If college wrestling wants to break through, these are the changes that must be made
It's a great sport, yet those who run it have done all they can to keep the masses from ever realizing it
It’s a great time of the year for sports.
Thursday began the men’s version of the NCAA tournament and by mid-afternoon, a huge upset was already in the books, Furman over Virginia, a No. 13 over a No. 4 … in part the result of a horrible decision by a Cavalier, yet also because, like Porter Moser’s Sooners, the Tony Bennett-coached Cavs aren’t very interested in scoring, leaving opponents to stay close and sometimes prevail … as occurred in 2018 when No. 16-seed Maryland-Baltimore County, took down the No. 1 overall seed Cavaliers.
Thursday began NCAA hoops, today begins the women’s version of the same tourney, the World Baseball Classic is ongoing, MLB opening day arrives March 30, the NBA and NHL regular seasons are winding toward a finish and, don’t look now, but the Masters is three weeks away, teeing off April 6.
Another NCAA championship is happening, too, even in Oklahoma.
Can you name it?
It’s the three-day NCAA Division I wrestling championships, which preposterously continue to horribly determine a national wrestling champion.
There’s 78 Division I mat programs, so how could, say, 32 of them dual through the brackets and determine a champion so quickly?
SPOILER, THEY DON’T.
Preposterous and horrible.
And that’s just the tip of the college mat’s silliness iceberg nobody seems to want to do anything about.
I do, though.
A quick warning:
So much change is required, so please stick with me.
Here we go, step by step:
1. It’s a great sport.
There may be no more exciting and dramatic, yet entirely common occurrence in sports than a mat reversal. It happens all the time and every time it’s fantastic. Yet the entire construct of top-level collegiate wrestling is dedicated to keeping fans from seeing it.
2. Using the Bedlam rivals for reference …
The elapsed time of the wrestling season, prior to NCAA competition, is more than 4 months, Oklahoma opening Nov. 6 and Oklahoma State Nov. 12. Yet, from then to now, how often do you think each program’s wrestled on its own mat? More than once a month, right?
OU has wrestled five times at home all season: Nov. 18 (Little Rock); Dec. 11 (OSU); Jan. 20 (West Virginia); Feb. 3 (Missouri); Feb. 5 (Rider).
OSU has wrestled seven times at home all season: Nov. 18 (Wyoming); Dec. 4 (Minnesota); Jan. 20 (Northern Colorado); Jan. 22 (West Virginia); Feb. 5 (Missouri); Feb. 12 (Stanford); Feb. 16 (OU).
The Sooners actually wrestled two duals and a tournament over two days in Bethlehem, Pa., and four duals over two days in Hampton, Va., meaning over the space of four days in two locations more than a thousand miles away, they wrestled more than they wrestled all season long at home.
3. Duals are meaningless to begin with …
Because the way the national tournament’s set up, a squad too small not to forfeit away every dual can still win a national championship. True story. Yet, duals remain the lifeblood of the sport because they’re how the vast majority of us experience it.
So, before this piece is done, we’re going to solve the disconnection between duals and the national tournament. Before that, let’s solve duals themselves:
As conducted now, duals — i.e., one team taking on another team — begin at one weight and the remaining bouts take place in the order of the weights. If you begin at 125, you finish at heavyweight. If you begin at 174, you finish at 165.
Duals, therefore, are 10 different entirely singular things.
Here’s what should happen instead.
Let the home coach choose the first weight, the visiting coach the second, the home coach the third, the visiting coach the fourth and so on and so on.
Wrestlers must be ready. Plans can change.
Football, basketball and baseball coaches don’t just coach plays, possessions, batters and innings, they coach games. Bring that to wrestling and the live experience becomes exponentially better.
Mandate an intermission, too.
Let teams regroup. Let coaches strategize.
Treat it like a real sport.
4. Start the season a week or two earlier
Also, take advantage of the dead time already built into the postseason, because we’re going to be busy at the end if we’re going to wrap it up before the hoops’ selection shows, which must happen to give the sport its new national platform.
Rather than a three-day individually based national tourney in which team points are accumulated to determine a team champ, now we’ll need two weekends to determine a national team champion before competition even begins for individual crowns. And for the sake of an example, let’s pretend it’s all happening this year.
5. Now you’ve got a mat version of Selection Sunday
This year, it would have taken place on Feb. 19, the date 32 programs would have gotten their NCAA tickets punched with four of those 32 given hosting duties for an eight-team regional beginning Friday, Feb. 24.
Grappling a dual a day, regional finals arrive on Sunday, a Final Four spot in the balance, each regional final staggered for national television, giving the whole country a chance to watch it all.
Four days later, the Final Four — YES, A MAT FINAL FOUR!! — begins at its pre-determined site — might as well make it Tulsa — with two prime time national semifinals on Thursday, March 2, followed by a day off, just like basketball, followed by your national championship dual on Saturday.
Presto, you’ve got your national champion, determined by duals, which not only creates national television appointment viewing that college wrestling’s never enjoyed, but also serves the duel purpose — dual purpose? — of making the dual-dominated regular season finally make sense, because finally a team’s ability to dominate duals has everything to do with its ability to chase a national championship.
This one’s free because for these ideas to ever take hold, they must get out there. For that reason, please, please share. Also, please consider subscribing, for free or for $6/month, giving you access to all of my writing.
6. We’re not done yet
After another day off, still in the same building, individual brackets commence to determine NCAA individual champions.
Now a single-elimination event because there’s no need for it not to be, all of it can happen in prime time as each weight grapples down from 16 to four competitors on Day 1, with semifinals happening on Day 2 and championship bouts on Day 3, thereby completing a week-long stay at the national championship venue, all of it done four days before basketball Selection Sunday arrives and hoops takes over the world.
6. The choice belongs to the sport
College wrestling can continue to live in the shadows, rarely grappling in front of its own fans, in a dual format that has zero to do with how a national champion is determined, hardly seen on television, because what’s the point?
Or it can embrace change that instantly makes it more exciting, makes it make more sense and gets us involved in who these athletes are, because for two straight weekends their sport’s been transformed into made-for-TV events we can sink our teeth into; followed by three more days of individual championships watched by the audience that was always there for it in the first place and the new one created the previous two weekends.
It’s all there for the taking.
Because it’s a great sport.
The trick is making the folks who’ve been doing it the same way forever realize there’s a better and so much easier way to do it, one that would immediately create new wrestling people who love it as much as they do.