Monday, January 26, 2009

The road to Cedar Rapids - Volume 4

I was introduced to college wrestling by a Division III wrestler. I’ve told the story many times – a friend of mine competed for Augustana College in Rock Island, IL and asked me to ride with him to Ames to watch Dan Gable wrestle. The first meets I attended after that trip were at Augustana. It’s almost forty years later and now I’m watching Dan’s grandkids run around the floor of Carver Hawkeye Arena in singlets and headgear during Hawkeye meets. I’m also still watching Division III college wrestling. The NCAA Division III Championships are just 5 ½ weeks away so I thought I’d share some random thoughts about wrestling at our smaller colleges.

It could be a tight race.

Going into this season many fans thought that Wartburg would easily defend their NCAA team title. Coach Miller’s squad returned three national champions and seemed to strengthen the lineup when Mark Kist transferred from Iowa State. When St Johns upset perennial powerhouse Augsburg early in the season it appeared that Wartburg was head and shoulders above the closest competitors. Augsburg’s win over Wartburg in the finals of National Duals changed all of that thinking. The battle for the team championship in Cedar Rapids may just be much tighter than expected.

All the news, all the time

Andy Vogel is the head wrestling coach at Gettysburg College. He also created and maintains It is a highly informative site with current Division III results, rankings and news. There are videos, a photo gallery and a discussion forum. Andy’s selection of a Wrestler of the Week is my favorite feature. He recognizes wrestlers that you might not normally hear about.

Where’s the anger?

Norwich University recently announced the elimination of its wrestling team. The NWCA and USA Wrestling have launched efforts to get the Norwich administration to reconsider the decision. There was some minor grumbling on internet wrestling forums in the first few days after the announcement. But since then fan interest has faded. Why the fan apathy? Is it because Norwich is a D3 school? If so, why should that matter? Twenty-seven student athletes are losing a part of their educations. Or – are we simply tiring of the struggle to save intercollegiate wrestling? Please don’t give up on Norwich so easily. Contact their administrators and urge them to reconsider this decision. Here is updated contact information:

President Richard Schneider
Norwich University
158 Harmon Drive
Northfield, VT 05663

Executive Assistant Mrs. Judy Bailey

General Gordon R. Sullivan (Ret.)
Chairman of the Norwich University Board of Trustees
Association of the United States Army
2425 Wilson Blvd.
Arlington VA 22201
email of the General’s personal aide Ms. Ann Belyea

Why not go on the offense?

That’s right – why not work to ADD wrestling programs – especially at the Division III level? A December New York Times article cited a recent survey of 371 private colleges and universities. Approximately “two-thirds said they were greatly concerned about preventing a decline in enrollment”. According to statistics from the National Wrestling Coaches Association published in the current issue of WIN Magazine, the average operating cost of a Division III wrestling team is $71,700 per year and the average squad size is 24 athletes. Tuition at private 4-year institutions averages $25,000/year (source: Over a quarter of a million American high school students wrestle, but there are less than 10,000 intercollegiate varsity wrestling roster spots. I suspect that many more high school wrestlers would continue on at the college level if the opportunities existed.

If a school attracts 24 new students because they have the opportunity to continue to compete, that equates to an additional annual income of $600,000 for that school. Startup costs are less than those of many other sports and facility requirements are not extravagant. Smart schools would be adding wrestling teams – not dropping them. NAIA-affiliated schools seem to be figuring this out, ala California Baptist, Grand View and Baker University. Why can’t the smaller NCAA affiliates follow the NAIA trend? Why not try?

Cedar Rapids championship update

Flood recovery continues. Red and white “We’re Back” signs continue to pop up all around the downtown. Several restaurants and bars within walking distance of the US Cellular Center have re-opened.

Penguin's Comedy Club will be featuring TC Hatter and Marcianne the weekend of the championships. Penguin’s is now located in the Clarion Hotel and you’ll have time to get to the late Saturday show after finals.

The Iowa Conference now has a website available for the championships. You can visit it at

I will again be hosting a reception at the Cedar Rapids Marriott, Thursday March 5 from 5:00 to 7:00 PM. Please join me and your fellow wrestling enthusiasts for food, beverages and lots of wrestling talk.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I heard it on the radio

I occasionally have to pretend to work for a living. I’m self-employed, so many people think that I get to set my own schedule. Wrong!!! My clients determine when I work. I have fast approaching deadlines on a couple of projects that require a lot of computer time. I spent this weekend toiling away – and listening to radio programs in the background.

