Without a Div. I college program, Texas is becoming place to be in wrestling

Updated: February 2, 2022

Photo: Southlake Carroll High School hosted the Red River Rivalry Shootout, featuring boys and girls all-star lineups from Texas and Oklahoma in November.

By Mike Finn

Jerry Best and Paul Muck have been coaching long enough to remember when the state of Texas finally sanctioned high school wrestling in the Lone Star State in 1998.

Over 20 years later, they agree their state has made significant leaps in drawing national interest among wrestling leaders, whether it’s the fact that Flowrestling makes its home in Austin or that Globe Life Field, the official home of the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, will host a special combination college/international freestyle wrestling event — “Bout at the Ballpark” — in February. USA Wrestling even took their top event, the Olympic Trials, to Fort Worth last April.

Globe Life Park, home of MLB’s Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, will host separate duals between Oklahoma State and Iowa in college folkstyle and between USA and Iran in freestyle.  Tickets can be purchased at wrestling.

But each coach believes that Texas — which ranks second among all states in population (over 29 million) and geography (over 261,000 square miles) — still has a long way to go to reach its potential for providing wrestling opportunities like states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, or nearby Oklahoma enjoy. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Texas ranked second to California in participation among high school boys and girls in wrestling since the state sanctioned separate tournaments for each gender at the same time.

“We’ve averaged about 15 new schools a year,” said Best, who took over the Allen High School program — which sits 30 miles north of Dallas — in 2002. As the largest public high school (5,391 in 2021) in Texas, Allen has won every large-school state tournament since the first team championships were conducted in 2010 and has been ranked among the nation’s best.

“Texas has had wrestling for a long time as club teams and when they sanctioned the sport, it led to more and more growth. But it’s hard getting coaches who have competed in high school and college to come down here (to coach),” added Best, who has actually spent the past 23 years coaching in Texas.

Muck, who has been coaching high school wrestling the past 20 years, including the past five at Vandegrift High in Austin … serves as the president of the Texas High School Wrestling Coaches Association. He said he has seen improvement on the coaching front. But he also realizes Texas is a football state and said many high schools asked football coaches to also head up wrestling programs when they were getting started.

“When I started coaching wrestling, every other coach was a guy who never wrestled before or even coached wrestling before,” said Muck, who was born in Chicago, but started wrestling when the family moved to Texas in middle school. “There’s a push now and I would say 80 percent of today’s high school coaches have wrestled before. We’re even starting to get a lot of former wrestlers who have graduated but are coming back as coaches and that’s awesome.”

Muck added that the sport needs to do a better job of promoting itself from within.

“In Texas, nobody even knew about it,” said Muck. “Kids at high schools didn’t even know they had a wrestling team, whereas in a place like Chicago, wrestling was as important as basketball. That goes back to parents having never wrestled before and stuff like that. Texas is so young when it comes to wrestling but there’s so much room to grow.”

Best, who now has over 75 boys in his wrestling program, faced a similar dilemma when he took over the program at Allen. But he found plenty of support from parents who were also willing to send their best athletes around the country.

“I started a youth program and once we got that going after a few years, (the school system) allowed us to start a middle-school program and that’s when we started seeing an increase in the number of kids that continued wrestling in high school,” Best recalls. “Instead of trying to teach a kid how to wrestle as a freshman and, hopefully, get them to be a state champion by their senior year, now we have two years to get them experience before they get to high school.”

Allen has produced several wrestlers who have gone on to wrestle in college, including Penn State’s former three-time (2017-19) NCAA champion Bo Nickal.

“He was always learning and wanting to get better and learn new technique,” said Best of his former four-time Texas finalist and three-time state champion. “He still comes back here every once in a while and does a camp for us.”

One reason Nickal and other Texas prep wrestlers have wrestled outside of the state in college is that Texas does not offer any NCAA Division I programs.

Neither coach is sure how that will change.

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“Down here, people are set in their ways and focus on football, basketball and baseball. I think it will take some type of alumni (pressure) for one of the schools to start a Division I program,” Best said. “I think it will probably be one of the private schools like TCU or SMU. There are a couple smaller colleges that already have wrestling programs.”

“(University of Texas) has had a club team for a long time and I wrestled in that club,” Muck said. “And I don’t think they are any closer to having a D-I program than they were 20 years ago. I don’t know what it would take to influence the bigger schools to get a program going.”

Colleges in Texas certainly cannot use Title IX as an argument as girls wrestling has grown tremendously and produced the likes of 2020 Olympic gold medalist Tamyra Mensah Stock, a native of Katy, Texas, and two-time women’s college national champion from Wayland Baptist.

“It comes down to generational wrestling,” added Muck. “Hopefully someone who wrestles will donate money and make it happen.”

Muck sees a natural rivalry between Texas and neighboring Oklahoma and has helped the coaches association create the first Red River Rivalry between boys and girls high school wrestlers from those states this past fall.

“We took our best wrestlers against theirs,” Muck said. “That was really fun.”

One of the common state-wide marketing slogans the state boasts is that everything is bigger in Texas. Perhaps someone within the Lone Star State will say that about wrestling and see the potential the sport must grow there at all levels.