The Big Ten stands tall as this year's king of automatic qualifiers with 74. This should not serve as a surprise to anyone who follows wrestling. What may be surprising are the number of automatic qualifiers awarded to both the MAC and ACC. The MAC and the ACC have both received an impressive 30 qualifiers, and while the MAC has benefited greatly from the addition of the powerful Missouri Tigers, the ACC has earned their qualifiers with the same roster of teams as last year.
In one year, the ACCs six teams have gone from earning 25 automatic qualifiers to earning 30, a 20 percent increase. Most impressive about this number -- the ACC will now be automatically sending at least half of its wrestlers to the NCAAs. Not long ago, this sort of percentage would have been unthinkable. Not long ago, the ACC kind of stunk.
I think back to 2001, where I was present for the ACC Championships in Chapel Hill, N.C. The ACC would not generate a single All-American that year. If you wrestled on one of the ACCs then five teams, qualifying for NCAAs probably necessitated an ACC championship. Wild card bids to NCAAs were hard to come by. Probably only about a quarter of the ACC wrestlers wrestled at NCAAs that year. Since then, in a little more than a decade the ACC has added a team and has more than doubled the rate at which its wrestlers qualify for NCAAs.
[Authors note: The SoCon Championships and CAA Championships took place the same day, in that same gym at the University of North Carolina. Neither of these tournaments would yield a national placewinner. I am not going to research this claim, but off the top of my head I believe the only wrestler in action that day who would ever go on to achieve All-American status was Appalachian States' Mark Fee. Virginia's future All American Tim (T.R.) Foley was on the Virginia wrestling team at the time, but did not compete.]
Imagine what this means from a recruiting standpoint. In the past, if an ACC coach wanted to recruit a top high school wrestler with serious All-American potential, he would have to sell his school to the recruit despite the fact that one bad break at the conference tournament could ruin the recruit's entire season. Now an ACC coach can reassure a recruit by pointing to the fact that ACC wrestlers automatically qualify for nationals at a higher rate than even the powerful EIWA.
The ACC has five programs with the resources and support to make a mark on the national wrestling scene (this excludes Duke, though I must admit my admiration for the admirable performance of head coach Glen Lanham thus far in his tenure), and with the impending addition of a very strong Pitt program, the percentage of automatic qualifiers may only increase in the coming years. At the very least, the allocation of automatic qualifiers reveals that the ACC has evolved from an irrelevant wrestling conference, to a league of great national consequence, in a relatively short period of time.
I remember when I first began to follow wrestling the lineup of teams at the Pac-10 championships baffled me. More than half of the teams were not even real members of the Pac-10. Fast forward years later and the now Pac-12 has even fewer teams, with fewer teams who claim regular membership in the conference.
Jim Zalesky guided the Oregon State Beavers to their second straight Pac-12 title this past weekend in Tempe, Ariz. (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)The Pac-12 wrestling tournament frightens me, if for no other reason that it reminds me of Division I college wrestling's thin representation on the west side of this country. Big time western college wrestling is in big trouble, and if it goes, who knows what becomes of wrestling in the rest of the country. I wish that I could do more to help the situation.
In happier news, some great wrestling took place in Tempe, Ariz., this past weekend, and Oregon State took home another Pac-12 championship. Jim Zalesky might be building his Beavers into a dynasty, and he has the reigns of a powerful program sitting atop the west coasts gold mine of talent. In the coming years, this team could hoist a trophy at nationals, culminating a career revitalization for Zalesky of post-Gallipoli Winston Churchill levels.
Looking ahead to next week
The other conference championships are coming. I know people don't care much about the Southern Conference, but it means everything to the wrestlers and coaches fighting tooth and nail for a SoCon championship. The SoCon team race could be very interesting, and if what I hope happens comes to pass, expect me to write about it at length next week.
Of course we can also look forward to some of the nation's very best banging heads at Big Tens. The finals will no doubt be broadcast in beautiful high-definition. One thing we don't have access to is the Big Ten seeding meeting. I've been in some contentious seeding meetings on the high school level. I can only imagine what happens when the Big Ten's alpha dog coaches get together in one room. Now we should be able to see that in high-definition.