Monday, March 30, 2009

Tom Brands in the Twilight Zone

University of Iowa athletic director, Gary Barta, called head wrestling coach Tom Brands into his office last Friday. The View from Section GG has just learned the details of that meeting.

AD Barta

“Tom, congratulations on your team winning another NCAA Championship. We at the University are all proud of you.”

Coach Brands

“Thank you. We’ve got a bunch of guys coming back that all want to work to win individual championships. Nothing’s going to be handed to us, but if we work toward those individual championships, team title number 23 will take care of itself.”

AD Barta

“Well, Tom, that’s why I called you in – there isn’t going to be a 23rd championship. Effective July 1 the University of Iowa will discontinue wrestling as a varsity sport.”

Coach Brands

“You can’t do that – not at Iowa! The fans won’t let you. The alumni won’t let you. Heck – Gable won’t let you!!!”

AD Barta

“Tom, there is really nothing I can do. As you know, Governor Culver has mandated 6% budget cuts across all state agencies and institutions. University President Mason has said that these cuts must extend to the athletic department.”

Coach Brands

“But, we’re by far the most successful athletic program this school has ever had. Why not cut back on the Carver Hawkeye Arena renovation plans. We only cost you about a million dollars a year. You should be able to cut enough out of that $47 million project to save us.”

AD Barta

“Actually, we need those renovations more than ever. Our biggest donors have decided that if they’re going to be forced to watch mediocre basketball, they at least should be able to do it in luxury seating.”

Coach Brands

“Why us – why not women’s rowing?”

AD Barta

“You know we can’t even discuss that, Tom. I’m sorry, my decision’s final. That is – unless you can raise $5 million by July 1…”

Of course this meeting never actually happened and almost any college wrestling fan in America would say that it never could happen. Therein lies the problem. College wrestling fans take too much for granted.

Lost in the excitement of the past month’s qualification tournaments and NCAA championships was the news that two more Division I programs were eliminated. It’s true that the handwriting had been on the wall for both for a while. Wagner College in Staten Island was the smallest DI program in the country and had not been competitive for a while. Portland (OR) State University had been battling Academic Progress Rate (APR) issues that threatened the well-being of the school’s other teams.

Does anyone really care? The reaction on internet wrestling fan sites has been – frankly – “Oh, well.” Where’s the outrage? Why no “Save (insert name here) Wrestling” websites or t-shirts? Why no letter writing or email campaigns? Are we just giving up? No – I suspect that many of us now recognize the truth – that those things don’t work. They just simply make us – the fans – feel like we’re participating in the battle.

Well – we’re not. Heck – most of us so-called wrestling fans never even attend meets.

Let’s mount a “Save College Wrestling” movement. Let’s be proactive with meaningful actions – not just with the goal of stopping the elimination of programs – let’s add more wrestling teams.

If you feel that the interpretation of Title IX is the culprit – do more than sign online petitions. Fight for more opportunities for girls and women to wrestle. Contribute to legal funds. Learn all of the facts about Title IX – don’t just spew reactionary hate.

Join your local college’s wrestling booster club. If it doesn’t have one – start one. Build support for the team. Commit your time and your checkbook. Work to get corporate donors/sponsors. Learn to sell the value of college wrestling to anyone that will lend you an ear for thirty seconds.

Unfortunately we choose to talk more about the schools that are dropping teams and not enough about institutions like Cal Baptist, Newberry, Limestone, Grand View and Jamestown that have recently added varsity wrestling. Baker University in Kansas is adding wrestling next season. Johnny Cobb, Brandon Slay and their group are continuing to work hard to bring intercollegiate wrestling to Texas. Is their a college in your community that should have a wrestling team? Why not spearhead the group that accomplishes that?

Jason Bryant and Kyle Klingman from Wrestling 411 like to talk about “a little from a lot” when trying to raise financial support for their efforts to bring a wrestling highlight show to television. I’ve been helping charitable organizations raise money for over twenty years and the “80-20” rule generally applies to fund raising just as it does in business. That is - 80% of the money comes from 20% of the donors. Eighty per cent of the work to expand college wrestling will come from 20% of the wrestling community. Won’t you be one of the elite that really makes a difference?

