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Throwback Thursday – How can Division I Wrestling expand?

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Updated: February 4, 2021

Photo: Since 2012, when Missouri moved from the Big 12 to the SEC in all sports but wrestling — which competes in the Mid-American Conference — the Tiger program —under the tutelage of head coach Brian Smith (back right) — has produced three  individual NCAA championships for the school, including two by J’den Cox (right) in 2014, ‘16 and ’17.

Editor’s Note: Throwback Thursday article: The following story first appeared in the Dec. 22, 2016 issue of WIN Magazine. Its statistical information has been updated.

By Mike Finn

“From @Mizzou to the Olympic stage, J’Den Cox brings home a #bronze medal for @USAWrestling! — #SECinRio”

Tweets like this were common after Cox made all his fans proud by winning a medal freestyle wrestling at the 2016 Olympics this past August.

The only problem with this tweet — for many of those fans — had to do with the tweet’s source: the Southeastern Conference, which appeared to take ownership of Cox’s accomplishment in Brazil considering his college team, Missouri, is a member of the SEC … except in wrestling; a sport in which the SEC does not recognize among its 14 different sports.

All one needs to do is click on the following link — https://twitter.com/sec/status/767106612909801473  — to read all the comments from fans on the SEC tweet, including from the Mid-American Conference that has made the Tiger program an affiliate member since the university left the Big 12 in 2013 and tweeted:  “Congrats to OUR 3X MAC Champion, @SuperstarW14T! #TeamUSA #MACtion.”

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But many of the other comments were a lot more negative like, “@SEC you all dropped wrestling, don’t take credit for something your not a part of #HeDidItWithoutYou.”

No one understands this dilemma more than Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith, who tries to stay above fray when it comes his program’s conference allegiance.

“That’s the old, half-full, half empty situation,” said Smith. “When the MAC and the SEC were having a twitter battle over J’Den Cox, that was good positive stuff for the sport of wrestling. When some people were speaking out negatively, I would say, ‘Don’t tell the SEC not to do that. That’s the wrong approach. They are talking wrestling. That’s a positive thing.’ ”

Once upon a time, the SEC did offer wrestling and know one knows that better than Smith, who grew up in Florida. He is well aware that the SEC once featured several strong wrestling programs, including Auburn, which hosted the NCAA Division I Championship in 1971 and later — during a four-year span (1977-81) under the leadership of former Michigan State national champion Tom Milkovich — saw the War Eagles take on Tennessee in the first-ever nationally-televised meet in the early days of ESPN and later beat No. 1 Oklahoma.

“We had it going on,” Milkovich told the War Eagle Leader in 2013. “Not only did we have a good team, but we had a great following. One crowd was 7,000 people. It was just growing by leaps and bounds.”

“(Milkovich) turned a Michigan program coaching offer down because what they were doing down in Auburn was awesome,” recalled Smith.

And no SEC team did better than the 1980-81 Auburn team that eventually claimed ninth-place at the NCAA Championships later that season.

But that would also be the last year that Auburn fielded a varsity wrestling program and eventually joined a long list of former college programs that discontinued wrestling; primarily in response to Title IX, a 1972 federal law that required schools to offer as many  participation opportunities for women as they did for men.

Instead of adding women’s programs, most schools cut men’s sport, especially wrestling.

As of (2012), there were just 77 Division I programs, which ranks near the bottom of college athletic opportunities for men in the NCAA. And only 27 of those schools are full-time members the Power 5 conferences: 14 in the Big Ten, six in the ACC, four in the Big 12, three in the Pac-12 … and of course none in the SEC. Many of the other Division I wrestling programs are affiliated members of the Big 12, Pac-12 and MAC.

“The smaller Division I wrestling schools may not have that academic support, tutor programs, mentor programs; all those things that the bigger schools have,” said Smith, who admitted his wrestling budget has grown since Missouri joined the SEC.

Click here to see what athletic programs have been dropped since the start of the pandemic. http://almanac.mattalkonline.com/covid-19-era-dropped-sports/

One of the bigger ironies to this problem that many of the states that offer few or no Division I college wrestling programs have some of the larger number of high school wrestlers competing.

California led the list 870 programs in 2016, while both Florida and Georgia rank within the Top 10; featuring more schools than Iowa and Oklahoma, states that have produced the most NCAA Division I team titles.

“If Florida started a Division I wrestling program, it would be too easy to succeed right away considering the number of good high school wrestling programs in that state,” said Smith, who wrestled at Michigan State. “They wouldn’t even need scholarships because you would have so many kids want to come.

“I know that if Florida started wrestling right now, I’d be tempted to apply for that job. I’m happy here but that’s my home state and it would be fun to build that program and start it from scratch because there would be so much support. Think of all the coaches who are Florida boys who might have stayed had the state had wrestling.”

Unfortunately, there are few who believe those numbers will grow.

“I’m not optimistic that the current political landscape and governance provides a fertile environment for growth in D-I wrestling,” said Cornell coach Rob Koll. “Our greatest growth has occurred in “enrollment” driven schools.  The majority of these schools are at the D-II, D-III or NAIA level.  Let us not discredit advances in this arena, as this is ultimately where we will see the greatest growth in D-I.  It might take a few years but many of these schools will eventually move into Division I.”

