But a proposal supported earlier this month by the sport’s coaches — at least some of them — could lead to a national dual tournament determining which school is crowned college wrestling’s champion.
The potential change, which will go in front of the NCAA’s Division I sports management cabinet next month, has become a polarizing issue among college coaches since it was unveiled three weeks ago at the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s annual convention in Florida.
Supporters say the opportunity to add a second NCAA-sponsored championship wrestling event potentially televised each February on ESPN is much-needed exposure for a sport that has dwindled from 146 Division I programs to 77 during the past 30 years.
But skeptics argue it’s a gamble that could backfire and diminish the sport’s popular season-ending showcase.
“It’s one of those things where it’s hard to support it until you know all of the ins and outs and all of the information,” NWCA executive director Mike Moyer said.
“I’ve had enough conversations where in the first 30 seconds it’s ‘boy, we should never do this.’ Then at the end of a half hour it’s, ‘We can’t afford not to try this.’ ”
Moyer points to flat-line attendance at wrestling dual meets across the country and to the dwindling number of programs in Division I. He sees a sport in need of a jolt, and he believes growing the spectator base and media following through dual meets is the best way to help wrestling become more relevant on college campuses.
“To go back to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity, we can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome,” he said.
Moyer and many college coaches expressed hope in recent years that the NCAA would take over the National Duals event, now run by the coaches association. That would give the sport a second championship event.
The NWCA-sponsored invitational duals tournament has watched three of the sport’s most visible programs — Penn State, Iowa and Oklahoma State — skip the tournament at least once in the last five years. The event has failed to pick up steam after a series of format changes.
NCAA associate director of championships Jeff Jarnecke outlined the proposed concept for an NCAA national dual tournament earlier this month during a visit to Des Moines in preparation for the traditional NCAA Championships in March at Wells Fargo Arena.
Jarnecke said the dual tournament, which could go into place as early as 2014, would include a 16-team field filled by automatic qualifiers from each conference, along with at-large spots earned through selection criteria. The top eight seeds would host dual meets on the second weekend in February, with the eight winners advancing the next weekend to a two-day event at a predetermined championship site.
Moyer said the NCAA will recognize only one team champion each season, and the dual tournament winner would wear the title as the NCAA champion. However, he said traditional team scoring will still be kept at the NCAA individual tournament and the team that accumulates the most points will be recognized as the NWCA’s national champion.
“The national tournament is such an incredible event with the team score,” Northern Iowa coach Doug Schwab said. “They’ll still be able to do those things, but will it feel the same or be the same? I’m not sure.”
The individual scoring system came into play in 1929 to determine the NCAA team champion. Though the current format enables programs with a few top stars to claim top-10 finishes, Iowa, Penn State, Minnesota and Oklahoma State are the only schools to have raised the championship trophy since 1989.
“The worst-case scenario is if it doesn’t work out we can always go back, that’s what people have to understand,” Cornell coach Rob Koll said. “The possible upside is astronomically high. In 20 years of coaching, one thing I’ve figured out is the only thing wrestling coaches can come to a consensus on is disagreement. It’s paralyzing the ability to make change in our sport.
“The reality is, this could bring in a new base of wrestling fans who have never seen the sport. … Everyone understands a dual meet. Only a hardened fan understands the tournament. That’s where I feel we have this huge upside in making this happen.”
Koll estimated half of the coaches he’s heard from are on the fence with the rest evenly split into two groups on opposing sides. He said the dual format gives the sport an opportunity to attract a larger spectator base.
Others, like Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, say there hasn’t been enough discussion and the potential change hasn’t been planned carefully enough.
Sanderson, a four-time NCAA champion at Iowa State from 1999-2002, said it seems like college wrestling is “jumping from rock to rock,” hoping to land on the right spot.
“I don’t like that ‘we’ve got to try something’ mentality,” said Sanderson, whose program won the past two NCAA titles. “If you study any book on failing companies, that’s what they do. They’re looking for a silver bullet or that quick fix, and there’s not a quick fix, not to anything that’s worthwhile. It’s a slow process, it’s doing things the right way and adjusting slowly.”
Sanderson points to wrestling’s increasing presence on cable television, its packed championship event each March and he ponders the potential risks involved with changing the system. He wonders about the long-term ramifications for programs operating under the NCAA-maximum 9.9 scholarship allotment.
But one of Sanderson’s former college teammates, Drexel coach Matt Azevedo, said he thinks smaller programs would have a better chance to compete in a dual format.
“I know why there are guys who are against it and I understand that, and I think most of that comes from the position that it’s tradition and how do you break tradition?” Azevedo said. “This is the way it’s been for almost 100 years and how do you change it? Some people are having a hard time seeing it in another light. … But there’s no way around the fact that Division I wrestling is hurting.”