Kevin Jackson led Iowa State to an 11th-place finish at the 2013 NCAAs in Des Moines (Photo/Larry Slater)Last week, when Jackson received a two-year contract extension, many scratched their head. Since a third-place performance in 2010, the Cylcone program has gone from feast to famine. Critics both inside the ISU program and throughout the wrestling community called for a coaching change in Ames. It is hard to blame them. After five straight top-five finishes, ISU placed 20th and 32nd in the 2011 and 2012 national team standings, respectively. In the last two NCAA championships, ISU has produced only one All-American, Jon Reader, who was recruited by Jackson's predecessor, Cael Sanderson.
Cael's monumental success at Penn State has not helped matters for Jackson, whose performance has looked much worse by comparison. Making matters worse, Jackson headed into this past weekend's national championship with only one seeded wrestler, 197-pounder Kyven Gadson. Iowa State's bad situation did not look like it was going to improve very much.
Then something weird happened. ISU saw four of its wrestlers make deep runs at the NCAAs. Freshman 174-pounder Tanner Weatherman upset two seeded opponents and finished one match away from All-American status. Kyven Gadson wrestled to his sixth seed, and 165-pounder Michael Moreno and heavyweight Matt Gibson also succeeded at achieving All-American status. Iowa State to the surprise of most outside observers (and me), finished 11th in the team standings.
Travis Paulson and Jon Reader (Photo/Larry Slater)Iowa State's wrestling program is one of wrestling's most storied programs. The Cyclones have won the third most team national championships of any program, and have produced nine different Olympic medals. Simply placing on the cusp of the top ten does not suffice in vindicating a head coach's continued employment. What makes ISU's performance at this year's national tournament so encouraging for Jackson, is how the team is now positioned going into the future.
After next season wrestling will say goodbye to many standout wrestlers who form the backbone of the sport's very best programs. The elite college wrestling programs will lose the following big-point scorers & All-Americans in 2014.
Iowa: Tony Ramos, Derek St. John, and Ethen Lofthouse.
Oklahoma State: Jon Morrison, Tyler Caldwell, Chris Perry, and Blake Rosholt.
Minnesota: David Thorn, Kevin Steinhaus, and Tony Nelson.
Penn State: David Taylor and Ed Ruth.
Oklahoma: Jarrod Patterson, Kendric Maple, Nick Lester, Matt Lester (again, not an All-American), Andrew Howe, and Travis Rutt.
In two years, the 2014-2015 season's team race looks to open up a bit. As of right now, few teams are poised to have as strong a core of wrestlers for that season as Iowa State.
Kyven Gadson earned All-American honors with a sixth-place finish at 197 (Photo/Larry Slater)The beauty of Iowa State's success at last week's national championship was that they managed it with an incredibly young team. In two years, most of the wrestlers who gave ISU its 11th place finish will be around to lead the Cyclones to something far more special. In 2015 Kyven Gadson and Michael Moreno look to be potential national finalists, while Tanner Weatherman and 141-pounder Luke Goettl should be ready to stand on the podium. The performances of this week show that the very accomplished Iowa State coaching staff can develop the talent in the room to the point where it can succeed at the highest level. Talented blue-chip lightweight wrestlers like Ryak Finch and John Meeks haven't exactly lit the world on fire thus far in their collegiate careers, but the potential is still there, and they could be ready to do big things in two years, particularly under the tutelage of assistant coach Troy Nickerson.
Kevin Jackson's team could also obtain contributions from incoming recruits. The current class for next year isn't terribly impressive on paper, but highly ranked talent is still out there, and last week's performance might be what it takes to attract some of them. If a newcomer to the Cyclone room can blossom into an All-American caliber wrestler between now and 2015, this team will become formidable indeed.
Kevin Jackson was given a two-year contract extension (Photo/Larry Slater)College wrestling has its fair share of coaches who accomplish little with their resources. It even has a few coaches who do worse than little and allow their team and its prospects to stagnate and rot on the vine. Wrestling people know who these coaches are. I'm not in the mood to name names. At the very least, Kevin Jackson showed this week that he is not one of those coaches. At the least he is running a coaching staff which can consistently prepare its athletes to compete for high honors at the national championships.
Only time will tell, but this ISU and Jackson's performance at NCAAs this year could be part of something even greater than that. It could be the harbinger of great accomplishments in Jackson's tenure, and a serious bid at college wrestling's greatest prize in just a couple seasons.
What a difference three days can make.
To close I'd like to acknowledge just how proud I am of the Citadel Bulldogs and what they were able to do at this year's nationals. Achieving national success in any sport at The Citadel is insanely difficult, and two All-Americans in one year is an incredible coaching experience. This program spent more than seventy years without an All-American, since Rob Hjerling took the helm of the team, it has three, and is positioned to earn more next year. If nothing else, The Citadel's coaching staff has created an environment where a young man can go to the school for the unique experience it offers, and still accomplish any of his wrestling dreams.
I can't wait for next year in Oklahoma City.