cornell coach Rob Koll — whose teams had won 17 straight Ivy League titles, 20 overall, 11 EIWA championships and twice finished as high as second at the NCAAs in his 28 years at the Big Red helm — was not as positive a day after learning the news.
“I am terribly disappointed and I’m not going to pretend I agree with it,” said Koll. “It’s frustrating that the greatest minds are in the Ivy League and we can’t figure out how to make this work. Football and other sports have shown they can do it safely.”
“You feel really bad for those athletes and coaches and anyone around those programs,” said Kevin Ward, the head coach of Army, another EIWA team, and current president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. “It’s the same feeling we had last March, when that rug (cancelled NCAA tournament) was pulled from underneath their feet … even if they get another year back.
“As a member of the EIWA, we just lost six teams out of our league. Those are some proud teams that are not going to be represented at the NCAA tournament this year.”
Cornell, by far, has the most elite wrestlers who were going to be in this year’s line-up among the Ivy League schools. The Big Red were ranked No. 3 in WIN’s 2020-21 Preseason Tournament Power Index as Koll was ready to welcome back two-time NCAA champ Yianni Diakomihalis and fellow All-Americans like Vitali Arujau and Max Dean, who sat out last season to focus on the 2020 Olympic Team Trials.
With those Tokyo Games postponed until this summer, making that USA men’s freestyle or Greco team or different age-group World Championships in 2021 may be the only wrestling goal many of the Big Red wrestlers and other Ivy League wrestlers will have the next six months.
“You need something to focus on, a goal,” said Koll. “You can’t just train indefinitely for just the purpose of training. My job is to find some sort of brass ring if it’s not the NCAA Championships. There has to be something else we are training for.”
Fortunately, Cornell and many other college programs have Regional Training Centers, where both past and current (while not in season) wrestlers also train in the international styles. The RTCs around the country have been creative by hosting events for athletes, like Penn State and Iowa did earlier this fall.
The Spartan Wrestling Club will be Koll’s focus even as his wrestlers must now train off-campus and remain both academically and athletically eligible for future NCAA events.
“Those in school will not be able to do it until the semester ends,” said Koll, pointing out that visitors are not allowed on the campus in Ithaca, N.Y., and students are taking on-line and hybrid in-person classes that end before Thanksgiving when students return home before finishing the semester on-line in December.
“I’m looking at something mid-December to mid-February, when guys go back to school and then the others can focus on spring tournaments.”
Koll said he is reaching out to other college coaches that have also been balancing their varsity and RTC needs. Flo Wrestling has scheduled an RTC Cup, Dec. 4-5 in Cincinnati, where six top RTC programs will compete in a dual competition. After that, most NCAA Division I schools are expected to compete in dual competition in mid-January with conference and national tournaments taking place in March.
“We are going to have six dates of competition,” said Ohio State coach Tom Ryan, “four dual meets; two home, two away and then have two events that will be more of a jamboree where three or four schools will compete together at the same place so that we can get our nine matches in. This will also help in (postseason tournament) seeding and fans will get to see some Big Ten wrestling.”
There are plenty of questions when it comes to wrestling schedules this winter, including internationally as United World Wrestling announced it was scheduling a World Championship in December, but then cancelled the event after countries like the USA elected not to attend because of pandemic issues. The UWW later announced it would hold an “Individual World Cup” at a date to be determined. The 2021 Olympic Trials are still scheduled for April 9-11 in State College, Pa.
Ryan got a lot of experience in balancing the needs of elite wrestlers, especially when Ohio State’s former three-time NCAA champion Kyle Snyder was competing for both the Buckeyes and went overseas while he was winning World and Olympic championships between 2015 and ’17.
“Our institution has said that if you are going to send a current student-athlete to an event, we want to make sure it is well-tested and we are not putting that student-athlete in harm’s way and that all the measures are put in place to protect them,” Ryan said.
The Buckeye coach also is thankful his school can benefit from the Ohio RTC and believes the different exhibitions this fall have proven that wrestling can withstand the problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Any time there are tough times, our minds really focus in and often we learn something from it,” said Ryan, now in his 15th year at Ohio State. “This is one of those opportunities. We have seen wrestling can generate revenue from a viewership standpoint. There is no reason we can’t sell dual meets with elite wrestlers around the country. It’s happening with Rokfin, Flo and Trackwrestling. They have a subscription base that enjoys the sport. They need good programming.”
The NCAA announced this fall that winter athletes of 2020-21 would be given another year of eligibility because the organization was not sure how the pandemic would affect the 2020-21 season and postseason. Ryan said he does not believe the NCAA will cancel this year’s national tournament, slated to take place March 18-20, in St. Louis.
“Our saving grace in wrestling is that the NCAA needs (men’s) basketball tournament in 2021 after not having it in 2020,” Ryan said. “Without (the revenue of the basketball tournament), the NCAA would have more challenges. Basketball is the financial lifeline for the NCAA. This is about money. If they can do something in a safe way, you do them. And you can’t have basketball and not have wrestling.”
Ryan also believes wrestling has shown it can also be a revenue producer if the sport’s leaders take on that attitude.
“Wrestling is one of the few other sports that can also make money,” Ryan said. “The MMA is a multi-million dollar industry and there is no reason wrestling cannot be a multi-million dollar industry.
“We’ve been boxed in by the inability to sell our product the way we want to. We haven’t needed to because we have sports like football and basketball that drive the athletic departments. We are seeing we have to stand on our own two feet. We have to be more of a business.
“The Big Ten Network had wrestling matches in last year with a higher viewership than some football games and that was with minimal marketing of that wrestling broadcast. Imagine if there was mass marketing of a big dual meet and how many people would tune in.
“We know we have a product and there is a market for it. The Big Ten continues to learn of the value and wrestling gets good ratings. The Big Ten Network is excited about wrestling because they need programming or they have no channel.”
Ward, the former Oklahoma State All-American who is in his seventh year at West Point, said that many coaches have been reaching out to each other in trying to solve the current season dilemma.
“There has to be a lot of communication now,” Ward said. “Everyone wants a competitive advantage but no one knows what the landscape is going to be this year. We are trying to solve this thing together. That’s the only way we move forward.”
Ward also reminded people that coaches obviously have to deal with a lot more than just keeping their athletes focused on wrestling.
“Everyone functions better when you have a target and are more driven when you know what you are chasing. The uncertainty of the preseason has made it more challenging. We are coaching a lot of uncertainty,” said Ward, who also takes pride in working with future military leaders.
“When these guys graduate, they are expected to fight and win,” he said. “What we are going through this year is training for a future career.”