Saturday I got caught up on the Thursday 1/15 broadcast of Wrestling 411 and Sunday I listened to KXIC airing the Iowa vs. Oklahoma State dual meet. There’s a week-long cosmic thread that runs through these two events. As the old radio announcers used to say, “Return with me now to an era long ago and far away – last weekend in cyberspace.”

There was much complaining on college wrestling forums far and wide about ESPNU not broadcasting the finals of National Duals live. Making the matter worse, the finals could not be live streamed on Live Sports Video. LSV had done a magnificent job of showing the earlier rounds, but the ESPNU contract apparently prohibited a live webcast of the finals. This led to online discussion of why wrestling can’t get better total coverage and more live TV exposure.

I read many theories – some even made some sense. Then, Saturday on Wrestling 411, I heard Jason Bryant launch himself into a couple of “rants” on the subject that made perfect sense. I hate to paraphrase because I always misinterpret some key point and give it a meaning never intended by the speaker so please listen to the show. It’s archived on their website.

Kyle Klingman, Jason’s broadcast partner, took off on a “rant” of his own – this one about the prevalence in college wrestling of “3-2 matches”. You know the kind – one takedown and then lots of blocking off. Again – listen to the program to hear Kyle’s points.

Now for Sunday – and the Cowboys against the Hawkeyes. These are the two most storied programs in the history of American wrestling – 55 NCAA team championships between them. Once again – lots of online whining about a lack of TV coverage or free internet streaming. After listening to the meet, I’m actually glad that it was not on television. Based on Mark Ironside’s radio commentary, watching the proverbial “paint dry” might have been more exciting than some of the matches in this meet. Both teams seemed equally guilty. I could only imagine what Kyle Klingman might be thinking.

There are those who seem to think that the media owes the sport better coverage – that they don’t give the sport or its fans enough respect. Well – respect has to be earned. But even that isn’t the real issue. There just has to be a larger potential audience before there will be better coverage.

Let’s look at some hard facts. Too many college “fans” don’t even attend wrestling meets. Fewer than 5,000 were in the seats Sunday in Stillwater to watch these two legendary programs compete. According to a comment made by Jason during one of his rants – about 4,000 people watched the free live streaming of the “non-final” rounds of National Duals. These are not the kind of numbers that attract advertisers.

So what’s to be done? Fans can start by becoming more active in their support of wrestling and of the outlets that are working to give it greater exposure. Go to meets and take a friend. Be willing to pay when someone invests time and money in bringing you an event.

Let’s face another hard fact. Sometimes college wrestling can be boring. Maybe I’m wrong, but the frequency of Kyle’s “3-2 matches” seems to be growing. In today’s college wrestling world there are fewer than twenty athletes who provide the kind of entertainment that will entice the average sports fan into watching wrestling. Jake Herbert, Brent Metcalf and Darrion Caldwell come to mind immediately – but then you have to start thinking about it. You can talk all you want about “keeping good position” and “hand fighting” – to the occasional viewer that translates into reaching for the remote. More action will translate into more viewers. For that we must rely on the sport’s coaches and athletes.

Now for a non-wrestling aside. My youngest daughter attended Cedar Rapids Regis High School (now defunct) and played sports there, so I attended a lot of athletic events. A couple of Regis alums had a pretty good day Sunday – Kurt Warner leading the Arizona Cardinals to his third Super Bowl appearance and Zach Johnson winning the PGA’s Sony Open. Go Royals!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Thoughts on National Duals

The NWCA National Duals just might be my favorite wrestling event. The current format exposes a wrestling junkie to performances by the best intercollegiate student-athletes at all levels and of both genders. Most fans attend to support their favorite team – sometimes missing much of the spectacle. This year’s National Duals exemplified all that is great about college wrestling – and the wrestling community. Here are some random observations.