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Second Annual View from Section GG College Wrestling Awards

The championships have all been won and all of the awards except the Hodge Trophy have been handed out. Its time for the second annual View from Section GG college wrestling awards.

The Ron Santo “Heart on Your Sleeve Award”

The longtime Cubs radio announcer (and “should be” Hall of Fame third baseman) has long been known for his emotional eruptions during his broadcasts. We present a Santo award to former Hawkeye wrestler, Mark Ironside, who is the color commentator for KXIC-AM’s University of Iowa wrestling coverage. Iowa All-Access streams the audio for KXIC so fans across the country can now hear Mark. If you wanted to get a feel for the emotional roller coaster that was this year’s NCAA Division I Championship you just had to listen to Ironside, “Gol dang it, (fill in wrestler’s full name), what are you doin’? Attack!” His eruption after Dan Erekson pinned David Zabriskie rattled my windows.

The “We Really Care” Award

This goes to all of the Division III wrestlers, coaches and fans who came to Cedar Rapids this year for the DIII Championships. In the past two weeks I have heard a number of stories about your generosity – from holding receptions at flood recovering businesses to making donations to recovery funds. Thank you. I look forward to seeing you all again next year.

Rookies of the year

The women’s award goes to Jamestown College of North Dakota. In their first year of competition they finished fourth in the Women’s College Wrestling Association national championships and had an individual title winner (Tani Adler).

Another first year program, Grand View University (Des Moines, IA), takes the men’s award with an eighth place finish at the NAIA Championships. They also had an individual titleist in Matt Burns.

The “Stuff it” Award

There’s a tie here. We have 15,955 winners – all of the fans who packed Carver Hawkeye Arena for the Iowa/Iowa State contest and broke the dual meet attendance record.

The “Real Opportunity” Award

Longtime readers know that I believe wrestling to be the most democratic of sports. You don’t need to win some kind of genetic lottery (great height, a large body mass or blazing speed) to become a champion. The athlete that works the hardest and learns the most almost always triumphs. It goes beyond that – wrestling offers real opportunity for excellence not always presented by other sports. This year I’ve chosen to name a runner-up and a grand prize winner.

Michaela Hutchison is already a wrestling pioneer. In 2006 she became the first girl in America to win a boys state wrestling championship when she won the Alaskan 103 pound title. Now wrestling at Oklahoma City University, Michaela won the 55kg class at this year’s Women’s College Wrestling Association Championships and was named Outstanding Wrestler. In February she broke more ground. When the 125 pounder on the Oklahoma City men’s team went down to injury, Michaela stepped in to fill the spot. She took a lot of lumps but did win at least one match.

There can be no question, however, about the grand prize winner of this award – Anthony Robles of Arizona State University. As most know by now, Anthony was born with just one leg. After an amazing high school career that included an undefeated senior season, an Arizona state championship and a National High School championship, he chose to become a Sun Devil. Last year, as a freshman, he reached the round of 12 at the Division I championships. In May it seemed as if he was going to face even more adversity when ASU announced the elimination of the wrestling program. Anthony became an active spokesperson, helping to raise awareness about the plight of the program. Fortunately for him and all involved, major alumni donors stepped up and gave the program the necessary financial backing to save the team.

Saturday in Saint Louis Anthony Robles became an All-American – finishing fourth in this year’s tournament. In past interviews he has acknowledged that he is aware that others look to him as a role model – and he accepts the role with grace. In an Associated Press interview after his semi-final loss to Paul Donahoe of Edinboro Anthony said, “He didn’t beat me because I was born with one leg. He beat me because he was just the better wrestler tonight. Its that simple.”

Congratulations, Anthony. I’m glad you chose wrestling.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Memories of championships past

The most popular three days in American amateur wrestling starts Thursday in Saint Louis – the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. All other college divisions have crowned their champions like one long series of opening acts for the headliner.

WCWA Oklahoma City University
NCWA The Apprentice School
NJCAA Iowa Central Community College
NAIA Lindenwood University
NCAA DIII Wartburg College
NCAA DII University of Nebraska-Omaha

More people will fill the Scottrade Center for DI’s than attended all of the other intercollegiate championships combined. It is one of the very few championship events that is actually profitable for the NCAA.

