Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm just a goober fan

Mark Onstott is my sister-in-law’s brother. An All-American swimmer at the University of Northern Iowa in 1975, he has gone on to become one of America’s top high school swimming coaches. Mark has led teams to six state championships, been named high school coach of the year in three states and the national coach of the year in 2005. Saturday Mark was inducted into the UNI Athletic Hall of Fame. During his acceptance speech, Mark introduced the people seated at his table. When he got to my wife and me he said, “And there are Jim Brown and his wife Cindy – they’re really here to see the 1950 wrestling team.” He then looked out at Bill Nelson’s table and said, “You guys are quite a draw.”

Some people occasionally refer to me as a “member of the wrestling media”. I’m not. Here’s why – I’m just too much of a big ole goober fan.

I’ve met Dan Gable once. In the early ‘90s I was doing some work with a small company in Iowa City called Giant Step Productions. The owners were brothers who had been wrestlers. One of them had been one of “those guys in the room” for Gable. They produced some early videos for Dan – and both knew I was a wrestling fan. Their studio was on the third floor of a typical “near campus” house and you had to walk up outside stairs to get to it. I had an appointment one afternoon and the older brother, Eric, met me at the bottom of the stairs and kept asking things like, “How long have you had season tickets?” and “Who are your favorite wrestlers?” It seemed odd because we frequently discussed those things more than we did business. When we got to the top of the stairs and entered the studio there was a guy with a grin on his face who said, “Hi – I’m Dan Gable.” My witty response – “I know.” I know that Gable is one of the most accessible “icons” in all of sports – but I was just too much of a goober fan to say anything but, “I know.”

Last year at National Duals I spent quite a bit of time watching the women’s teams wrestle. Sara McMann sat two rows in front of me one session. We’re “friends” on MySpace but I couldn’t introduce myself because I’m just this big goober fan. All I could think was, “Wow, that’s an Olympic silver medallist right in front of me.”

Saturday I rode in the elevator with 3X NCAA champ and Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Bill Nelson, and couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Goober fan.

Before the ceremonies began I surveyed the room. Our table was next to the Briggs family. Former Panther coach Don Briggs is also a member of the 2009 UNI Hall of Fame class. His brother Dick was there – you know Mark Ironside’s high school coach. (And by the way - Don Briggs may have given the most touching acceptance speech of all). And there’s Sandy Stevens, the “voice of wrestling” – and over there – that’s 7-time NCAA Division III Championship coach, Jim Miller. I know Sandy so I did later say, “Hi” and I did manage to introduce myself to Jim Miller, but I was close enough several times to speak to Don Briggs and congratulate him – but didn’t. Big, dumb, goober fan.

When the 1950 NCAA championship Iowa State Teachers College team was introduced I might have been one of the first people to stand. It was inspiring. These men – these men who fought in World War II – these men who became one of the most legendary teams in the history of the sport – these men whose influence on the sport continues to this day – well, I guess I cried a little. Sappy, emotional, goober fan.

Here’s the image I’m going to remember from their acceptance ceremony. Do the math – most of these guys went off to fight a war and THEN went to college. They’re in their eighties. Some use canes and one or two use a walker to get around. As Bill Nelson was accepting the honor on behalf of the team a couple of the gentlemen were offered chairs. They refused – as if to say, “I’m a wrestler – I’ll tough it out.” Awestruck goober fan.

All Hall of Fame inductees were later introduced at halftime of the Northern Iowa/Southern Illinois football game. As they returned to their seats, by the grace of God, Bill Smith stopped right next to me. Bill Smith – decorated WWII veteran, coaching legend and Olympic champion. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. “Mr. Smith, I’m just a wrestling fan but it is an honor to meet you.”

He smiled and said, “Wrestling fan… good man” – and he reached out and shook my hand. I may not wash it for a week – ‘cause I’m just a goober fan.

And lest I forget – congratulations, Mark – I’m proud to have known you this past 20 years.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

At long last college wrestling has come to Texas. In a press conference this afternoon Wayland Baptist University announced the addition of intercollegiate varsity wrestling for both men and women. The text of the press release is below.

“Wayland Baptist University will add men's and women's wrestling as intercollegiate sports, Athletic Director Dr. Greg Feris officially announced at a press conference today.

"Intercollegiate wrestling is a win-win situation for the university. It will generate additional students while providing an additional competitive sport for the university community."

The WBU wrestling program will compete in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) beginning with the 2010-11 school year. Thirty-seven NAIA schools currently sponsor wrestling for men, ten for women.

There are currently no intercollegiate wrestling programs in the state of Texas, despite recent statistics that show an excess of 245 high school boys' wrestling teams and 198 girls' teams in the state. In the Texas Panhandle area, there are approximately 375 boys and more than 125 girls participating in the sport. The boy's team from Randall High School and the girl's team from Caprock High have recently won state championships.

"The sport is growing and is very popular in many regions of the country," added Feris. "Wayland is fortunate to be located in an area where several communities have embraced the sport at the high school level. I think we are going to fill a void in the area for fans of the sport. In addition, we are excited to be able to offer these young student-athletes a new opportunity to continue to participate in a sport that they love while at the same time obtaining an outstanding education in a Christian environment."