It seems almost impossible to avoid unpleasant weather when attending a wrestling event of any kind in Cedar Falls. This year was no exception. By the time I got our house completely dug out of the snow Saturday and felt it safe to travel I had missed the Hawkeyes’ first two meets. Even with the adverse Saturday weather, attendance at the UNI-Dome almost hit 16,000 – topping last year. The event continues to grow in popularity. Is 20,000 an attainable attendance figure? I think so.

This is a well run tournament. UNI athletic director Troy Dannen, coach Brad Penrith and their entire staffs are to be congratulated. The announcing team faced a daunting task of keeping fans apprised of the action on 18 mats (Saturday) and 6 intercollegiate divisions without slighting anyone. They were more than up to it. Every endeavor of this scope has dozens of people behind the scenes who make it work. I really don’t know who is responsible for what, but it sure seemed like Tammy Tedesco from the NWCA logged a lot of miles on the floor of the dome this weekend.

The Hawkeyes were tough. The Big Red from Cornell came to Cedar Falls to wrestle – and wrestle they did. Cornell held the lead in the finals after 165 but Iowa won the last four matches to retain the Division I National Dual championship for another year. Dan Erekson’s pin at heavyweight was an exclamation point at the end of the tournament.

I’ve followed Justin Kerber’s career since he wrestled for Emmetsburg High School. The son of 4X Iowa high school champ and 3X Hawkeye All-American, Jeff Kerber and the nephew of Hawkeye great and Olympic gold medallist, Randy Lewis, Justin would have seemed a natural to wrestle for the University of Iowa. Instead he chose to follow his own path and join coach Rob Koll in Ithaca. An academic All-American, he helped Cornell “upset” Iowa State in Sunday morning’s semi-finals.

The first time I ever saw Minnesota’s Brock Lesnar wrestle was at National Duals in Iowa City several years ago. His strength, physique and dominating performance created quite a buzz. When one reporter asked him how much he could bench press, Lesnar replied, “whatever I want”. Current Golden Gopher 125-pounder, Zach Sanders, is at the complete other end of the weight spectrum. I stood near him late Sunday afternoon and he just might be one of the smallest college wrestlers I’ve ever seen. With his “baby face” he looks about 15 years old. As was the case with Lesnar, National Duals afforded me my first opportunity to see Sanders wrestle. Don’t pay any attention to his size and facial features – this kid is going to be a good one. He is a skilled takedown artist with power on top that belies his size. I’m really looking forward to three years of battles between Zach and Iowa’s blue chip freshman, Nate Moore.

Augsburg’s cumulative score after the first two rounds in Division III was 110-0. Then, in the finals, they scored two falls in the last four weights to upset number one ranked Wartburg. They may be setting up one heck of a team race at DIII Nationals in Cedar Rapids this March.

I spent a lot of time watching the women wrestle. It’s a little disconcerting switching back and forth from watching folkstyle to watching freestyle – but it can be done. It’s pretty clear that there are opportunities to add women’s wrestling at more colleges. With 5,000 girls wrestling in high school, and that number growing, there is room for growth in roster spots and scholarships. Jamestown College of North Dakota is fielding a women’s team for the first time. With athletes from states like Hawaii, California and Michigan, they’ve attracted a full roster of wrestlers and were competitive in this tournament. I especially enjoyed watching Mason City’s Tiffany Sluik score a fall to help Jamestown to one of their victories. It was also heartening to see Olympic silver medallist Sara McMann in the stands supporting the women’s teams. Oh, by the way, Oklahoma City University kicked the snot out of the rest of the field to win the women’s division.

Speaking of Sara McMann, I still can’t get over being such a goober fan when in the presence of Olympic greats like Sara, Bill Smith, Doug Blubaugh and Ben Peterson.

Every year I adopt a team outside the normal group of schools I follow (Iowa, Iowa State, UNI, Coe and Cornell College). This year I picked Southern Oregon because my daughter went to school there for a year. In the closest final dual of the night, they won the NAIA championship on criteria.

Newberry College from South Carolina is another great story. In only their third year of competition, the finished as runner-up in Division II to Nebraska-Omaha. They have 33 wrestlers on the squad – 25 of whom come from states with no Division I programs. With high school wrestling continuing to grow in popularity in the southeastern United States and a limited number of competition alternatives, I see only bright things in the future for Newberry.