Make no mistake – this is American wrestling’s big show – and once again I’ll be listening to Mark Ironside describe the action on the radio and watching the quarters, semis and finals on ESPN outlets. Business obligations will prevent me from attending.

Truth be known – I’ve probably attended far fewer Division I Championships than many fans – just seven. I know a couple of fans that haven’t missed in over thirty years. I first went in 1986 when a friend gave me his tickets for the first two sessions. I called in sick to work and had a great time. I don’t remember much about the wrestling – just about the excitement.

Most of the year I am a wrestling fan who favors the Hawkeyes. This week I’ll be 100% Black and Gold. Nationals have given me lots of great memories. In 1991 the final between Pat Smith and Tom Ryan was one of the best finals I’ve seen, but it was the following match that I remember most – when Mark Reiland hit that neck wrench and pinned Kevin Randleman. 1993 was the year of the comeback – Lincoln McIlravy and Troy Steiner scoring back-to-back come from behind wins in the finals and John Oostendorp knocking off Billy Pierce and Rulon Gardner to wrestle back for 3rd.

The 1995 Championships began with the ecstasy of Jeff McGinness pinning his opponent in a pigtail match and Sandy Stevens announcing, “With that fall by Jeff McGinness, IOWA takes the lead!” They ended with the agony of waiting for Lincoln McIlravy to come back and accept his second place trophy after Steve Marianetti scored one of the biggest upsets in NCAA finals history.

The year 2000 brought another comeback. After upset losses by three Hawkeye number one seeds: Jody Stritmatter, Doug Schwab and TJ Williams, it looked like Iowa State was going to end the Hawks’ championship streak. Each of those three came back to finish third with Stritmatter and Schwab each scoring bonus points in three of their four consolation matches. Saturday night in the finals Eric Juergens beat Cody Sanderson in the only head-to-head finals matchup between Iowa and Iowa State. Every Iowa fan immediately became a Wisconsin fan as the Badgers’ Donny Pritzlaff faced the Cyclones’ Joe Heskett. Pritzlaff’s overtime victory sealed the team championship for Iowa.

2001 did bring the end (until 2008) of the Iowa championship run. My memories are of Minnesota winning the team championship with 10 All-Americans and no finalists and of the three former California high school wrestlers, Stephen Abas of Fresno State, Adam Tirapelle of Illinois, and Mark Munoz of Oklahoma State celebrating their NCAA titles together. The Hawkeyes crowned two champions, but it was Mike Zadick’s upset of the Cowboys’ number one seed, Reggie Wright, in the second round that brought the house down.

No – I didn’t forget 1997. That year tops all years for me – despite the weather and the aluminum UNIDome benches. The list of memories from that tournament is long – six finalists and five champions, Kasey Gilliss pinning ISU’s David Maldonado in the first round, the McIlravy/Bono overtime final, “Uke, Uke, Uke, Uke, Uke” and Gable pounding his crutch into the floor when Lee Fullhart won his championship are some of them. The two that will stay with me forever, however, are Dan Gable’s high school coach, Bob Siddens, presenting Dan with his last team championship trophy and – of course – Jesse Whitmer’s improbable championship run. “Strongest man in the world!”

I envy those of you who are headed to St Louis. I hope you all come back with great memories.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Outstanding coverage

What a weekend! Arguably, it was the biggest weekend of the year for college wrestling. It was qualifying weekend for NCAA Division I schools and the NCAA Division III and the NAIA held their national championships. Thousands of college wrestlers were on the mat vying for a trip to St Louis for the Division I Championships or competing for All-American status.

Media coverage of the week was exceptional. I am a minor contributor to the fledgling College Wrestling Network, a consortium of wrestling media that coordinated much of the week’s coverage and then hosted links to all the appropriate media sites. USA Wrestling covered the EIWA and Western Regional Tournaments and the NAIA Championships, intermat covered the EWL and Eastern Regional Tournaments, revwrestling was at the Big Ten Championships, Takedown Radio at Big Twelves and wrestling 411 provided excellent coverage of the Division III Championships. (Writer’s note – I highly recommend that you read Jason Bryant's current blog about his impressions of DIII’s).

Other outlets not associated with the College Wrestling Network also contributed. Andy Vogel’s Twittered from the US Cellular Center, the fan site HawkeyeNation gave Hawkeye fans outstanding coverage and, of course, the Big Ten Network broadcast the Big 10 finals live.

