Monday, May 24, 2010

Rivalries

The Cardinals and the Cubs. The Celtics and the Lakers. The Packers and the Bears. The Hawkeyes and the Cyclones. Rivalries. What would sports be without them?

One of my best friends and I are on opposite sides of the Cardinals/Cubs battle. During baseball season we have a rule that is designed to protect our friendship – “one shot a day”. Whenever we get together, each of us is allowed to insult the other’s team just once – and then we have to let it rest. Any transgression requires that the offending party buy an adult beverage for the wronged party.

When you use the word “rivalry” in college wrestling the Iowa vs. Iowa State dual meet comes to most minds first. Year in and year out that event will rank in the top three for dual meet attendance (depending upon if it is in Iowa City or Ames). Are all of those seats filled with hardcore wrestling fans? Of course not. Many of the attendees are there because this is a grudge meet.

College wrestling is under siege. Extreme budget cuts and Title IX are leading to the elimination of “minor” sports at a number of institutions. In some of the most recent cases, like University of California – Davis and California State – Bakersfield, wrestling was just one of the dropped sports. What criteria were used to decide which programs were cut? In the case of UC Davis wrestling, lack of fan support was one factor mentioned.

Life isn’t always fair. Softball is virtually exempt from the chopping block no matter if 11 or 11,000 fans show up for a game. I’ve been to women’s tennis meets where 20 people were watching. Don’t worry – that sport is safe.

There’s a classic old joke with the punchline, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.” Sadly, that’s the situation many college wrestling teams find themselves in. Sometimes, intercollegiate competition opportunities depend upon “outrunning” the baseball team or the men’s tennis team. In other cases, as with Cal State Bakersfield, if you can come up with enough money to save all of the teams, you can save your own. Is it fair? Heck, no! Is it reality? You bet.

What can wrestling do to gain that needed support? Start by promoting a dual meet rivalry. Last season’s battle between Coe College and Cornell College is an example of how it could be done. Yes – the rivalry between the two schools already exists in all sports – and that’s a big help. The meet was given a boost when the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum and Body Bar Systems sponsored a breakfast celebrating the rivalry. Cornell, the host school, also made the meet “Breast Cancer Awareness Night” and donated proceeds from ticket sales to the American Cancer Society. Cornell coach, Mike Duroe (normally one of the sport’s snappiest dressers), and his team wore pink tee shirts as their warm-ups. During team introductions, the Cornell wrestler handed a matching pink tee to his Coe counterpart. The teams opted for a “halftime” intermission and their was entertainment – which was greatly enhanced when Coach Duroe’s daughter decided that she wanted to join in. The gym was packed and it was a great mix – students and fans from both schools, young wrestlers and prominent alumni were all there.

The Oklahoma State/Oklahoma “Bedlam” series, Augsburg and Wartburg, the Iowa/Minnesota “Border Brawl” and the Oregon/Oregon State “Civil War” (oh, sorry, I forgot) – are all mat rivalries that get fans out cheering for wrestling. We need far more examples of this.

Frankly, dual meets need to matter – and they don’t to many coaches and athletes. Rivalry duals are only a first step. We need a true dual meet national championship. The current issue of Win Magazine features an interview by Mike Finn of Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. In the article, Moyer outlines both his reasoning behind his national dual championship proposal and two hypothetical scenarios for holding such a tournament.

The NWCA already holds its National Duals event which features teams from every division of college wrestling. It’s my favorite event of the year because of the variety. Sure I focus on the Hawkeyes when they’re on the mat, but I also get to watch top Division III teams and it’s one of the few times a year that I get to watch women compete. However, it’s not a true championship because the top teams don’t always show up. For example, Oklahoma State has declined their invitation the past couple of years. I’ll really miss this event if it gives way to several true dual championship tournaments, but I agree with Mike Moyer – college wrestling needs this change.

(Writer’s note – full disclosure laws require that I mention that WIN Magazine occasionally hires me to develop direct marketing campaigns for them.)