However, my favorite story of this year’s National Duals had nothing to do with the competition. Midway through the final round Sandy Stevens announced that one of the young lady wrestlers had lost a gold ring and described the area where the ring was thought to be lost. It was an area open only to those with credentials and you could see a stirring among the coaches and athletes as they began to search for the lost ring. About ten minutes later Sandy came back on the mic to say that the ring had been found by one of the coaches. It was a great way to finish the weekend.

Monday, January 5, 2009

That was the year that was

Countless bloggers, journalists and broadcast outlets are presenting “year-in-review” analyses. Gary Abbott of USA Wrestling can be included among those with his Top Ten Stories of 2008 on No idea is too trite to steal, so I’ll join in with a couple of observations about this past year

A tale of two programs

The University of Oregon actually announced the elimination of varsity wrestling in 2007, but much of the legal battle took place in 2008. The Save Oregon Wrestling movement is still alive, but has lost the most significant court decisions. I’m not sure what the next steps are – perhaps to follow a path similar to Stevens Institute of Technology and develop a strong club program with an eye toward future reinstatement. The University will have to hire a professional educator as athletic director before there is real hope for the return of the Ducks to the mat.

In May, 2008 Arizona State University announced that it, too, would be dropping wrestling. This was particularly distressing because the Sun Devils are one of the very few schools to ever win an NCAA Division I team championship – and the only one west of the Rockies. Backers of ASU wrestling, including Art Martori, quickly raised millions of dollars to fully fund the continuation of the sport and it was reinstated only ten days after the elimination announcement.

The lesson here seems fairly obvious. It is the vital to the continued existence of college wrestling at every level that a school’s boosters engage potential donors long before the “hammer is dropped”. You just can’t sell enough tee shirts to save a team after the fact.

The emergence of a celebrity?

Henry Cejudo’s Olympic gold medal was Gary Abbott’s top story of the year – rightfully so. Is there more to this than just the victory? Are we seeing a new “face for wrestling”? Henry was very charming on his Tonight Show appearance with Jay Leno. The “chicken suit” story is now famous throughout the wrestling world. He has also appeared on programs in a variety of media outlets, including Univision. What’s next for Henry? Well – Dancing with the Stars is the rumor.

When so-called broadcast “professionals” can’t come up with a better image of amateur wrestling than Hulk Hogan, it’s time we had someone rise to celebrity status.

A negative perception perpetuated

Not all of the news from Beijing was positive. Weight management issues hampered the American performance. This wasn’t just bad for the medal count – it was bad for wrestling. Nothing keeps kids out of the sport like the perception among parents that unhealthy weight loss is rampant among wrestlers. The past few years of work by the NWCA and others to eradicate that stereotype was virtually nullified by the examples set in China by our wrestlers.

Severe and rapid weight loss is too much a “badge of honor” among wrestlers and the wrestling community. Real growth in the sport – especially among girls and women – will not occur until this culture changes.

The crowd

Last month 15,955 fans attended the Iowa/Iowa State dual meet, breaking the NCAA record for such an event. In fact this was one of the largest crowds ever to attend any non-football intercollegiate athletic event that wasn’t an NCAA championship.

So what’s the big deal? I’ve read statements from wrestlers and coaches along the lines of, “It’s about the two wrestlers on the mat, we don’t need a crowd.”

There are those who believe, as I do, that increasing the fan popularity of the “world’s oldest and greatest sport” will be critical to its long term survival as an intercollegiate sport. There is another segment that believes that attendance is an unfair yardstick to impose upon wrestling – that lacrosse and soccer are not held to these standards, why should wrestling be? In a just world that’s a reasonable question – but life isn’t always fair.

Why not aspire to greatness?! Why perpetuate the belief that wrestling is a “cult sport”? Why not believe in the greatness of the sport? Why not believe that the average sports fan can learn to love wrestling as much as you do – as I do? Come on – take a friend to a meet.

There were many more stories in 2008, some of which will play out in 2009 and beyond. Let’s keep our eyes on Terry Brands returning to Iowa City – does that mean anything other than the Hawkeyes have a new assistant coach? Is MMA helping or hurting the future of amateur wrestling – especially at the international level? Will the current economy hasten the departure of even more college wrestling programs? Regardless, it will be interesting.