The weekend was not without its disappointments. The NCAA had promised fans a live webcast of the Division III finals and then dropped the ball. It frequently appears to fans that the NCAA really doesn’t care about wrestling. This is just another example of their dismissive attitude. Ironically, the Division I Wrestling Championship is one of the very few events that are profitable for the NCAA.

Here’s my question: Does this increase in coverage – most of which is on the web – have any negative side effects? The Iowa Conference has yet to release attendance figures for the Division III Championships, but by my “eyeball” count I suspect that numbers are down slightly this year. For the first two sessions of the Big Ten Championships the announced attendance was a little over 4,000 per session – not an impressive figure. By having an increased number of online outlets are we making it easier for fans to stay home?

The objective of all wrestling media, whether its Iowa Public Television, the College Wrestling Network, Wrestling 411, Takedown Radio, intermat or the magazines like WIN and Amateur Wrestling News, is to build interest in the sport. In the end we all hope that translates into more kids wrestling and more butts in seats at college wrestling events. Are we meeting that objective? I guess time will tell.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The morning after

Another NCAA Division III championship has come and gone. Even before reflecting on this one, I’m already looking forward to next year.

As most of you know by now Wartburg won another team title with Augsburg finishing second. It’s been a roller coaster season for coach Jim Miller and his Go-Hawks. In preseason they seemed to be the odds-on favorites to repeat. Then they lost two duals to Augsburg and were tied in a dual with Delaware Valley. Then this weekend they took care of business – and the competition.

A couple of fans commented to me that it’s getting a little frustrating watching Wartburg or Augsburg win the championship every year. Take heart – there are at least a couple of coaching staffs working hard to change the status quo. University of Wisconsin-La Crosse coach Dave Malacek is developing a strong program. The Eagles crowned two champions last night – both of whom return – and finished third.

Coach John Oostendorp’s Kohawks won the fourth place trophy for the second consecutive year. He’s assembled a top notch coaching staff and is doing a solid job of selling his school to potential recruits. Their total of six All-Americans is a school record.

The fans

When you go to the “Big Show” – The NCAA Division I Championships you hear a lot of noise. But nothing seems to match the spontaneity of Division III fans at DIIIs. Luther, Elmhurst, Coe, Cornell, UW-La Crosse, Augsburg and Wartburg all bring vocal support. The Luther fans were my favorites this year. Not only did they perform their regular cheer “playlist” – this year they had giant photos of their wrestlers. It’s invigorating to see all of that passion.

The finals

Conventional wrestling wisdom holds that finals matches tend to be anticlimactic and (let’s be honest) boring. With a couple of exceptions, the most exciting wrestling happened during yesterday’s morning session.

The venue

I freely admit to being biased. I want Cedar Rapids to be the semi-permanent home for the Division III Championships. The US Cellular Center is the perfect venue for this event. The seating is comfortable, views are universally good and there’s room to grow. There is also a feeling of intimacy among the fans and the athletes.

A fan from The College of New Jersey has already reserved her hotel room for next year. I know I’ll be there. How about you.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The agony and the ecstasy

The Saturday morning session at the Division III Championships is not for the weak of heart. I guess that’s why it’s one of my favorite. Finalists, medallists and – sometimes – the team championship are all decided in 5 1/2 hours of wrestling.

Because of time compression, semi-final losers must come back and wrestle two more matches to determine their final placement in the tournament.

One of the hardest things to do in sports is to lose in the semi-finals of a national wrestling tournament and then wrestle back for third - especially if you are a #1 seed or a returning champion. Every wrestler in the semi-finals believes that he will be the national champion. Two of those wrestlers in every weight class will lose – and then have very little time to get past the disappointment enough to go out and win two more matches. It takes a special kind of courage.

This year Matt Kelly(Wartburg), Jason Adams (Augsburg), Austin Bautista (UW Whitewater), Jacob Naig (Wartburg), Joshua Zabel (UW La Crosse) and John Helgerson (Wartburg) all came back from semi-final losses to claim third.