Apathy is also an issue in many of states that do not offer Division I wrestling.

“We believe that Georgia Tech would be the ideal place since it is in the ACC, but they’ve been very difficult to deal with,” said Bud Hennebaul, considered the “wrestling guy” in the state of Georgia who is also one of the main organizers hoping to bring the NCAA Division I Championships to Atlanta. “When we went in on an NCAA bid, (Georgia Tech) asked us to sit down with them because they are interested in being the host school.

“We told them it might be a slam-dunk if you announced that you were going to start wrestling and we got a ‘deer-in-the-headlight’ look. The sports administrators at Georgia Tech didn’t even know that we held the all-star meet in their arena. Is that awful?”

“There is always talk (about expansion), but is there real talk?” quizzed Smith. “I don’t think the SEC wants to expand to other sports. I think they focus on being competitive in every sport and if you asked anyone on the street what the SEC cares about and that would be football. The SEC network is one of the largest because of football. The problem is how do they change the culture by sharing some of that revenue to add another sport. The SEC doesn’t even have men’s soccer.”

“Wrestling is on the brink of being regionalized,” said Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, former athletic director at Iowa and Stanford and a former high school wrestler at Waterloo (Iowa) West High School, the same alma mater as Dan Gable. He uses many of mental skills he learned from wrestling in his life today.

“My high school coach, Bob Siddens, used to say, ‘Don’t’ take a back seat to that guy,’ ” said Bowlsby, who spoke to coaches in 2015 about the state of wrestling from the mind of an administrator. He also agreed to be part of the National Wrestling Coaches Association Blue Ribbon Task Force that is coming up ways to improve Division I wrestling, including making it a one semester sport.

“The NCAA national wrestling tournament is one of the greatest sporting events in the world and it gets completely lost by the men’s basketball tournament,” said Bowlsby, who added that he believes all programs should do a better job of uniting when it comes developing Division I wrestling.

“I also don’t think Division I wrestling is in any jeopardy of going away. It’s only one of five championships the NCAA offers that makes money. You look around the arena (during the NCAAs) and you don’t think the sport has any problems at all because it’s a wonderful spectacle. But you go back to campus and coaches get myopic and they stop thinking about the good of the whole and start thinking about their individual issues.”

Mike Moyer, the executive director of the NWCA, said the cost of adding a Division I wrestling program is estimated between $500,000 and $750,000 and said that amount would double since programs would also have to add a women’s sport.

But Moyer said a bigger problem affecting wrestling is the APR (Academic Progress Rating), created by the NCAA in 2003 to measure the graduation and retention rates of college athletics. Unfortunately, wrestling’s average APR — which has grown from 935 to 970 on a scale of 1000 — still ranks among the lowest men’s sports.

“There a very harsh penalties for schools that have teams with low APRs, penalties that extend all the way to suspension from competition,” Moyer said. “And some of these athletic directors have bonuses tied into their school’s APR.”

“We have to stop being our own worst enemy,” Bowlsby said. “We have to make sure we don’t have high transfer rates and make sure we are graduating kids and making sure they are not getting into trouble. We need to make sure we are recruiting capable student athletes and not just people who can wrestle.”

But many also see hope, especially as women’s wrestling continues to grow, which might deal with the Title IX question?

“It’s definitely possible,” said Smith, also a past president of the NWCA. “It hasn’t grown in Division I and I don’t know if that it’s our fault or the mentality of college athletics. Some of the sports that have had growth, like lacrosse, are because there is a male and female version of the sport. Should we be pushing the female side?

In 2020, the NCAA announced that women’s wrestling has gaining “emerging sports” status.

“There is no doubt that it is growing. It would help if we could promote both a male and female version of wrestling and that would be a change in our mentality. I don’t know but I do think it would give us a better chance.”

Division I wrestling does have a success story about expansion, when Fresno State announced this past year that the program, which produced four NCAA champs and 29 All-Americans before dropping wrestling in 2006, would bring it back in 2017-18.

“I feel that if I can get this up and going in the right direction, there may be some other universities willing to do the same thing,” said newly-hired head coach Troy Steiner, whose roster size and scholarships allotment will grow, respectively, from 22 to 32 and from 4.4 to 9.9 over the next three years.

Steiner, a long-time assistant coach at Oregon, believes the university has corrected many of the ills that led to the sport being dropped.

“We have to make sure we have the academic support, especially in the Central Valley where you are going to have a lot of first generation college students who are going to need support and help them find their way through the college experience,” Steiner said. “We will be building a program and try to win in wrestling and we are there to develop young men; to look 5-10 years down the road and see a successful life.”

Moyer said the University of Delaware, which has hosted the prestigious Beast of the East Tournament, is another Division I school that is close to bringing back wrestling. Such news will help other possible expansion plans.

“It’s never going to be easy,” he said. “But it’s going to be easier because (when Division I programs are added), gives you something to point to.”

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