Search for a new coach will begin right away. Feris says he hopes to have someone in place sometime after the first of the new year.

Among those present at the press conference were Mike Moyer, Executive Director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association and former Olympic gold medalists Brandon Slay and Dan Gable. Slay, a graduate of Amarillo's Tascosa High School who is currently the resident freestyle coach for USA Wrestling at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, won the gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney. Gable, who did not give up a single point on his way to the gold at the 1972 games in Munich, won two individual NCAA titles as a student-athlete at Iowa State University and 15 NCAA team titles as head coach at the University of Iowa.

The new WBU two teams will practice in the James P. and Nelda Laney Student Activities Center. Duel or tournament events will be held in Hutcherson Center. The addition of the wrestling programs brings Wayland's athletic offering to a total of 14.”

Long-time Texas high school wrestling coach and activist, Johnny Cobb, has this to say about the announcement, “The entire wrestling community in the state of Texas in rejoicing with the news of a NAIA college wrestling program. What a progressive University that can see the value and character building potential a college wrestling program has to offer it's young men and women. Adding not only a men's program but also adding a women's program shows the kind of foresight this University exemplifies. This is a red letter day for not only Texas wrestling but for college wrestling everywhere. Universities can use every excuse in the world, from the economy to title nine, for not adding or even dropping college wrestling, but when a forward thinking University like Wayland Baptist realizes the value wrestling can add to their school, it demonstrates that where there is a will there is a way.

We are still in hopes that West Texas A&M University will also be adding an NCAA D-2 program in the future. They have seriously taken it under consideration.”

Congratulations to Wayland Baptist University – and I’m with Johnny – the more, the better.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wrestling and "The Four Ps"

You’re taught “The Four Ps” in Marketing 101: product, price, placement and promotion. Any effort to sell anything must address at least these four elements. There is a movement afoot to change the “placement” of college wrestling. The National Wrestling Coaches Association has proposed a plan that would move the NCAA Division I Championships to April 11 – 13 in 2013. The initial proposal also called for moving the Division II and Division III Championships back and making college wrestling a ”one semester” sport.

The proposal is driven by two concerns – the educational success of the student-athletes and more effective marketing of the sport. The arguments are that starting the season later in the year gives freshmen more time to acclimate to college life and that finishing later moves wrestling’s collegiate championship events away from directly competing against that other tournament whose name cannot be legally mentioned here without paying licensing fees to CBS or the NCAA.

For most fans this seems to be a no-brainer. But hold on – last week I received emails from several Division III coaches debating the proposal – and many of them are against moving the season. Those that are against have valid concerns – many small school wrestling teams share facilities, staff – even athletes – with other sports. For them – changing the season increases their operating budget and thus makes hanging on to their program even more tenuous.

In the current issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine publisher, Bryan Van Kley, has written an excellent editorial on the subject. He offers an alternative plan and solid logic behind it. Bryan makes the case better than I can, so I urge you to pick up a copy of WIN and read his column.

Many marketers will tell you that changing one “P” without addressing the other three will not have the effect you desire. To assume that moving the season alone will popularize college wrestling is to make the most basic of marketing mistakes.

What are our goals – to have more opportunities for the current fan base to watch wrestling on television? To attract new fans to the sport? To get more kids on the mat? Attaining any one of those will spur the growth of wrestling.


This isn’t really much of an issue. Tickets to a college wrestling meet or tournament are a bargain. However, across the board, we ought to make it easier for large groups of kids to see the best that the sport has to offer.


At its core wrestling is a great product – but it’s not perfect. And it may have lost some entertainment value over the past few years. Go to youtube and watch NCAA finals matches like Randy Lewis vs. Darryl Burley or Mark Schultz vs. Ed Banach or Lincoln McIlravy vs. Gerry Abas and compare those matches to last year’s 125 pound final. What’s needed for product improvement? There are lots of suggestions – a more universal definition of stalling, a pushout rule, eliminating the riding time point. All have merit – but maybe the answer is for more coaches and athletes to recognize the value that a more aggressive style has to the sport.


Advertising, publicity, sales and branding are all promotional elements. What is college wrestling’s “brand”? Is it – as Ed Aliverti so resoundingly proclaimed for so many years - “the world’s oldest and greatest sport”? Is it “the sport of presidents”? Is it “the sport of opportunity”? It could be any or all of those things. The brand should NOT be, as some fans like to suggest, “the minor leagues of mixed martial arts”. That’s like having Matthew McConaughey say, “Beef: you can use it in hash.”

Therein lies the real challenge – creating a unified brand for college wrestling. Wrestling is both blessed and cursed with several entities who are all trying to promote the sport, each with slightly divergent agendas. From the NWCA to USA Wrestling to the NCAA and even to Beat the Streets – everyone has a different approach. Is there a solution? Perhaps.

Could we organize “The Wrestling Promotion Council” with representatives from all governing bodies, the wrestling media, wrestling product companies – anyone that has a vested interest in the sport? Hold an organizational conference (Cedar Rapids is a very central location), develop a plan of action, raise some money and get started. Let’s not stop with changing the Division I season – let’s also get aggressive about using the other three “Ps”.