A tale of two wrestlers

Last season Tyler Burkle was undefeated and became Coe College’s first ever NCAA wrestling champion. This year he lost in the quarter-finals to Josh Terrell from the University of Dubuque. Tyler wrestled back to finish third and when the Coe fans gave him a standing ovation he waved politely and walked off the mat. You could see his disappointment.

Coe team mate Bryon Grothus started the tournament by upsetting the number one seed at 174, Jerome Owens of Johnson and Wales. Bryon then lost in quarterfinals, but came back also to place third. He also contributed much-needed bonus points with falls in his last 2 matches. His celebration was glorious.

Everything that’s good about wrestling – you get to see in 5 ½ hours.

On to the finals.

Day one at DIIIs

I have been cursed with occasional bouts of vertigo for the past couple of years. Most of the time you take an Antivert and sit quietly for a few minutes and it passes. Every once in a while it hits you really hard and you have to go to the hospital emergency room for a while. This morning was one of those latter occurrences so I missed the first session of the NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships.

There were a couple of major upsets in the first round: Coe’s Bryon Grothus over #1 seed, Jerome Owens, of Johnson and Wales and John Carroll’ s Ben Adams topping returning champion, Romeo Djoumessi, from Wartburg.

Random thoughts from Session 2

The upsets continue.

Cornell College’s Nick Nothern upset Augsburg’s Travis Lang in the championship bracket last year. Lang went on to win the consolation re-match by fall. Tonight, Nothern once again upset Lang – this time in the championship quarter finals. Romeo Djoumessi was eliminated from the tournament in consolations. He made a couple of mental mistakes that cost him the match. Instead of getting down on himself or being angry at a borderline “fleeing the mat” call, he hugged and congratulated his opponent, congratulated the opposing coach and then hugged his own coach, Jim Miller. It was a show of class worthy of the young man.

Familiarity breeds overtime.

Coe’s Clayton Rush and Wartburg’s Mark Kist have wrestled five times this year. They now know each other so well that neither was able to generate any offense and Rush won 2-1 in the first tiebreak round.…fans.

Division III fans just seem to have more fun at Nationals than D! fans. Body-for-body I think the Luther fans are the loudest in the tournament. Did you notice all of the “Green Dragon” wrestling tee shirts and wonder for which college the Green Knights are the team name? The answer- none. Those folks are from Clayton Rush’s hometown, Aledo, IL. They travel en masse to watch Clayton wrestle.

The team race.

Wartburg closed the night with a slim lead of 64 to 61.5. Each team has 7 wrestlers remaining, but Wartburg has 6 in this morning’s semi-finals and Augsburg has 4. There are no head-to-head matchups from the two leading teams in the semis. UW La Crosse had an excellent evening and moved into third place and has 4 wrestlers in today’s semi-finals. Delaware Valley and Coe follow those three.


The coverage of the Division III championships is outstanding. Cedar Rapids Gazette wrestling writer KJ Pilcher is posting outstanding blogs in his Crossface Chronicles.
Wrestling 411 is providing live coverage from the US Cellular Center, including audio interviews of coaches and athletes.

“Your city smells real good.”

Any resident of Cedar Rapids recognizes the irony in that statement, but a fan from St Johns said that to me as we entered the arena today. It must have been Cap’n Crunch day at Quaker Oats. We truly hope that you’re enjoying every aspect of the tournament – including our fair city. Who’s been to Al’s Red Frog?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Twas the night before nationals

Twas the night before nationals (Division III) and all through the Marriott…

I held my second annual Division III Championships reception today. Fans from St Johns, The College of New Jersey, Coe and Cornell showed up. I got to see the team from UW La Crosse and I introduced myself to MIT heavyweight Glenn Geesman and his coach, Tom Layte. We also had a few local Hawkeye fans in attendance. Attendance was down from last year and I’m hoping that is not any indication of how the weekend will go.

As was expected, the staff at the Marriott did an outstanding job.

Competition begins tomorrow morning and I can hardly wait for the action to begin. I’m most anticipating the bookend classes – 125 and HWT. Any one of the seeds could win at 125 and HWT has some very exciting wrestlers.

Team scoring could be much closer than anticipated. Conventional wisdom is predicting a typical Wartburg/Augsburg race but schools like Delaware Valley, Luther and Coe have lineups that could upset the apple cart.

