The 2022 college wrestling national championships are over … but the great...
Can College Coaches Come Together?
By Mike Finn
If there are two NCAA Division I coaches who understand the competitiveness and camaraderie of coaching, it has to be Cornell’s Rob Koll and Missouri’s Brian Smith.
All one had to do is look at their team’s recent meeting at the NWCA National Duals in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to see the connection between the two coaches who learned most of their coaching skills from current Oklahoma coach Jack Spates, who once served as their mentors when Spates coached at Cornell.
In fact, sitting matside of this quarterfinal was Spates’ son, Jeremy, who once competed for Smith at Missouri and now serves as an assistant at Cornell. Koll replaced Jack Spates at the school in Ithaca, N.Y., where Smith and Koll were on the same staff.
But they both enjoy the challenge of beating each other as was the case for Koll’s squad who beat Smith’s Tigers, 18-15 in a quarterfinal match in the UNI-Dome.
“I’m happy and relieved,” grinned Koll after the dual. “I don’t want to lose to Brian Smith. We coached together for five years. I don’t want to have to live that one down.”
“When the match starts, all friendships are out the window. I don’t take anything personally. He beats us enough times and I’m returning the favor.”
And both head coaches hold the highest leadership posts — Smith serves as president and Koll will eventually replace him in two years — in the National Wrestling Coaches Association, which sponsors the annual National Duals … and now must figure out what to do with this event or create a true National Duals in the next year.
“We have to have a good plan,” said Smith, who is in the first of his two-year tenure. He works closely with NWCA Executive Director Mike Moyer, who has been trying to get the sport’s coaches on the same page when it comes to the importance of dual meets and a “true” dual-meet championship for the betterment of the sport.
“I know Mike and I sat for hours at the convention (last summer) putting a plan together where it’s going to work,” said Smith. “We may be bringing it back on campus in regional sites. We are going to come up with something but everyone has to be on board with it.”
And Moyer believes there is a growing consensus among the Division I coaches by citing that there was a unanimous vote to continue working on a National Duals championship.
Oddly, Koll wasn’t so fast to agree while both were in Cedar Falls for the Duals.
“I tend to agree with what Mike puts forth,” said Koll. “I’m not saying he’s wrong but there are a lot of hoops for us to go through before a new system is in place.
“I think it will be like this next year and the year after that we will probably be in a new system.”
Koll wasn’t sure that all Division I coaches are on the same page.
“It’s just all the coaches who are here agree,” said Koll. “The problem isn’t from the coaches who are here. It’s those who are not here.”
Koll’s was referring to the likes of Iowa coach Tom Brands, who chose not to send the Hawkeyes to the event his teams won the last three years, and Penn State’s Cael Sanderson, whose team competed at the Virginia Duals the same weekend as the NWCA National Duals.
While Brands told the Iowa City Press-Citizen that he didn’t want his program, which has generated the majority of fans to the two-day event, to be the “savior” of the National Duals, he does support a true duals championship.
So too does Oklahoma State head coach John Smith, who chose not to send his Cowboy teams to the National Duals the previous three years when Cedar Falls also served as host to the event, which helped finance many of the programs within the NWCA.
“The thing you have to recognize is that the majority of us (coaches) feel that these type of dual meets probably should be wrestled at our home or away arenas. If we are going to wrestle the University of Oklahoma in a dual meet, that dual meet should be at Oklahoma State or Oklahoma University or wherever.
“That is the direction that (the NWCA) are leaning towards. If that happens, I think several coaches would get on board,” said the OSU head man.
Smith admitted he didn’t understand the importance of a dual championship.
“I don’t believe that it is an event that we have to have and I’m not sure why we are pursuing this event and trying to make it a true national championship,” said Smith. “But I do support our NWCA. If they think it is something that is positive for our sport, I think we ought to try it. We have a tendency to be real slow in making changes. I don’t think it would be anything that I would be against. But I do believe it is something that we don’t have to have.”
There are plenty of other questions, including when a true dual championship should be contested. While Moyer is pushing for it to be held two weeks before qualifying tournaments for the NCAA tournament, Koll said he likes for it to be held earlier in the year.
“I’d like for us to do it in December about the time the current Las Vegas tournament is held,” he said.
It seems like every coach has a different opinion and leaders like Smith must find a way to get everyone to agree.
Smith also compares this challenge to others that all wrestling coaches face.
“If you get frustrated with road blocks as a wrestling coach, you are really in trouble,” he said. “When you are at the bottom of the food chain in college sports, you have to find ways. You can’t look at them as road blocks. “You have to look at them as speed bumps and you’re going to get over them. It’s going to slow you down a little bit but you are going to persevere and overcome them. “Eventually, people will come to their senses and say, ‘We’re going to get this done.’ ”
Smith also knows some coaches simply must worry more about the fate of their own program at a time when the sport is being cut by schools.
“I know I have to take care of Missouri first,” said Smith. But I also know that I have to help out the NWCA and for this sport to survive the next ten years, we have to have a plan and we have to get people to buy into it.
“It’s like teaching your kids. If I want them to believe that we can be great, I have to get them to buy into it. We can’t all be going in different directions or we’ll be pulling the wrong way.”