There is no doubt the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships is an exciting spectacle. It's a three-day brawl, capped off with a finals night Saturday night that only the NCAA and ESPN can deliver.
Everyone remembers the highlight of last year's finals in Des Moines, Iowa, when Cornell's Kyle Dake beat Penn State's David Taylor to become the first wrestler to win four national titles in four different weight classes.
There is also no arguing that some of the best moments in this year's wrestling season have come in duals, like when Michigan heavyweight freshman Adam Coon beat Minnesota's Anthony Nelson, the defending champion, to give the Wolverines an upset win, or when Nelson secured an upset win for his Golden Gophers over top-ranked Penn State this past Sunday with 6-0 win over Nittany Lions heavyweight Jonathan Gingrich.
There is something about a dual meet in wrestling that brings out the team aspect in a sport where individualism is important.
This weekend the NWCA National Duals will take place on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, a perfect time to bring the best wrestling teams in the nation to wrestle to see which team is the best. It could, and just might be, the best weekend to see a bunch of Michigan-Minnesota or Penn State-Minnesota duals.
The problem lies in that some of the best and most tradition-rich, teams won't be taking part – teams like top-ranked Penn State and Iowa. And with those two teams, amongst others, not taking part, the National Duals will never accomplish what some coaches want it to do, crown a true NCAA Division I team champion.
Right now the NCAA's individual tournament crowns the team title holder. Penn State has won the last three titles with an impressive showing of bonus-point wrestling at the three-day event. The problem that some opposing coaches have, like Penn State's Cael Sanderson and Iowa's Tom Brands, is planning and participation.
The National Duals have been around, and have had some great moments, like when Northern Iowa was the host. But the format has never been totally welcomed with open arms by the coaching masses. That was evident recently when Sanderson and Ohio State coach Tom Ryan, the host coach of this weekend's Duals, got into a bit of a Twitter war. There Sanderson posted a quote in a tweet that said “passion without discipline and a plan is like an octopus on roller skates.”
Ryan is passionate about the National Duals, obviously Sanderson is not.
Another coach who is an advocate for the National Duals is Cornell's Rob Koll.
“I'm not going to pretend to say this format is perfect, but from my point of view, it is important to have a National Duals Championship,” Koll said. “When we had the tradition going at Northern Iowa, and not all the teams were showing up, we still were drawing 16,000 fans for a two-day event, with 9,000 for the finals. In my mind that is not a failure.
Last year the University of Minnesota hosted the event, and won its second straight National Duals title with a win over then top-ranked Oklahoma State in the finals and Iowa in the semifinals. Penn State did not attend, and this year Penn State, Oklahoma State and Iowa will be absent.
“Last year the weather was bad, scheduling was bad but the wrestling was great,” Koll said. “Everyone focuses on how many people are at the venue, but they lose sight of how many more people are watching it on TV. The vast majority of college teams are not in the Big Ten and therefore do not have their duals televised (on the Big Ten Network). “Just imagine when we have the NCAA and ESPN promoting this event for us,” he added. “They want this to happen, and wouldn't be pushing for it if they thought it would be a failure.”
This works at the high school level
In Michigan, where I have covered high school wrestling for the past 17 years, it has both a team and individual state championship wrestled on successive weekends.
First up is team, and to me, the most exciting of the two weekends. Not the best wrestling, that happens the following week, but the best for overall excitement.
When you throw a team aspect to anything, you get a more involved camaraderie. Don't get me wrong, teammates are cheering for teammates during individual tournaments, but that's amped up in a team dual.
What has happened in the Big Ten this year should be enough evidence for that.
That is something Koll would love to tap into every year. “The National Duals is an opportunity for increased visibility and exposure,” Koll said. “Once every ten years we can get a Big Ten team on your schedule. Without the National Duals, teams in Big Ten won't wrestle us. Teams not in a conference like the Big Ten get shut out of big duals. Plus this is a chance to promote our sport to the casual fan. We know we have our hard core wrestling fans, but if we want to grow the sport, we need to find avenues to showcase our sport to the less ardent fans.”
There lies in some of the problems for the likes of Sanderson and Brands, knowing they have to put their respective teams through the rigors of a Big Ten schedule, then have to wrestle a talented team like Cornell in a non-conference schedule, a or a National Duals.
Maybe some coaches believe it is easier to win a national title in an individual format when you can manage a few instead of a whole team in a head-to-head battle that will pit the whole lineup.
The wrestling season is a long season, but Ryan has his Buckeyes wrestling this weekend, while J. Robinson is bringing his Golden Gophers to defend their title!
Other big teams coming are Cornell, Illinois, Oklahoma, Central Michigan and Iowa State, so there will be some very competitive wrestling.
But it could be better, and should be!