I’ll be blogging after every session and Wrestling 411 will be providing complete championship coverage so join us and stay abreast of all the action.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Fighting of our backs

They’re almost here – the 2009 NCAA Division III Championships begin this Friday in Cedar Rapids. Almost inevitably, at some point in the tournament, some wrestler is going to fight off his back and win a match. Great comebacks are a part of any sport, but there’s something about a competitor fighting through adversity on the mat that is particularly inspiring. In my days as a Hawkeye fan I’ve been luck enough to witness some great comebacks – Lincoln McIlravy over Gerry Abbas and Terry Steiner over Troy Sunderland in the 1993 NCAA finals were back-to-back wins that raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels.

My all-time favorite such win was when Cedar Rapids native Mark Ironside mounted a furious final period comeback in the 1996 NWCA All-Star meet to defeat Cary Kolat 9-8. Kolat had been ranked number 1 in the country and was considered almost invincible. From that turnaround match Mark would go on to win two NCAA titles and The Hodge Trophy.

Last summer Cedar Rapids experienced the worst natural disaster in our history. Epic flooding left thousands homeless and closed hundreds of businesses. We’re now fighting off our backs. When you come here this weekend you’re going to find a community that loves wrestling, wrestlers and wrestling fans. Our sons and daughters have contributed to the sport’s history – Hall of Famers Jim Zalesky and Barry Davis won championships at Cedar Rapids Prairie High School. Announcer Sandy Stevens got her start calling meets when her husband, Bear, was the Cedar Rapids Kennedy wrestling coach. Television broadcaster par excellence, Tim Johnson, wrestled here at Coe College.

We’re glad you’re coming here to support these outstanding student athletes and we hope you enjoy your stay. No one welcomes you more than those businesses that are fighting to get off the mat and succeed. Almost any business that you can reach by walking from the US Cellular Center is a recovering flood victim, but here’s a partial list of those that have re-opened and are waiting to serve you.

Restaurants and Bars

DC’s River Walk (lunch, dinner and adult beverages)
Sub King (lunch)
Austin Blue’s BBQ (lunch)
The Coffee Emporium (fine coffees, breakfast and lunch)
Brick’s Bar and Grill (lunch, dinner and adult beverages)
Deb’s Ice Cream and Deli (lunch and sweet treats)
Victor’s Place (breakfast and lunch)
Blend (very fine dining and adult beverages)
Little King Deli (lunch)
The Blue Strawberry (breakfast, lunch, fine coffees and beer)
The Cedar Rapids Piano Lounge (entertainment and adult beverages)
Quiznos (lunch)
Gringo’s (lunch, dinner and adult beverages – owner is also local MMA promoter)


Downtown Drug (for that necessity you forgot at home)
Smulekoff’s Furniture

Smulekoff’s is one of the oldest businesses in Cedar Rapids. One of the most surreal TV images from the flood was of items, believed to be from their store, floating downstream in the floodwaters. Through a monumental effort they were one of the first businesses to re-open. Their spray-painted, “We’re back” sign was inspirational to many. I know you’re not coming here to buy a couch, but give them a visit and see what hard work and a sense of community can accomplish.

Other attractions

The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art

Czech Village

Cedar Rapids has a strong Czech and Slovak heritage. Czech Village is an area that celebrates this heritage. One of the hardest hit areas of the city, it is a short drive from downtown. Joens Brothers Interiors, Czech Village Antiques and Vitame Vas have re-opened for your shopping pleasure. Al’s Red Frog will gladly serve you one of the best cheeseburgers in town with a cold beer. The National Czech and Slovak Museum is closed, but has a temporary exhibit and bookstore at Lindale Mall on the northeast side of town. Just outside of Czech Village is Chappy’s Safari Lounge – another flood damaged business that just recently re-opened.

Re-located victims

The damage was so great to some downtown businesses that they chose to re-locate. One such business is Penguins Comedy Club. Penguin’s will be featuring TC Hatter and Marcianne this weekend. Now located at the Clarion Hotel, they are close to all of you staying on the southwest side. You can get there in time for the Saturday late show after finals. Have a beer and a lot of laughs.

Please enjoy Cedar Rapids. We’re glad you’re coming and we look forward to seeing you again at the 2010 Division III Championships.